Poet of outstanding technical mastery, wry wisdom and deceptive lightness with a timeless lyric gift
Wednesday 27 December 2006
John Francis Alexander Heath-Stubbs, poet: born London 9 July 1918; Gregory Fellow in Poetry, Leeds University 1952-55; FRSL 1953; Lecturer in English Literature, College of St Mark and St John, Chelsea 1963-73; Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry 1973; OBE 1989; President, Poetry Society 1993-2006; died London 26 December 2006.
In a late poem, published in 1999, John Heath-Stubbs scolded his old friend Dannie Abse for describing him as "Heath-Stubbs, the blind poet" - which made him sound, he said, like "Porkie the learned pig" - and for calling him "erudite".
He wasn't, he insisted, at all erudite: just a magpie-like collector of interesting oddments. And, on this latter point, he was surely right. Heath-Stubbs's intellectual storeroom was a well-stocked yet wonderfully ramshackle place, a superb resource for poetry if not (as he freely admitted) for organised critical writing. But the blindness, while of course one takes the point that it shouldn't be considered freakish, is another matter: it did define the kind of life he led, and it was just as central and remarkable as his wryly titled autobiography, Hindsights (1993), suggests.
John Heath-Stubbs was born in 1918 into a family whose distinguished if tenuous ancestral connections he was fond of tracing. He spent a peripatetic early childhood in Paris, London and various parts of England before his parents eventually settled at Barton on Sea, Hampshire, where his brother George was born in 1925.
After eccentric prep schools, John was sent at 12 to Bembridge, a recently founded though no less eccentric minor public school on the Isle of Wight; he planned to study Biology, ideally at a "modern" university such as London. But in his late teens his sight deteriorated so rapidly that the right eye became "more or less useless" and, after an operation to save the left eye, he was sent to Worcester College for the Blind, where he learned less about Braille than about beer. It was his failing eyesight, nevertheless, which qualified him to apply for the Barker Exhibition in English at Queen's College, Oxford, and thus helped to transform the young scientist into a student of literature.
He had discovered the "magical power" of rhyme and metre while a junior at Bembridge - his poems appeared not only in the school magazine but in an anthology published by Blackwell - and at wartime Oxford he found himself in a place famous for its literary factions. Among Heath-Stubbs's teachers and mentors were C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, while his own literary circle was centred around two fellow students at Queen's, Drummond Allison and Sidney Keyes, with whom he appeared in Eight Oxford Poets (1941); there was also another, on the whole slightly younger set, which included Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, at St John's. A case could be made for tracking the distinctive English poetic movements of the 1940s and 1950s back to these two Oxford cliques.
After graduating with a First in 1942, Heath-Stubbs stayed on to begin, though not to complete, a BLitt. As it turned out, the value of this extra year proved to be social and literary rather than academic: through the Bodley Club, based at Merton College, he met new friends from within the university as well as such exotic guests as the notable Soho character Count Potocki of Montalk.
Meanwhile, Routledge published his first slim volume, Wounded Thammuz (1942), a single long poem which was also broadcast by the BBC: written (as its author conceded) "in a curious mixture of styles", it is a piece very much of its moment, a rhapsodic-archaic cousin of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets.
Two more varied collections, Beauty and the Beast (1943) and The Divided Ways (1946), swiftly followed, and in these one clearly sees the prodigious yet problematical scope of Heath-Stubbs's talent: while some of the longer (and longer-lined) pieces may now seem wordily over-ornate in a manner characteristic of the 1940s, the lyrics are wonderfully timeless. For instance, an early "Song", of which this is the opening stanza, is at once Tennysonian and Gravesian:
There is no shade when fails the fountain,
There is no shade;
No grave lies low beneath the mountain
Grove by cool green leaves protected
To hide the head by care distracted;
There is no shade!
By the time The Divided Ways appeared, Heath-Stubbs had been irresistibly drawn to literary London via an unsuccessful stint of teaching at a boys' prep school in Hampstead and 18 months' editorial work on Hutchinson's Encyclopaedia: he left when this project was only a third of the way through the alphabet, and after his departure the cutting of articles became so cumulatively ruthless that although the finished work contained an entry for Heath-Stubbs there was none for Yeats.
In the pubs of Soho and Fitzrovia he got to know poets such as George Barker and Dylan Thomas as well as the area's great characters and chroniclers - Tambimuttu, Nina Hamnett, Julian Maclaren-Ross; he also met Eliot, who invited him to edit The Faber Book of Twentieth Century Verse (it was published, with Heath-Stubbs's nominee David Wright as co-editor, in 1953). But freelance literary life, combined with a fondness for pubs and company, proved financially precarious; and so in 1952 he gratefully accepted the Gregory Fellowship in Poetry at Leeds University, which he held for the maximum three years, having been persuaded by Professor Bonamy Dobrée to overcome an intense dislike of the place (which he thought damp, dirty and unfriendly).
The late 1950s were eventful years for Heath-Stubbs. No sooner had he left Leeds than he was off to Henry Kissinger's international Summer School at Harvard, where the Humanities group was chaired by the poet Richard Wilbur. He was hardly back in England before it was time to leave for Egypt, where he was taking up an appointment at the University of Alexandria, unaware that his otherwise enjoyable tenure there would be dramatically interrupted by the Suez crisis and that the visiting Professor of English would find himself temporarily an "enemy alien".
