Stubbs, John Francis Alexander Heath-
, was born at Streatham Manor, Leigham Avenue, Streatham, London, on 9 July 1918, the elder son of Francis Heath-Stubbs, of independent means, and his wife, Edith Louise Sara, née
Marr. At this time his parents lived at 5 Ranulf Road, Hampstead. His father had qualified as a solicitor but never practised. His mother was a concert pianist of distinction, as Edie Marr. She gave up her professional career after her son was born but became a music teacher when her husband developed multiple sclerosis and their private income was reduced by the depression of the 1930s. Music was to play a major part in her son's life and poetry.
Most of Heath-Stubbs's boyhood was spent near the New Forest. The wild birds there, identified for him by his father, became a frequent source of inspiration. At the age of twelve he went to the recently founded Bembridge School on the Isle of Wight. He spent much of his free time in the school library, where he became absorbed in works of reference, namely Encyclopaedia Britannica
, Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable
, and Lemprière's Classical Dictionary
. They were the foundation of his education, he said later. Though he was miserable on the whole at Bembridge it was there that his literary talent began to emerge. He wrote poetry, published in the school magazine, but thought of studying biology at university.
When he was eighteen Heath-Stubbs was diagnosed with glaucoma, unusual in one so young, inherited from his father. After an operation he lost the sight of his right eye but retained some vision in the left, which he was able to use for reading until 1961. He bore this misfortune with great stoicism and overcame the disability to a remarkable degree, becoming phenomenally well read. After the operation he was sent to Worcester College for the Blind where he learned Braille, though he never used it. He became editor of the college magazine and, most important, he came into contact with boys of a working-class background and began with them his lifelong enjoyment of beer-drinking and of mixing freely with people of all social classes in pubs. Meanwhile his parents had heard of the Barker exhibition at Queen's College, Oxford, given to someone who was either blind or in danger of losing his sight, to read English. Heath-Stubbs was awarded the exhibition in 1939 and at the age of twenty-one went to Oxford.
At Oxford Heath-Stubbs soon became friends with two Queen's undergraduates, Sidney Keyes and Drummond Allison, who were poets, and with the handsome Philip Rawson, also writing poetry, later to become a professor of Indian art and a sculptor. Heath-Stubbs found the Oxford English school a satisfying complement to his private reading of poetry. He enjoyed listening to J. R. R. Tolkien lecture on Beowulf
and Gawain and the Green Knight
. He stored the alliterative metre in his mind for future use. His tutors were Herbert Brett-Smith for literature and John Bryson for language, but it was attending lectures by Nevill Coghill and above all C. S. Lewis that he found most rewarding. He also went to lectures by Lewis's friend Charles Williams, who seemed a saint-like presence to many in Oxford at that time. Williams's account of the English poetic tradition made a powerful impression on Heath-Stubbs, who later wrote the pamphlet on him for the British Council's Writers and their Work
Herbert Read, the poetry adviser to Routledge, published Eight Oxford Poets
in 1941, edited by Sidney Keyes and Michael Meyer, the future biographer of Ibsen, then at Christ Church. Heath-Stubbs was one of the eight, as was Keith Douglas. In a preface Keyes wrote: we are … Romantic
writers, though by that I mean little more than that our greatest fault is a tendency to floridity, and that we have on the whole little sympathy with the Audenian school of poets (Eight Oxford Poets
, vii). This volume was followed a year later by Keyes's The Iron Laurel
and Heath-Stubbs's Wounded Thammuz
, a booklet of twenty-four pages containing an elegy celebrating the Babylonian deity mentioned by Milton in Paradise Lost
, a poetic reworking of the dying god myth. Both books were published by Routledge.
Heath-Stubbs took first-class honours in his final schools in 1942 and stayed on for a BLitt on the background to James Thomson's The Seasons
, but after a preliminary year's work both he and his supervisor, David Nichol Smith, came to the conclusion that in spite of his wide knowledge of literature, scholarship was not his forte. Part of his trouble was emotional: he had by now discovered his homosexuality and fallen desperately in love with Philip Rawson who, while admiring Heath-Stubbs's intellect and offering him firm friendship, was not of the same sexual orientation. Beauty and the Beast
, the volume by Heath-Stubbs published by Routledge in 1943, contains The Heart's Forest, a moving poem of unrequited love. The Divided Ways
(1945), dedicated to Rawson, has for its title-poem Heath-Stubbs's elegy for Keyes, killed in action in 1943 at the age of twenty. Allison was also killed in the war.
