Heath-Stubbs, John (Francis Alexander)

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HEATH-STUBBS, John (Francis Alexander)

Nationality: British. Born: London, 9 July 1918. Education: Bembridge School; Worcester College for the Blind; and privately; Queen's College, Oxford, B.A. (honors) in English 1942, M.A. 1972. Career: English teacher, Hall School, Hampstead, London, 1944–45; editorial assistant, Hutchinson and Company publishers, London, 1945–46. Gregory Fellow in Poetry, Leeds University, 1952–55; visiting professor of English, University of Alexandria, Egypt, 1955–58, and University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1960–61; lecturer in English, College of St. Mark and St. John, London, 1963–73. Awards: Arts Council bursary, 1965; Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, 1973; Oscar Williams—Gene Derwood award, 1977; Cholmondeley award, 1988; Commonwealth poetry prize, 1989. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1953, and English Association, 1994. O.B.E. (Officer, Order of the British Empire), 1989. Cross of St. Augustine, 1999. Address: 22 Artesian Road, London W2 5AR, England.



Wounded Thammuz. London, Routledge, 1942.

Beauty and the Beast. London, Routledge, 1943.

The Divided Ways. London, Routledge, 1946.

The Charity of the Stars. New York, Sloane, 1949.

The Swarming of the Bees. London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1950.

A Charm against the Toothache. London, Methuen, 1954.

The Triumph of the Muse and Other Poems. London, Oxford University Press, 1958.

The Blue-Fly in His Head. London, Oxford University Press, 1962.

Selected Poems. London, Oxford University Press, 1965.

Satires and Epigrams. London, Turret, 1968.

(Selected Poems), with Thomas Blackburn. London, Longman, 1969.

Artorius, Book I. Providence, Rhode Island, Burning Deck, 1970; London, Enitharmon Press, 1973.

Penguin Modern Poets 20, with F.T. Prince and Stephen Spender. London, Penguin, 1971.

Four Poems in Measure. New York, Helikon Press, 1973.

The Twelve Labours of Hercules. San Francisco, Arion Press, 1974.

A Parliament of Birds (for children). London, Chatto and Windus, 1975.

The Watchman's Flute: New Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1978.

The Mouse, The Bird, and The Sausage. Sunderland, Ceolfrith, 1978.

Birds Reconvened. London, Enitharmon Press, 1980.

Buzz Buzz: Ten Insect Poems. Sidcot, Avon, Gruffyground, 1981.

This Is Your Poem. London, Pisces Press, 1981.

Naming the Beasts. Manchester, Carcanet, 1982.

New Poems. Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, Other Branch Readings, 1983.

Five Poems from the South. Isle of Wight, Yellowsands Press, 1984.

The Immolation of Aleph. Manchester, Carcanet, 1985.

Cats' Parnassus. London, Hearing Eye, 1987.

Time Pieces. London, Hearing Eye, 1988.

Collected Poems 1943–1987. Manchester, Carcanet, 1988.

A Partridge in a Pear Tree: Poems for the Twelve Days of Christmas. London, Hearing Eye, 1988.

A Ninefold of Charms. London, Hearing Eye, 1989.

The Game of Love and Death. Petersfield, Hampshire, Enitharmon, 1990.

The Parson's Cat. London, Hearing Eye, 1992.

Chimeras. London, Hearing Eye, 1993.

Sweetapple Earth. Manchester, Carcanet, 1993.

Torriano Sequences. London, Hearing Eye, 1994.

The Sound of Light. Manchester, Carcanet, 1999.


The Talking Ass (produced London, 1953). Included in Helen in Egypt and Other Plays, 1958.

Helen in Egypt and Other Plays (includes The Talking Ass, The Harrowing of Hell). London, Oxford University Press, 1958.

Helen in Egypt (produced London, 1988). Included in Helen in Egypt and Other Plays, 1958.


The Darkling Plain: A Study of the Later Fortunes of Romanticism in English Poetry from George Darley to W. B. Yeats. London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1950.

Charles Williams. London, Longman, 1955.

The Verse Satire. London, Oxford University Press, 1969.

The Ode. London, Oxford University Press, 1969.

The Pastoral. London, Oxford University Press, 1969.

Hindsights. London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1993.

Literary Essays. Manchester, Carcanet, 1998.

Editor, Selected Poems of Shelley. London, Falcon Press, 1947.

Editor, Selected Poems of Tennyson. London, Falcon Press, 1947.

Editor, Selected Poems of Swift. London, Falcon Press, 1947.

Editor, with David Wright, The Forsaken Garden: An Anthology of

Poetry 1824–1909. London, Lehmann, 1950.

Editor, Mountains Beneath the Horizon: Selected Poems, by William Bell. London, Faber, 1950.

Editor, Images of Tomorrow: An Anthology of Recent Poetry. London, SCM Press, 1953.

Editor, with David Wright, The Faber Book of Twentieth Century Verse: An Anthology of Verse in Britain 1900–1950. London, Faber, 1953; revised edition, 1965, 1975.

Editor, Selected Poems of Alexander Pope. London, Heinemann, 1964; New York, Barnes and Noble, 1966.

