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Selected Poems

Selected Poems

by John Heath-Stubbs, John Clegg

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C.H. Sisson called John Heath-Stubbs "... a Johnsonian presence with a Miltonic disability"—a reference to the poet's blindness. This selection of an abundant poet restores him to a new readership with the work on which his popularity was based. His ground-breaking early poetry is given its due, especially the major long poem "Wounded Thammuz," printed here in its entirety. Heath-Stubbs was at the centre of the New Romantic school. The Second World War left him as almost the sole representative of one stream of English poetry. He remains crucial to the 1940s and '50s, and was a popular presence into the 1980s, composing his later poems in his head and reciting from memory. Too long he has been sidelined by shifts of critical fashion. Selected Poems includes a critical preface by John Clegg who essentialises and celebrates the work. Three of Heath-Stubbs' translations of Leopardi—revered by subsequent translators, and long out of print—are included.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781784106485
Publisher: Carcanet Press, Limited
Publication date: 04/01/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 128
File size: 279 KB

About the Author

John Clegg is a poet and bookseller in London. His most recent collection is Holy Toledo! (Carcanet, 2016). John Heath-Stubbs was born in 1918 and educated at Queens College, Oxford. A critic, anthologist and translator as well as a poet, he has received the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry and the prestigious Cross of St Augustine. Carcanet published seven previous collections by Heath-Stubbs, as well as a Collected Poems and a collection of his literary essays. In 1988 he was awarded the OBE. His poetry was published by Carcanet for almost thirty years. He died in London in December 2006.

Read an Excerpt


From Eight Oxford Poets (1941)


Do you see that old man over there? – He was once a gentleman's gentleman;
His skull is bald and wrinkled like a leathery snake's egg;
His forehead is not high, but his eyes, though horny, are cunning,
Like an old jackdaw's beginning to moult a few grey feathers;
His nose is sharp like a weasel's, and his lips always a little smiling,
His narrow shoulders crouched forward, hinting a half-finished bow.
Did you notice how beautifully white and smooth and soft his hands were?
His coat is dowdy as the dusty shards of a house-haunting beetle,
His cuffs and collar not quite white, like foam on a fouled mill-race.
But Fear flickers over his face – now settling like a fly On his sunken cheeks, now haunting his blurred eyes;
And his pale mouth is always ready to fall open and gasp and shriek. ...
  Night after night he's here, in all weathers,
Drinking. They say his wife is a shrew and holds her head high For all that once. ... Night after night, under the yellow lantern-light,
Always the same old chair in the corner, night after night.
  But he likes to talk to a stranger – it makes a nice change.
Why don't you buy him a drink and get him talking?
  He can remember his master well – those were the days! –
Feast days, Carnival days – fans and flowers and bright silk shawls Tossing like a poppy-patched cornfield the wind dishevels,
And then milky moonlight flowing over close-kept courtyards;
And while his master climbed the balcony, he would keep watch,
Whistle and rub his hands and gaze at the stars –
His co-panders; or there were mandolins murmuring Lies under windows that winked and slyly slid open;
Or the hand's clutch and half-humorous gasp of the escapade,
And after a doubling hare's turn, choked laughter at fooled footsteps Trotting away down wrong turnings; or when cornered The sardonic, simple, decided flash of a sword – his master's sword.
And he can remember that night when he stood on the terrace Sunning himself in black beams of vicarious sin,
While the waltz whispered within,
And three unaccountable late-comers came,
And gave no name –
(But she in the blue brocade is Anna:
And she has forged her outraged chastity into a blade Of thin sharp ice-coloured steel; her hair is brown And her eyebrows arched and black like two leaping salmon Seen against the sun-flecked foam of a weir down-rushing;
And like a slim white hound unleashed she snuffs for the blood Of a father's killer. And not far away is Elvira:
She wears silver and black and is heavily veiled And has laid a huge jewelled crucifix over her hungry heart In vain; for she is like an old frosty-feathered gyrfalcon,
With chrysolite eyes, mewed-up now, whose inactive perch Frets her hooked feet; who cannot bear to gaze out At the blue sky-paths slashed by young curving wings;
Her heart is a ruined tower from which snake-ivy Creeps, fit to drag down an oak and smother him in dark green leaves.)
But the windows were all golden-spotted with candles,
Shadowed by dancing shapes; till above the silken strings Flute and violin had trailed across the evening – a cry:
Zerlina, like a wounded hare tangled in that black net.

