John Heath-Stubbs

b. 1918 – d. 2006

John Heath-Stubbs OBE was an English poet and translator, known for his verse influenced by classical myths, and the long Arthurian poem, Artorius.  He was a representative figure of British poetry in the early 1950s, editing the poetry anthology Images of Tomorrow (1953) and, with David Wright, The Faber Book of Twentieth Century Verse,  among others. He was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1973. Although afflicted by blindness from the 1960s, and completely without sight from 1978, he continued to write almost to the end.


John Heath-Stubbs remembered – by Sebastian Faulks

John Heath-Stubbs was a poet who was schooled at the University of Soho. He entered his twenties during the Second World War, when this particular place of learning was in full swing. The bars, pubs, and clubs of Soho were an education like no other, made urgent by the War and its aftermath. They liberated Heath-Stubbs from his genteel background and the lofty schoolings of Oxford University.

By the end of his life, he had produced work of multitudinous scope and interest, combining a sense of reverence with a love of detail. Laughing and singing in his late eighties, his huge body reduced to a sack of bones, his eyes gone from their sockets, his ears almost useless, he died in the High Anglican Church at one with himself and God, the day after the Christmas Day he had been celebrating.

As a poet and a scholar, he was a colossus, but even so a man to whom the humblest could put a question – a bit like consulting Google. His encyclopaedic knowledge was legendary. But his better virtue was that if he didn’t know something, he said so. This made conversation with him delightful and enthralling, an open invitation to engage with his comic muse.

In his poem Epitaph, he wrote:

Mr Heath-Stubbs as you must understand
Came of a gentleman’s family out of Staffordshire
Of as good blood as any in England
But he was wall-eyed and his legs too spare.

Self-parody came easily to him, but self-consciousness never got in the way of his take on the world or his adoration for certain parts of it. In particular, he loved birds. It seemed there was nothing he did not know about them. It also seems reasonable that birds were for him messengers of the spirit, a common topos in the Matter of Britain, which so preoccupied him. His Epitaph again:

Now having outlived his friends and most of his reputation
He is content to take his rest under these stones and grass
Not expecting but hoping that the Resurrection
Will not catch him unawares whenever it takes place.

A devout follower of David Jones, he found in the Matter of Britain, which Jones did so much to illuminate, the source of his magnum opus, the epic poem Artorius, first published by Enitharmon Press in 1973. The wit and wisdom of this lusciously modulated poetry was noticed by A.N. Wilson in his obituary of the poet. He speaks of its ‘dazzling brilliance’.

Stubbs, as he was affectionately known, was in the Oxford of Keith Douglas, Sidney Keyes, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Alan Ross, David Wright, Michael Hamburger, and Iris Murdoch. It was, however, to David Wright, the deaf South African poet, that the blind Heath-Stubbs was drawn. They were a pair, the fellow editors of consequential anthologies such as The Faber Book of Twentieth-Century Verse (1953, 1965, 1975, 1988). But above all they were at the heart of that bohemian rhapsody which included Elizabeth Smart, Thomas Blackburn, Patrick Swift, Patrick Kavanagh, the Roberts Colquhoun & MacBryde, Francis Bacon, George Barker, David Gascoyne, Dylan Thomas, W.S. Graham and Dom Moraes.

Stubbs held the Gregory Fellowship of Poetry at Leeds University (1952-55) and he had professorships in Alexandria (1955-58) and Ann Arbor, Michigan (1960-61). He taught at the College of St Mark and St John in Chelsea (1962-72), as well as at Merton College, Oxford for twenty years from 1972. He was elected to the RSL in 1954, awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry 1973, and appointed OBE in 1989. He translated, among others, Sappho, Horace, Catullus, Hafiz, Verlaine, and most notably Giacomo Leopardi. Leaning across to pull a book from his bookshelves, it might be Religions of the Ancient Near East: Sumero-Akkadian Religious Texts and Ugaritic Epics, or The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam, translated by Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs. To get a measure of the man, it was necessary only to glance at his extensive bibliography, John Heath-Stubbs: A Checklist, by Professor John Van Domelen (1987) detailing 28 books of poetry, eight of translations, five of literary criticism, and eleven as editor. This was followed by his majestic Collected Poems 1943-1987 (Carcanet, 1988) and a further half-a-dozen books of poetry up to 2005, by which time Stubbs was ready to depart.