In 1958, he returned to England once more, determined not to become "an academic expatriate", which he thought a dangerous occupation for a writer; nevertheless, by 1960 he was off yet again, for a year's visiting professorship at Ann Arbor, Michigan.
This flurry of travelling was literally Heath-Stubbs's last chance to see the world: his right eye was removed in 1956, while his left eye became too weak for reading around 1961. His four main collections of this period - The Swarming of the Bees (1949), A Charm Again the Toothache (1954), The Triumph of the Muse (1958) and The Blue-Fly in His Head (1962) - chart the development of his mature poetic voice, a progress inextricably linked with his encroaching blindness.
Underlying his often rather florid early style there had always been a strain of rigorous, allusive classicism (significantly, the English poets he most enjoyed teaching were the 18th-century Augustans) as well as a lifelong fascination with the natural world. These were to form an utterly distinctive mythological-botanical fusion which could be created in the mind's eye:
A nightingale sat perched upon
The trellis of a Samian vine
Beneath whose shade Anacreon
Strung his slight lyre, and drank his wine;
Far in the Asian highlands then
The corpse of great Polycrates
Was scorched by sun and stripped by rain,
Stretched on the cross-bars of two trees;
But the nightingale's lament
Was for dismembered Itylus:
White-haired Anacreon vainly schemed -
How could he move Cleobulus.
The poet took another glass.
By this time he was also writing poems which develop witty reflections on life and language into successful sequences ("Use of Personal Pronouns", for instance, or "First Steps in Physiologus: a Little Bestiary for Beginners"); and he had also become an outstanding occasional poet, invariably marking the birthdays, marriages, retirements or deaths of friends with something wise, funny and apt.
Heath-Stubbs didn't much care for the 1960s, lamenting the decline of literary Soho and detesting the "hideous music of the Beatles"; never a fashionable poet, he became a neglected one as, following his Selected Poems of 1965, Oxford University Press dropped him from their list. Fortunately, he now had a steady source of income, lecturing at the College of St Mark and St John in Chelsea from 1963 to 1972. And fortunately, too, the new small presses of the time came to his rescue: Enitharmon bravely produced his hugely ambitious long poem Artorius (1973) and some attractive later pamphlet collections; other pamphlets were to come from Turret, Gruffyground and Hearing Eye; while Carcanet became his main publisher from The Watchman's Flute (1978) onwards.
That book's title-poem recalls a brief trip Heath-Stubbs made to Nigeria in the early 1960s. The armed Tuareg watchman, he tells us, intermittently plays the flute "to pass the time - / To ward off tedium, and perhaps / Lurking malignant ghosts"; the simple instrument produces "Infinite rhythmical variations / On a simple tetrachord, with a recurrent pedal point". It provides, of course, a marvellous analogy for poetry:
May my lips likewise
Mould such melodious mouthfuls still, amid
The European, the twentieth-century tediums:
We too are haunted, we are in the dark.
It is a courageous wish which was to be amply granted, for in the next few years Heath-Stubbs enjoyed a sustained creative resurgence: Naming the Beasts (1982) and The Immolation of Aleph (1985) were soon followed by the magisterial Collected Poems of 1988. I introduced him at a bookshop reading to celebrate its publication: he recited brilliantly from memory and then, accompanied by a small group of admirers, proceeded to the local pub; there, after a couple of drinks, he entertained us with highly colourful limericks and, after a couple more, with incomprehensible folk-songs, possibly of his own invention. By this time, everyone in the bar was listening or approximately joining in. It was perhaps not quite what they had expected from a blind septuagenarian poet, but it must have been almost like Soho in the 1940s.
He had been awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1973, and in 1989 was appointed OBE. As she presented Heath-Stubbs with the honour, the Queen enquired, reasonably enough, whether he was still writing poetry. He replied: "It becomes an ingrained habit, Ma'am."
So it did, for five major collections followed the Collected Poems: Sweetapple Earth (1993), Galileo's Salad (1996), The Sound of Light (1999), The Return of the Cranes (2002) and Pigs Might Fly (2005). Quirkiness and satirical grumbling are privileges of the elderly poet, and Heath-Stubbs cheerfully indulged in them, yet these late poems are also elegiac, celebratory and vastly entertaining, continually reinvigorating his favourite themes - mythology, natural history and human oddity. His main critical writings were collected in The Literary Essays of John Heath-Stubbs (1998). His last, uncollected poem, "The Garfish", is a wry tribute to this and, appropriately enough, to "other odd fish".
"The last quarter of a century of my life," he wrote in 1993, "has been far happier than my early years, especially since I lost my sight and no longer had to put up a vain struggle." He continued to travel, to attend literary events and to cook meals for friends (who only occasionally suspected he might have mistaken the sugar for the salt) and, when in his seventies he was obliged to move from his west London flat to another in the same area, he coped perfectly but for one tragicomic circumstance. The Tube station was nearer to his new front door than to his old; reaching it sooner than he expected, he fell down the steps and spent some weeks in hospital. But the habit of independence was as ingrained in him as the habit of poetry: he was soon up and about once more.
Although John Heath-Stubbs was an important literary figure in so many ways - editor, translator, critic, author of extraordinary long poems - his finest work is to be found in his huge output of shorter poems. In their technical mastery, wry wisdom and gloriously deceptive lightness, these place him in the company of W.H. Auden and Robert Graves, a major English poet of the 20th century.
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