Oxford At War

Besides writing articles for some rowing magazines and trying to keep this blog running, the other month I began doing research for a non-rowing related project about my favourite Swedish author, Frans G Bengtsson, and his wonderful two-volume novel The Long Ships (1941; 1945; Eng. ed. 1954), and its English translator, Michael Meyer.

In October 1939, Meyer went up to Oxford to read English at Christ Church. He simply picked Oxford because his nanny had cheered on Oxford in the annual Boat Race.

Meyer would become a well-known translator of August Strindberg’s and Henrik Ibsen’s works, but at Oxford he had his mind set to become a poet. He sent off a poem to the university’s literary magazine, Cherwell. He soon got a reply from the magazine’s editor, Keith Douglas (to the left), that his little piece was accepted for publication. Douglas, who was a dashing-looking fellow, quickly made Meyer a sub-editor for Cherwell. Meyer agreed to this, although he sometimes found Douglas a difficult person. But there was no question about Douglas’s ability to write poems.

After Keith Douglas left Oxford in the summer of 1940, he immediately joined the Army, and handed over the editorship of Cherwell to Meyer. A year later, when Michael Meyer and his friend and fellow poet, Sidney Keyes, edited and published Eight Oxford Poets, some of Keith Douglas’s poems were included. Among them, Meyer especially liked ‘Canoe’ as, Meyer would later write, it “perfectly captures the atmosphere of Oxford around the time France fell” (in June, 1940).

And, yes I know, a canoe is not a rowing boat, but I would like to publish it here:

Well, I am thinking this must be my last
summer, but cannot lose even a part
of pleasure in the old-fashioned art
of idleness. I cannot stand aghast

at whatever doom hovers in the background
while grass and buildings and the somnolent river
who know they are allowed to last for ever
exchange between them the whole subdued sound

of this hot time. What sudden fearful fate
can deter my shade wandering next year
from a return? Whistle, and I will hear
and come another evening, when this boat

travels with you alone towards Iffley:
as you lie looking up for thunder again,
this cool touch does not betoken rain;
it is my spirit that kisses your mouth lightly.

Douglas’s battle experience during the North African Campaign, from 1942 to 1943, was posthumously published in 1946, Alamein to Zem Zem, which was a prose account with poems and his own drawings. Captain Keith Douglas was killed on 9 June 1944 in France, three days after he had participated in the invasion of Normandy.

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