It is very quiet in the graveyard – a strange place to be waiting for him;
The moonlight hints queer perjuries – for all the Dead Are tucked up snug in mud; we have heaped vast lumps of masonry Over their head and feet, fenced them round with crosses And stones scrawled over with white lies; we have given them flowers Against the stench, and stopped their nostrils with mud;
We have lighted candles for hollow sockets; they will not trouble us;
They cannot see to climb the slippery stairs of their vault;
They are blind spectators who have long dropped out of the game –
But what if they didn't play fair? What if cold stone Should speak, and offer unwanted advice? What if quite suddenly This polished transparently reasonable world were shattered?

When the soft curtain of the night is ripped up by the bray of trombones,
And a dumb stone abstraction can speak, and the madman invites it to supper –
That is no laughing matter. If you are young and well-born And have no heart, it seems you can go home and laugh,
Drink wine and do yourself well; but he, Leporello,
A poor man, sir, always attentive to business, no great scholar,
Had never thought of these things, didn't know how to deal with the dead gentleman,
Or Hell stretching out a flaming hungry arm To snatch the ripe fruit of sin from the lighted banqueting hall.

  So that is why he has always a startled look, that old man;
For he feels he is being watched by dead eyes from behind the curtains,
And is still expecting a knock at the door, and the stone foot's tramp on the stairs.


Wrapped in a velvet-soft piece of calf-skin,
With thoughts pressed between thin translucent sheets of India paper,
A volume of Emerson's Essays lies on the drawing-room table –
Rich, red, polished table, mahogany, red like old sherry,
Poised on its four slender feet with their carved lion-claws,
And the little book carelessly reclining there, carefully dusted daily.
  Sometimes the shy stranger in an absent moment Nervously ruffled the white leaves, turning to the title-page:
There is Emerson's portrait; mild-browed and benevolent He gazes serenely across the dim drawing-room.
  It is the primrose afterglow of a summer sunset;
The shadows begin to pace their pavane between the chair-legs,
(Oak and satin-wood, rose-wood and cherry-wood –
Trees from long-ago-felled forests are carved and fluted Into shining curves and pillars). He cannot see to read The flowery, starry hieroglyphics which the dark-eyed Persians Have woven into the soft squares of the carpet.
Over there, the piano, huge, black, polished, three-legged monster Grins with its ivory fangs agape. No longer Waking are the ghosts that coiled round its wire heart-strings: –
Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Mozart and Mendelssohn.
  The windows have gazed out upon lawns and paths of golden gravel,
They have glimpsed the white-limbed to-and-fro-ness of tennis players dappling the vague heat-haze;
Children, moon-solemn and sun-haired, have drifted hand-in-hand between the borders,
They have heard the murmur of the mowing machine like the sound of a distant sea-surge,
And the call of blackbirds gilding again and again the edge of the evening ...
  But the shy stranger, waiting there in the hushed drawing-room Suddenly smiled, remembering it was all illusion:
A child's bubble-blown dream-palace, or perhaps this delicate chamber Swam before the eyes of an old, half-blind witch-woman Stirring the smoky embers of her dying turf-fire.
  He smiled when he remembered this; then all at once he felt His naked feet sinking into deep drifts of dead leaves And the cold thrusting-upwards of pale-stemmed toad-stools,
Saw again the dark shapes of the wet tree trunks around him;
Knew the air quivering with faint scents and stilled rustling sounds;
And over him, not very far above the tallest tree-tops,
Crouching, beast-like, the watchful, unfriendly sky.

