John Heath-Stubbs (1918 – 2006) recalled how the teacher at his tiny village school read her pupils Our Island Story, sparking in him the lifelong fascination with history that informed his poetic career. He completed his education at Worcester College for the Blind and Queens College, Oxford. First published in 1941 in Eight Oxford Poets, Heath-Stubbs had a prolific career – as a critic, anthologist and translator as well as poet. He received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry and the St Augustine Cross and was awarded the OBE in 1988. He died in London in December 2006.

In the ‘Poet of Bray’, Heath-Stubbs elegantly parodies the kind of poet who follows literary fashion. His own poetry resolutely refused the labels critics tried to pin on it; described first as a Romantic and then as a Classicist, Heath-Stubbs’ work often ran counter to prevailing currents. Perhaps his immunity from fashion was partly informed by his lifelong immersion in history and classical mythologies. In his poems an encounter with Shakespeare, or Li Po or Plato is as natural and immediate as his description of a stone-chat or death-watch beetle. This is not to suggest Heath-Stubbs’ work is archaic, far from it; his distinctive achievement was to forge a modern pastoral out of unlikely sources, a style which can encompass Yeatsian symbolism and dry irony. A similar balance is present in his versatile use of form, being equally at home in free verse and the most complex of stanza patterns: included here are a villanelle, a sonnet, a poem written in couplets, together with the Betjeman-like rhythms and rhymes of the lighter poems.

His reading captures this range of tones; deep and resonant it can suggest the voice of an Old Testament prophet, but elsewhere is warm and humorous and he clearly relishes the bite of satire. The dead king in ‘Purkis’, for instance, may be described in formal tones, but it’s the crude cry of the charcoal-burner which ends the poem and after whom it is titled.

John Heath-Stubbs’s Favourite Poetry Saying:

“[Poetry is] articulate music” – Dryden

His recording was made for The Poetry Archive on 23 November 2000 at the poet's home in London and was produced by Richard Carrington.

Poems by John Heath Stubbs

Purkis - John Heath Stubbs
The Poet of Bray - John Heath Stubbs
The Mulberry Tree - John Heath Stubbs
Song of the Death-Watch Beetle - John Heath Stubbs
Inscription for a Scented Garden for the Blind - John Heath Stubbs
The Carrion Crow - John Heath Stubbs
John Heath Stubbs in the Poetry Store

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Books by John Heath Stubbs



Queen's Medal for poetry

Prize website

Order of the British Empire

Prize website

Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature

Prize website

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