During this period William Bell, a poet from Merton College, introduced Heath-Stubbs to the college's literary society, the Bodley Club. He met there the atomic research scientist Ronald Bright, who later converted to Roman Catholicism to become Laurence Bright, a Dominican friar. Under his influence and that of Charles Williams, Heath-Stubbs reverted to the Anglican faith of his upbringing and became a regular churchgoer. Bell published a generous selection of poems by Heath-Stubbs in his anthology Poetry from Oxford in Wartime
(1945) and several by Philip Larkin, an Oxford contemporary of Heath-Stubbs, excluded by Keyes and Meyer from Eight Oxford Poets
. Heath-Stubbs and Larkin shared a dislike of each other's work. Larkin and his friend Kingsley Amis, both at St John's College, derided the use made by the Queen's poets of myth and legend. Three years later Bell, a keen mountaineer, died while climbing the Matterhorn. Heath-Stubbs edited and introduced a posthumous volume of Bell's poems, Mountains Beneath the Horizon
(1950). These early deaths of his compeers left Heath-Stubbs the sole post-war survivor of Oxford's wartime poetic romantics.
After leaving Oxford Heath-Stubbs went to live in London, taking lodgings in a boarding-house in west Hampstead. Poetry was his vocation but he needed a job. He obtained one as a schoolmaster at The Hall preparatory school, where he read The Ancient Mariner
to his pupils but found keeping them in order at other times to be beyond him. He resigned halfway through his second term. His next job was on a popular illustrated encyclopaedia in preparation at Hutchinson. He contributed articles not only on literature, music, and theology but also on plants, birds, insects, and cookery. He was also commissioned to write a book about Edgar Allan Poe but gave it up when it was half-written, having, as he put it, seen through Poe. He gave up the Hutchinson job, too, after eighteen months, and apart from temporary university appointments became a freelance for the rest of his life.
Heath-Stubbs soon began to make his mark as a poet in London. His poems and articles appeared in Wrey Gardiner's Poetry Quarterly
, Hugh Kingsmill's New English Review
, and above all in John Lehmann's Penguin New Writing
. He gave readings of his poetry with other poets, including Dylan Thomas, George Barker, and James Kirkup, at the Ethical Church in Bayswater. His work was noticed by Edith Sitwell who, when she was in London, invited him to luncheons at the Sesame Club. He encountered T. S. Eliot, who asked him to edit The Faber Book of Twentieth-Century Verse
, which he compiled with his Oxford friend David Wright, a poet who was deaf. With Wright he also edited, for Lehmann's publishing imprint, The Forsaken Garden
, an anthology of English poetry from 1824 to 1905. His critical study of some of the poets of this period was published in 1950 as The Darkling Plain
Heath-Stubbs's social life centred on what came to be known (though not strictly accurately, as he was fond of pointing out) as Soho. He became almost as much a fixture in the Wheatsheaf, Rathbone Place, off Oxford Street, as the short-story writer Julian Maclaren-Ross. In between drinking pints of beer, he would discourse at length on literary matters ranging over vast areas of poetry and mythology to anyone prepared to listen to him. He was as unstoppable and mesmerizing an impromptu talker as was Coleridge in the eyes of his contemporaries.