Editor, with Martin Green, Homage to George Barker on His 60th Birthday. London, Martin Brian and O'Keeffe, 1973.

Editor, Selected Poems, by Thomas Gray. Manchester, Carcanet, 1981.

Editor, with Phillips Salman, Poems of Science. London, Penguin, 1984.

Translator, Poems from Giacomo Leopardi. London, Lehmann, 1946.

Translator, Aphrodite's Garland. St. Ives, Cornwall, Latin Press, 1952

Translator, with Peter Avery, Thirty Poems of Hafiz of Shiraz. London, Murray, 1952.

Translator, with Iris Origo, Selected Poetry and Prose, by Giacomo Leopardi. London, Oxford University Press, 1966; New York, New American Library, 1967.

Translator, The Horn/Le Cor, by Alfred de Vigny. Richmond, Surrey, Keepsake Press, 1969.

Translator, with Shafik Megally, Dust and Carnations: Traditional Funeral Chants and Wedding Songs from Egypt. London, TR Press, 1977.

Translator, with Peter Avery, The Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam. London, Allen Lane, 1979.

Translator, with Carol Whiteside, Anyte. Warwick, Greville Press. 1979.

Translator, 8 Poems of Sulpicia. London, Hearing Eye, 1999.


Bibliography: John Heath-Stubbs: A Checklist by John E. Van Domelen, Fontwell, Sussex, Centaur, 1987.

Manuscript Collections: Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin; Claude Colleer Abbott Memorial Library, State University of New York, Buffalo.

Critical Studies: Poetry and Personal Responsibility by George Every, London, SCM Press, 1948; "John Heath-Stubbs: A Poet in Alexandria" by Shafik Megally, in Cairo Bulletin of English Studies, 1959; The Price of an Eye by Thomas Blackburn, London, Longman, and New York, Morrow, 1961; Rule and Energy by John Press, London, Oxford University Press, 1963; "John Heath-Stubbs Issue" of Aquarius 10 (London), 1978; "Triad from Great Britain" by Tony Stoneburner, in The Poetics of Faith, Missoula, Montana, Scholars Press, 1978; Hindsights by John Heath-Stubbs, London, Headline Hodder, 1993; The Literary Essays of John Heath-Stubbs edited by A.T. Tolley, Manchester, Carcanet, 1998.

John Heath-Stubbs comments:

Influenced at Oxford by teaching of C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams; also by friendship with fellow undergraduate poets Sidney Keyes, Drummond Allison, and William Bell.

*  *  *

A remarkable feel for words, a fine metrical ear, a highly perceptive and sound critical intellect, a profound and retentive memory, a good imagination, plus a sense of humor—such have been clear attributes of John Heath-Stubbs's poetic genius from the beginning. From the time of his contributions to Michael Meyer's Eight Oxford Poets and his own first book of verse, Wounded Thammuz, to later works like Collected Poems 1943–1987 or Sweetapple Earth and that remarkable subepic Artorius, Heath-Stubbs has been an accomplished craftsman and all-around poet, an Augustan with more than a touch of the Elizabethan about him. Time has matured his writing so that even the most trivial offering of his pen is in some measure a deft piece of poetic wisdom, or perhaps one should say of "poeticized wisdom." Certainly there is both the feeling and the evidence that whatever piece of esoteric lore, mythological gleaning, or practical information is thrown up from the remarkably erudite mind of this particular poet—and there is an almost unrivaled quantum of such data in Heath-Stubbs—it is touched, however lightly, by the magic of the Muse. And rightly so, for since World War II only two or three of the poets in England at most have so consistently dedicated themselves to the service of Apollo's daughter.

For many years Heath-Stubbs has been a most neglected poet and certainly one far outside the run of fashions and movements and academic acclaim in each successive decade since he began writing. But those critics who have chosen to note his work echo, in their different ways, Derek Stanford's description of the persona that the poems project: "The influence of his learning and the inborn dignity of his mind influenced me the more strongly because he himself made no effort to." Indeed, as all who know Heath-Stubbs will appreciate, he is a diffident man, a solitary person despite all the company he has kept in Fitzrovia and elsewhere. Michael Meyer has written of him, "John Heath-Stubbs is the most uninstitutionable of men, one of those towering solitaries, like Doughty and Charles Williams … who go their own way, contemptuous of literary fashion." Michael Hamburger has said, "I see John Heath-Stubbs as a tragic figure—the insider, by conviction and allegiance, who 'was not preferred' … not preferred because the Establishment to which he has always been committed was shifting all the time, and he was not; and because it has little use for poets who are neither sycophants or clowns. He has borne that affliction with … courage and dignity … for me he has changed far less than anyone else I know." And Sean Hutton has written, "His sensibility is strongly marked by that tragic feeling, compounded with stoicism, which one associates with Greek lyric poetry." The poet himself has stated his "policy," as it were, in verse—"I would emulate rather those /Who countered despair with elegance, /Emptiness with a grace"—and has never ceased to recognize the primary objective or purpose of poetry—"… I would have you remember: /Your poetry is no good /Unless it move the heart." By way of stressing the point, he adds, "… And the human heart, /The heart which you must move, /Is corrupt, depraved and desperately wicked."