Wounded Thammuz

  Thammuz ...
Whose annual wound, in Lebanon, allured The Syrian damsels to lament his fate,
In amorous ditties, all a summer's day;
While smooth Adonis from his native rock,
Ran purple to the sea, supposed with blood Of Thammuz yearly wounded ...
    Milton: Paradise Lost, Book 1



Dull Time's unwinking sickle has close-clipped My laurel boughs (Once more, and yet once more Ye myrtles brown) and winter's cat's-tongue breeze Has rasped away my roses, and has stripped The quivering covering of my garden trees,
Hurling along the brown neap-tided shore Autumnal discontent of unquiet seas.

And O you wind, as you come chattering Between these broken strings, choke not my speech.

Break not this song, O break not this one song,
But bear about the winter-world some smattering Of spring's shrill bird-bright runes, song-spells, and each Flower-character inscribed my summer long.

This is that dying season when the Dead Thicken the air, out of the still-born night Wandering with yellow leaves, drifting with thin-
Spun webs of spider-silk; now should be said,
In the old way, for them, some litany, some rite.
I have no strength, but yet I will begin.


All the year's gold and silver is gone underground
  Into your cold dark caves, you fortunate Dead.
Helen and Cleopatra and all the crowned
  Queens of the ancient world lie low in that bed;
King Caesar has cast aside his sword and his diadem,
And Homer untuned his fiddle, to sleep with them.

It's time, oh it is high time, I should be lying
  Down in those shadowy fields where no wind blows;
In funeral garlands for me they will be tying
  With death-cold ivory fingers the deathless rose.
Up in this autumn world will the naked trees be mourning,
In twisted smoke from dank fires the old year burning.


A sieve of shell has sifted The firstlings of the vine;
Are lifted on the pillar Bunched grape and dangling bell –
Pom'granate, tendril-twine,
And golden-throated bell.

The barren sheaves are gilded And swept towards the fire,
Are builded up for tinder;
Dry shells, autumnal leaves Are pillowed for the pyre Whose flames are scarlet leaves.


This is the garden of the Dead –
Carved stone at each cold-pillowed head.
No dancing feet disturb the dew Beneath the cypress and stiff yew,
Nor can the winds bend, as they pass,
The waxen lilies under glass.
Lichen and northward-thriving moss In gold and velvet hide the Cross,
And angels by the unfruitful urn Furl their broad marble wings and mourn This is the place where fragrance fades –
Wasted ambrosia of shades;
Rosemary and remembrance die On beds where sullied lilies lie.
How soon the freshest grass is cropped,
And the proud-turbaned tulip lopped,
The cockled ear of corn rejected,
The violet's sweetness neglected.
The crown-imperial droops and weeps,
While in his cave the Gardener sleeps.


Up on the high hill-tops and in their hollow caves,
Among rough rocks and raggedly-hewn crags,
Hard by the condor's eyrie and caverns of the cougar,
The centaurs dwell, those savage sagittaries,
With their shoulders unharnessed nor their trampling hooves shod –
But their broad brows are brother to the human.
They are leapers and laughers by the limpid cataracts,
Their moot the burnt-out crater, the crag and the crevasse.
With strong voice they shout to the strung shell of the tortoise,
Their corrugated trumpet the tragelaphe's curved horn;
They are harpers in the hollows of the unshadowy hills.
The wine of all their wisdom is the mead of the wild heather;
The light of the white-arched sky is still their lore and lust.
The shelves and the great ridges are their green grazing places;
They search out the salt-lick and fountains tinged with sulphur,
And they watch the dawn dancing over the dales and the steep cliffs Reddening the stark stones and slopes all stippled with snow.
There is music in the mountains unmuffled by the nipping air As they run with wild worship against the autumn wind.


Bring fennel, and fresh parsley-garlands, and The southern-scented vervain; bring carved bowls
  With maple-leaves entwined –
  Jaggéd and burned to gold;

Brim them with sweet new milk and stone-ground flour Meddled with filmy must of sanguine wine,
  And honey, though the bees
  Now seek their torpid cells;

And bind your brows with ivy growing green The winter through, and sharp bright apples from
  The rowan; range the white
  And crimson agaric

Around this dolmen-altar, older than Delphos or Cumae or the Latmian hill
  Or Syrian gardens where
  Wounded Adonis sleeps.

