Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Sidney Keyes: "Time Turns Back and the Doubtful Season Passes"

Ivan Shishkin (Russian landscape painter), Rain In an Oak Forest, 1891.

It might be too much sadness to post a poem every month this year by Sidney Keyes, who didn't live to see his 21st birthday - it is just enormously sad that he is out of copyright this year, to be followed very soon by the other great World War II poets. Still, a poem every month is very tempting. He deserves it, and so do the readers.

This poem, 'The Doubtful Season', makes very explicit the non-linear nature of time, which is something poetry partakes of more successfully than other art forms, I think. The poem has a curious effect of both unfolding and turning in on itself, line by line, creating a kind of maze. I find that it can be interpreted equally as optimistic or despairing - a sort of reconciling and things turning out right, or an impossible-to-escape repeating treadmill (Groundhog Day?). Tonight I take it as optimism, having (I think) recently come out the other side of a doubtful season of my own.


The doubtful season of the brain's black weather
Blew through me, but you waited for its end.
My months were all named backwards till you showed me
That even the mind is not deceived for ever.

O in October it would be the blazoned
Leaves of the chestnut on the cobbled pavement:
And we would seek in the corridors of autumn
Denial of faith and of the summer's achievement.

And in the early year it was another
Sign of evasion when the poplars clattered
To sharpened ears above the metal river -
And I would turn to find your eyes were shuttered.

Even that almost parting on the stair
I could not understand, nor why the candles
Sprouted such flowers between our sculptured faces:
Nor why the river glinted in your hair.

O in July it was our love was started
Like any hare among the watchful grasses;
Its running is my song, my only song
How time turns back and the doubtful season passes.

                                                                           September 1942.


  1. Thank you, Clarissa, for your kind comment on my blog. I read and loved this post a month ago, and didn't quite get round to commenting at the time. I have my Pre-Raphaelite anthology to hand, and have just enjoyed your fascinating and thought-provoking Merlin poem. My favourite skirt when I was about four years old had characters from The Sword in the Stone all over it ... happy memories!

    1. Thanks Caroline! I love Sidney Keyes.

      It was nice for me to get the Merlin poem into the anthology - it's an old poem which I've always liked. I thought yours was lovely. The mix of poems and themes in the anthology was really interesting. And what a great skirt to have when you were four! (or older, actually!). Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy was particularly important to me when I was a teenager, though I also loved The Sword in the Stone and many others.