It was inevitable that the curtailed life of Sidney Keyes (1922-43), the English poet who was killed in action in World War II at the age of twenty, would become the substance of legend and myth. Like nearly everyone who has come recommended as a “war poet”—a dubious designation that is often invoked to lend a moral edge to a writer whose work cannot stand up well in poetic terms—Keyes has long been a hostage of the literary mythmakers. These mythmakers have succeeded in transforming him and his work into symbols of the loss and devastation of war.

Even Keyes’s friend and editor Michael Meyer, who has been the poet’s unstinting champion since their days together at Oxford, is culpable of furthering the Keyes legend. In the memoir that introduces The Collected Poems, a book first published in 1945 and now reissued in an...


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