Come you goat-footed dancers, shaggy-sided,
  Out of your panthered shades,
And you harsh-whinnying ones with the chestnut-shiny
  Flanks and swishing tails,
Trample our vintage with your heavy hooves And rouse to uncouth din these old unechoing woods.

For we have sour and sweet glassy-cool clustering
  Grapes for the sore-parched mouth;
Our tangled hair hangs loose to the dappled fluttering
  Tags of a fawn-skin clout.
Disturb the fallen leaves with cone-tipped staff Where through the woods there winds our mazy dancing-path;

Where shoulder-high grows all the fire-fringed bracken,
  Or where the squirrel whisks,
Or green to needled ant-hills' turgid traffic
  The hobbling wood-sprite dips;
Away, white-flagged, the startled rabbit goes,
Out of her thorn-thatched bed leaps up the bouncing doe.

And wake we with our clamour Echoes pined In their dry stony cells, with tambourine,
  Cymbals, and wavering shawms,
  And round-toned kettle-drum.

And you, harp-player, snap those withered bays That bind your long wire strings, conduct our rout
  To valleys whose steep rocks Shall bellow back your song.

Now through the waters of this quiet lake Trundle the sacred cart, whose axle-tree
  And slow-revolving wheels
  The lucent wave shall purge.

Eastward, O wine-stained charioteer, lead on To empires swart with shade, whose kings shall doff Their diamond crowns to deck Our maypole hung with bells.


Aurora Borealis fills the sky,
Bohemian birds the woods, both signs of war Or pestilence. And whirl and whirl and whirl The eddying leaves – Herodias' daughter At her eternal dancing. Over the waters Of this unfathomed lake glides a canoe,
Spattered with war-paint, hung with scalps and skulls,
And mouldering finger-flesh clutches the paddles;
The helm is guided by a bony hand ...
These are the vanguard; ground cannot contain them,
But corpses sprout like luminous mushroom-spawn In dark damp cellars, and the heavens sag With the dull weight of ghosts; and now you hear From every wood and garden and cross-road
(Cold cradle of the blasphemous suicide)
The petulant and uncomfortable voices of the Dead.

'Oh Life, Life, Life! Why have you stolen our life? –
The moon's green blood in the mid-rib, and the rich red Blood that is shed in the sunlight? Why must we Be creeping back again to this damp dead world, slinking Down by the howling chimney and snuffling keyhole, scaring Only the nerve-sick and ignorant, seeking The carelessly-minded child, the unwary sleeper Who lies with his throat exposed?

'We were the wise and strong – but now only Psalm-singing in stuffy rooms, the squab-like medium,
The joggling automatic-writer and the juggling crystal,
The dog-eared Tarot with its train of senseless images –
The Emperor, the Female Pope, the Fool, the Hanging Man,
And the Lightning-Struck Tower which is the House of God.

'We are that impatient rider of the sea-shore,
With Beauty across his saddle-bow; his marriage-chamber Is dark in the earth, and many a fresh young bride Has he brought thither – ah, but a cold bed Have those Lenoras and rare Margarets.

'We are the surgeon whose frozen hands were lopped;
The envious brain under an acid sky Worm-screwed among the clamorous machines.

We are the poet within whose honeyed mouth The ants have built their citadel. We are the patriot Without a country; all tormented prisoners;
Lamia the child-devourer; the murdered usurer Into whose poky cottage the young men broke One night of curses, and spilt his lovingly-garnered Gold-seeds of power on wine and trumpery women.
We are the shadow out of the broken mirror;
The burglar under the bed or in the cupboard.
We are the rats in the cellar. With our long nails We'll undermine your palaces; with them Is timbered Hell's ship she at last shall launch,
Pledged to destroy the world.'