As a true servant of the Muse then, Heath-Stubbs has opted—despite his knowledge of corruption, depravity, and wickedness—to celebrate or, if not always to celebrate, at least to counter "despair with elegance, emptiness with a grace." And what emerges from these critical comments by the poet and by others is a sense of authority, an authority that has grown gradually as a result of his having "borne" the "affliction with courage and dignity." It is an authority that, according to Stanford, exerts its influence through "the inborn dignity of his mind" and through "learning." The constant factor that all of the critics, overtly or implicitly, recognize is this inborn dignity, as they also acknowledge an element of growth brought about by the constant expansion of the poet's erudition. As Anne Stevenson has said, "He has brought erudition out of the libraries and given it roots and leaves." As to why Hamburger finds the poet so unchanging—indeed, he must have been tempted to say "timeless"—it is because, despite all the tragic vicissitudes of time, Heath-Stubbs has retained, nay enhanced, his human integrity. Hence the sense of authority in his poetry and an explanation for his having even been described as "magisterial."

But what kind of poetry is Heath-Stubbs's? Can it reasonably be summed up? Probably the most frequent and useful epithet that has been applied to it is "classical-romantic." In fact, in The Darkling Plain, a prose study of poetry, the poet himself wrote, "The Classical vision is the most complete, rounded, and perfected of which the human mind is capable … In a sense, we must all attempt to be Classicists, but have to be Romantics first of all, before we can achieve this, and few of us in this life can hope to pass that stage." An even clearer summing up of his ars poetica occurs in the poem entitled "The Blue-Fly in His Head" (1962): "The intellect shapes, the emotions feed the poem, /Whose roots are in the senses, whose flower is imagination." And I cannot forbear quoting a description of Heath-Stubbs's poetry by J. Van Domelen: "There is a certain Byzantine quality in much of John Heath-Stubbs's poetry. An encyclopaedic knowledge of past cultures and a continual application of this knowledge that is reminiscent of Byzantium."

Perhaps because it is so obvious, insufficient stress has been given to one overriding quality of Heath-Stubbs's poetry, however. Like the poet himself, it is a poetry, linguistically speaking, "of as good blood as any in England." That is to say, Heath-Stubbs's poetry is supremely English in the way that Shakespeare's or the pristine Chaucer's was supremely English. It is an Anglo-Saxon language plasma imbued, even softened, by the rich Celtic blood of the west (which was how English came to be, the Latin influence being formatively peripheral in comparison). To the Celtic element Heath-Stubbs owes his gift for the mythological transformation of experience; to the English (or the Anglo-Saxon as developed via Chaucer) the capacity to embrace ideas and subtler intellectual states than Celtic perversity and magic allow for. And to the English strain he also owes his humor, something that must be emphasized because, with the exception of Dannie Abse, he is the only serious poet writing in England who also has a great sense of humor. In fact, Heath-Stubbs is both a poet and a wit, though he is one to whom I would rather apply the phrase "a visionary and humorist" in order to emphasize the unique character of his achievement.

It was Sebastian Barker who wrote of the "intelligent and fully conscious delight" that the reader "may expect from Heath-Stubbs's rhythms." In fact, the statement unintentionally directs at least this reader to the only real weakness to be found in his poetry. Not infrequently there is an overconsciousness that leads to a diminution, even an absence, of rhythm. Now rhythm is part of the essential lifeblood of the true poem, and no amount of flexing of the poet's metrical muscles, something Heath-Stubbs is particularly good at, can guarantee this vital factor. Consequently, quite a few respectable and interesting items get knocked off his virtuoso anvil that are nothing more than cerebral artifacts expressed in cautious but always competent meters. They are not shoddy goods, of course, but simply pieces that lack the luster of life, lack a living vitality, lack, in short, rhythm. Such are not really inspired or Muse-given pieces at all but are either metrical exercises or just plain failed poems. Naturally, they are of interest—as all Heath-Stubbs's work is of interest—but they do not delight, do not "move the heart" as Heath-Stubbs knows and says a true poem should do. Of course, in a prolific poet—indeed, in any poet—such failures are to be expected; not even Shakespeare hit the right note, thought, and rhythm at the same time and every time. But these critical remarks must be understood as intended simply to help "round the picture," as it were. For it remains generally true that, by any standard, Heath-Stubbs's work-individually in Artorius, his remarkable epic for voices, and more generally in his positively cornucopian Collected Poems 1943–1987—forms one of the major poetical oeuvres in modern times. True, it is a corpus that has yet to be studied in the depth it deserves, but when it is, a major poet will have been firmly added to the somewhat exclusive canon of English literature.

To help round out Heath-Stubbs's achievement, it is worth adding that a remarkable volume of his literary essays was published to celebrate his eightieth birthday. It is a volume characterized especially by its readability, its erudition, its array of insights, and the manner in which it so compellingly illuminates the real qualities of many minor and neglected English poets as well as throwing unsentimental light upon the weaknesses of some of our more canonical authors. With this volume of literary essays a major poet has also become a true man of letters.

—William Oxley