Heath-Stubbs's next collection was rejected by Routledge, where Geoffrey Grigson had taken over as poetry adviser, but this did nothing to arrest the steady flow of poetry from his pen. He brought out fresh collections at regular intervals with various publishers: The Swarming of the Bees
(1950) with Eyre and Spottiswode, A Charm Against the Toothache
(1954) with Methuen, The Blue Fly in His Head
(1958) and The Triumph of the Muse
(1962), both with Oxford University Press, which also published his translations from Leopardi, the beginning of his work of translation, usually with a collaborator, of exotic poets he considered too little known in England. He found a permanent home for his own work with Michael Schmidt's Carcanet Press in Manchester. Carcanet published The Watchman's Flute
(1978), Naming of the Beasts
(1982), The Imitation of Aleph
(1985), and several other volumes, though his major work, Artorius
(King Arthur), a heroic poem in four books and eight episodes, was first published in a limited edition of 315 copies by Alan Clodd's Enitharmon Press in 1973. This lengthy poem's sources were Malory, Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Mabinogion
, and more immediately, as Heath-Stubbs explained in his memoirs, Hindsights
(1993), Robert Graves's suggestion in Count Belisarius
if we had learnt about King Arthur … from an historian like Procopius … we might have had a very different picture of the British leaderas a general trying to preserve what was left of Roman civilisation in western Britain against the barbarian incursion of the Anglo-Saxons. (Hindsights, 284)
The poem may also be seen as an act of homage to Charles Williams, whose Arthurian poems Taliessen Through Logres
and The Region of the Summer Stars
Heath-Stubbs considered to be among the greatest poetry of the twentieth century.
Heath-Stubbs's early work had been notable for Browning-like monologues put into the mouths of literary or mythological figures. He now repudiated this kind of poetry and adopted a much more direct manner, speaking in his own voice rather than through masks, and experimenting in a wide variety of metrical forms. His technical versatility, comparable in its vast scope to that of Auden, became apparent with the publication by Carcanet of his Collected Poems, 19431987
(1988), where he relegated the poetry of his youthful romantic period to the back of the book. The poem Epitaph, written in 1956, began:
Mr Heath-Stubbs as you must understand
Came of a gentleman's family out Staffordshire
Of as good blood as any in England
But he was wall-eyed and his legs too spare.
His most anthologized poem, he grew to hate and wish he had never written it. Nevertheless, its gentle ironic humour pervades much of his later work. His admiration for the style of such masters as Dryden, Pope, and Crabbe emerged in his Literary Essays
Heath-Stubbs was rescued from the hardship of trying to live on literary earnings boosted by a small inherited income by his appointment as Gregory fellow of poetry at Leeds University in 1952. He was highly successful in this role, making a friend of Bonamy Dobrée, head of the English department, and the composer Peter Dickinson, for whom Heath-Stubbs wrote the libretto of an opera never staged, The Unicorns
. As a contribution to the revival of poetic drama he wrote Helen in Egypt
and other verse plays.
After three years at Leeds Heath-Stubbs was made visiting professor of English literature at the University of Alexandria in Egypt. His tenure there coincided with the Suez crisis and he gave an entertaining account in Hindsights
of his continuing lecturing and teaching while under surveillance by the police as a potential British spy. His next appointments were at Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 196061, and then as a lecturer in London at the College of St Mark and St John, Chelsea. Another part-time teaching post followed at Merton College, Oxford, where John Jones, whom he had met as one of William Bell's friends, was the fellow in English. Jones needed someone to look after his pupils while he was engaged on research and working as the professor of poetry. Heath-Stubbs, though by now with only minimal sight, would travel from London to Oxford and back alone. On one occasion he suffered a serious fall while going down the steps at Oxford station and had to go to hospital with a broken hip.
In London he lived alone, too, in a small ground-floor flat in Bayswater but next door to his close friend Guthrie McKie. He had no difficulty in doing his shopping by himself. He was well known to the local shopkeepers, a tall man with a white stick, a glass eye, and a penetrating voice. He enjoyed the company of many friends who called, some of whom regularly read to him. He also enjoyed attending the spring and winter dinners of the Omar Khayyam Club, an all-male sodality aimed at celebrating the life of Edward Fitzgerald and the Rubáiyát
. Heath-Stubbs had himself made an English version with Peter Avery, published in 1979. He contributed several poems to the club's illustrated menus and made a memorable speech when proposing the toast to the master. His sixtieth and eightieth birthdays were celebrated in special issues of the poetry magazine Aquarius
, edited by his friend Eddie Linden. He was awarded the queen's gold medal for poetry in 1973 and made an OBE in 1989. Latterly he was cared for at the Athlone House nursing home in Woodfield Road, Westminster. He died in London on 26 December 2006.