A voice as of the wind, a Voice out of the Whirlwind:
'I am the Wild Huntsman, the wanderer of these mountains,
A whining among the wood, the word of the waving fir-tree;
I have wound the wounds of the sunset round with a winding cloud-wrack,
And you, wan things, are my quarry, as withered leaves to the wind.
My path is over the mountains, beyond the watchfires And the blazing beacons of the clangorous marchmen;
By moors and mosses where no shepherd shoves His sturdily-shod staff; by pinnacles That turn the eagle dizzy and dislodge The antelope, sure-footed ballador;
Up where the patient glacier-goddess drags Her plough of glass; by frozen caves Where cherubim their dreaming hermits cheer With fire whose coal is more than diamonds.
O cower you down in your small burial-mounds? –
My thundering hooves shall break your earth-dome in,
Scatter your singing shin-bones, and shall mock The ridged and rigid smile of the skull.
My ravens, Thought and Memory, shall pluck off The golden bracelet from your fleshless arm,
The pearls which were your eyes. Oh withered leaf That restless hang upon a restless tree,
Let the wind take you, and be lifted up Into his own importunate energy!
And you, wild goats of the mountains, and goat-footed Men, you horse-hooved dancers of the hills,
More madly urge your measure, frenzied be,
With the world's wine made drunk, and with the music Of my inordinate pursuit; for I will drive you To fields fenced round with lightning, and at last Into my unimaginable folds.'


'Southward, O wind, seeking the trellised vine,
Long has the fickle-pinioned swallow flown,
To amethystine clusters; but your breath,
Though nursing next year's seeds, rudely shall pine Those birds who salt with song your bitter teeth,
Shall snuff the orange crocus-flambeau, blown Too soon in mouths of all-tempestuous death.'

So sang the poet, softly, by the hearth Of an old house, with embers raked together,
Warming himself by that uncertain glow,
(He who had served proud kings of the old earth –
But their bright livery was all for show,
And pitiful against the winter weather)
Then rose, and went on through the quiet snow.


Excerpted from "Selected Poems"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Estate of John Heath-Stubbs.
Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Dedicatory Poem,
From Eight Oxford Poets (1941),
Wounded Thammuz,
From Beauty and the Beast (1945),
An Heroic Epistle,
Valse Oubliée,
The Heart's Forest,
From The Divided Ways (1946),
Don Juan Muses,
The Divided Ways,
From A Charm Against the Toothache (1954),
Donna Elvira,
To the Mermaid at Zennor,
A Charm Against the Toothache,
Address Not Known,
Elegiac Stanzas,
The Last Watch of Empire,
From The Triumph of the Muse (1958),
St Luke's Summer,
The Unpredicted,
A Ballad of Pope Joan,
From The Blue-Fly in his Head (1959),
Not Being Oedipus,
Lament for the 'Old Swan', Notting Hill Gate,
The History of the Flood,
From Selected Poems (1965),
Variation on a Theme by George Darley,
From The Watchman's Flute (1978),
Old Mobb,
The Watchman's Flute,
Christus Natus Est,
A Formality,
From Birds Reconvened (1980),
The Scops Owl,
The Carrion Crow,
The Rooks,
The Jays,
The Greater Spotted Woodpecker,
The Heron,
The Curlew,
The Wheatear,
The Greenfinch,
The Chaffinch,
From Naming the Beasts (1982),
A Paraphrase,
This Is Your Poem,
From The Immolation of Aleph (1985),
Nixon, the Cheshire Prophet,
Souvenir of St Petersburg,
The Pearl,
Epitaph for Julian Kollerstrom, Mathematician,
From Collected Poems (1988),
To the memory of George Frederick Heath-Stubbs 1925?1983,
Moving to Winter,
From The Game of Love and Death (1990),
The Game of Love and Death,
Mary Magdalen, Martha and Lazarus in Provence,
From Sweetapple Earth (1993),
The Mulberry Tree,
From Galileo's Salad (1996),
In Memory,
From The Sound of Light (1999),
Apple Gripe,
Ten Kinds of Birds,
Fitz and the Mouse,
Not Actaeon,
From The Return of the Cranes (2002),
Mary Kingsley and the Crocodile,
A Dream Transcribed,
Ancient Wisdom,
From Pigs Might Fly (2006),
In the Porcelain Factory,
Three Translations from Giacomo Leopardi (1946),
The Evening After the Holy Day,
To the Moon,
The Younger Brutus,
Index of Titles and First Lines,
About the Author,
By the Same Author,

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