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Biography of Sidney Keyes

Memories of Sidney Keyes
Milein Cosman

It must have been in the late autumn or winter of 1940, not long after Sidney Keyes had come up to Queens and while I was at the Slade in Oxford (which had been evacuated to the Ashmolean at the outbreak of war) that we met. It was probably through John Heath-Stubbs at one of those crowded Sunday 'Jorams of Tea' salons at Mary Stanley-Smith's house in Ship Street.

I cannot remember the first encounter, but Sidney's looks and manner are ever present. His was a grave countenance for one so young. He had fine hazel eyes, a longish nose and pointed ears. His mouth, although he liked to laugh, exuded sadness, and his sallow skin was echoed by the camel hair coat in which he seemed to shelter even when spring was round the corner. He would come up the stairs to my studio swinging his walking stick (was it an heirloom? - an unusual accessory at that time) and, shuddering, would exclaim 'I'm all shrivelled up with the cold.' He was, I think, essentially alone, but curiously keen to be sociable; he loved parties, at which he might be found immersed in leafing through the host's books or, indeed, writing.

Not just surprising, but amazing in one just out of school, Sidney was acutely observant. At the time, I resented his putting me on a pedestal, but now I am aware of his perspicacity in pinpointing one of my deep flaws in 'The Mad Lady and the Proud Talker':


Distracted by a pebble's size
And every mountain's cringing littleness.


I imagine I must be that 'mad lady', for in the same poem her hands 'riven into rock' is an image triggered off by a big plaster cast on a fractured hand (my bicycle colliding with a lorry on my way to the Winterreise) which prevented me from taking part in Sidney's play The Prisoner.

Our friendship had become fraught when I began to realise that he had fallen in love with me. I found it painful not to be able to respond. It was no use begging him to forego idealising, 'symbolising' me. I admired him, and enjoyed his erudition without being remotely attracted. He quoted Rilke, who had said how much sadder it is not to love than to love unhappily.

Sidney's involvement with German literature - Schiller, Hölderlin, Heine, Rilke, Kafka - I found very endearing: they were, however remotely, part of my early life, my native language. It was a wonder to meet those poets again in the light of Sidney's enthusiasm and in England at war (had one not heard of German composers banned here during the First World War?) I had arrived in England just before war broke out, straight from my school in Geneva. I found myself plunged into an astonishing web of intelligence - unheardof myths and stories swung around my ignorant ears. Nor do I recall being baffled. Despite my scant knowledge of English ways, customs and literature; I felt impressed, even - in retrospect - awed, by the brimming buzz of allusions to saints, kings, martyrs, myths, miracles, bishops, ghosts and quotations, Yeats and Clare, Eliot, Blake...

The studio at the back of John Street (in the shadow of the Ashmolean) had become a meeting point for tea after our divergent work; or later, after lectures or concerts, until the College gates shut. It was a rickety place with gas light - no electricity, so we preferred candlelight for our gatherings - where the newly- or half-baked poems were read in the meagre light. John Heath- Stubbs, Drummond Alison, and Sidney, most memorably reading 'The Wilderness'. Once or twice we played Consequences, where you have to find a rhyming line to the end bit of the previous line - folded over - and it was handed around between seven or eight of us sitting on the floor. No need to see the handwriting: every single line would evoke its author, revealed through his arch imagery.

A propos handwriting, Sidney's was - is - always the finest. My father, handing me a card Sidney had sent me, asked which of my friends had sent it, saying it must have been written by a very exceptional being.

Quite a few years later, when Michael Meyer came to my Hampstead studio to a bundle of Sidney's letters for his book, he growled on leaving: 'but you haven't given me the one over there'. It was, as I had to point out, not Sidney's, postmarked the previous day in 1948, but Hans Keller's who, unlike Sidney, had not been schooled in Kent or Sussex, but in Vienna. They shared, besides their writing, marvellous powers of concentration, both picking up, months later, the precise point at which a conversation had been interrupted - a constant flow of thought and writing wherever they found themselves to be. Waiting anywhere (and I provided a lot of opportunities with my early unpunctualities), gazing out into the little garden, Sidney might have jotted down a translation of a complex Rilke poem or, indeed, one of his own. There was a poor bent lilac tree, which figures, or rather, is transfigured in 'May 41'.

Sidney seemed at his happiest in nature and we often went for walks - the first one memorably and characteristically to the little churchyard near Longwall where he introduced me to 'Lady Greensleeves'. His knowledge of plants, birds, insects, all things acrawl in the grass was dazzling - I was so green, new to the song, let alone to Vaughan Williams, and the idea of a visiting a churchyard without having to as a duty or reverentially, was utterly new.

He loved going to the cinema, and those silent or semi-so German pre-Hitler films made a huge impression. 'Holstenwall' was written under the influence of seeing The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. If only he had lived, might he not have involved himself in film-making, writing extraordinary scripts, a kind of cross between Cocteau and German Expressionism?

His musical leanings were distinctly literary, pastoral and - Sibelius apart - mainly English. He was interested in and open to painting and introduced me to Dunoyer de Segonzac. He was immensely pleased when I compared him to a grave figure in a painting by Douanier Rousseau; later it crops up in a poem.

I drew and painted constantly: friends, strangers, whoever, and it is that I hardly attempted Sidney - it was conscience prompting me to try once or twice; duty dimly felt, and I find the result amongst my weakest: inhibitions had hung over me. Recently, from memory and aided by the old sketches, I tried to make amends. Now, almost sixty years later, a strong image appears (how could I not have seen it before?): Sidney's bony figure clad in a Pierrot's robes, his face chalked white, the eyes magnified by charcoal shadows. How he would have enjoyed this disguise at a fancy dress party; but there weren't any.

Of all those friends who were about to go to war, I don't recall anyone so constantly obsessed with death. Only a few years ago, at the opening of their Sidney Keyes Library at his first school in Dartford, I found a key to his nature: Sidney, barely two months old, had been taken to see his dying mother in hospital. That moment may have been the root of his melancholy.

I had fallen ill (psychosomatically) and had been nursed by my parents when Sidney was due to arrive for his last leave. On my return to the Studio, meeting him briefly, he told me that he had fallen in love with a mutual friend, whereupon, for the first time ever, I hugged him - jubilantly joyous at the news of liberation. It was thoughtless and cruel and I've often been saddened by my show of delighted relief. A day later I found a note from Sidney on the stairs: 'See you in Spring or in Walhall.'
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