Dance For Me

I was sorting through old books today and flipped open Watership Down for the first time in a while, remembering even as i glanced through it that the book begins with the following fragment of poetry:

He said “Dance for me” and he said
“You are too beautiful for the wind
To pick at, or the sun to burn.” He said
“I’m a poor tattered thing, but not unkind
To the sad dancer and the dancing dead.”

— Sidney Keyes,
Four Postures of Death

When i first read that fragment, way back in the university days, it lodged itself into my brain and heart like a piece of white-hot shrapnel. Though the real memory is long gone, i can still second-hand recall the potency of those words, the starkness of their impact on me, both on their own and juxtaposed to the darkness and futility and bright hope of the book. (It’s good; you should read it.)

But for a number of years thereafter, i tried to figure out who the hell Sidney Keyes was or had been, ultimately drawing a blank at every library and bookstore in which i looked for his name. (I was on bad terms with English professors in those days or i would have just asked and probably saved myself some time. Long story).

More years went by and i forgot about looking. Then yesterday, i read those words again and remembered what i’d forgotten. I dove for the keyboard, Wikipedia to the rescue.

Sidney Keyes was a poetic prodigy of the 1940s, eighteen years old at Oxford when he was first anthologized. Nineteen years old when he published his first collection (The Iron Laurel) and was lauded as one of the most innovative British poets of his day. Twenty years old when he joined the West Kent regiment and was killed on a raid in Tunisia, two weeks after he was deployed.

March 1942, Keyes wrote the following:

War Poet

I am the man who looked for peace and found
My own eyes barbed.
I am the man who groped for words and found
An arrow in my hand.
I am the builder whose firm walls surround
A slipping land.
When I grow sick or mad
Mock me not nor chain me;
When I reach for the wind
Cast me not down
Though my face is a burnt book
And a wasted town.

March, 1942. Keyes was twenty years old. When i was twenty years old, i was lucky if i could properly compose a shopping list.

For more than half my life, I’ve been carrying around inside me the words of a dead twenty-two-year-old. Words too beautiful for the wind to pick at or the sun to burn. For any of us who aspire to scratch our names on the altar of creative thought, it can be a sobering prospect to reflect on those who came before us and, with far less time, accomplished far more. It’s an even more sobering prospect to think about what Keyes might have accomplished if he’d had the chance.