Two Poets of War: Alun Lewis and Sidney Keyes

Part of the Macmillan Studies in Twentieth-Century Literature book series (STCL)


Of the many service poets in the Second World War, three stand above the rest:1 Alun Lewis (1915–44), Sidney Keyes (1922–43) and Keith Douglas (1920–44). While Douglas, who willingly gave himself over to war, merits separate consideration, Lewis and Keyes provide a striking contrast in their literary responses to the realities of a war they did not wish to join. Lewis writes as an intelligent average man; lonely and bored, he resents war as a hindrance to his artistic development. Older than Keyes, Lewis had already started writing poetry in a style that was no longer suitable to capture the traumas of worldwide holocaust. His achievement during war-time illustrates a poet caught between two social worlds, two styles, and two modes of commitment: pacifism and activism. The more romantic and esoteric Keyes transferred to landscapes of war the subjective battles he had metaphorically represented earlier. His poetry also reflects the metaphysical strain to be found in wartime writing — a search for structures of belief in time of unrelenting chaos. Both men wrote elegiac poetry to express an acute sense of displacement. Each also came to accept the death he eventually met.


Short Story Outer World Love Affair British Poetry Literary Response 
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  1. 1.
    See the following contemporary evaluations: Robert Graves, ‘War Poetry’, The Listener, 21 October 1941, p. 567;Google Scholar
  2. Michael Meyer, ‘Sidney Keyes: A Memoir’, The Windmill, I, 1944, p. 58;Google Scholar
  3. Henry Reed, ‘Poetry in War Time: The Younger Poets’, The Listener, 25 January 1945, pp. 100–1;Google Scholar
  4. Michael Meyer, Introduction to The Collected Poems of Sidney Keyes (London: Routledge, 1945);Google Scholar
  5. J. Maclaren-Ross, ‘Second Lieutenant Alun Lewis’, Penguin New Writing, 27 (April 1946) pp. 78–80.Google Scholar
  6. A. L. Rowse, introduction to Lewis’ Letters from India (Cardiff: Penmark Press, 1946);Google Scholar
  7. Tom Stavely, ‘The Boyhood of a Poet’, The Listener, 23 January 1947, pp. 162–3.Google Scholar
  8. Also see the helpful summary of major reviews on the posthumous work of Keyes in John Guenther, Sidney Keyes (London: Editions Poetry London, 1967) pp. 208–11. He quotes reviews by Vita Sackville-West, Harold Nicolson, Richard Church and A. L. Rowse. References to Keyes, Lewis (and Douglas) as the important war poets are scattered through pamphlets exchanged in the armed services such as Khaki and Blue (see Chapter 3, note 40).Google Scholar
  9. 3.
    Alun Lewis, quoted by Ian Hamilton, Introduction to Alun Lewis, Selected Poetry and Prose (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1966) p. 44.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Samuel Hynes, The Auden Generation (London: Bodley Head, 1976) p. 191.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Alun John, Alun Lewis (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1970) p. 84.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    John Stuart Williams, ‘The Poetry of Alun Lewis’, Anglo-Welsh Review, XIV, 33 (1964–5) p. 60.Google Scholar
  13. 16.
    Quoted in Stefan Schimanski and Henry Treece (eds), Leaves in the Storm (London: Lindsay Drummond, 1947) p. 72.Google Scholar
  14. 19.
    John Lehmann, ‘A Human Standpoint’, in The Open Night (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1952) p. 111.Google Scholar
  15. 20.
    Robert Hewison, Under Siege (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1977) p. 123.Google Scholar
  16. 31.
    Ronald Blythe, Components of the Scene (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966) p. 15.Google Scholar

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© Linda M. Shires 1985

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