A team from Collection Management has recently completed restoring and cataloguing the John Heath-Stubbs Printed Book Collection which, along with his papers, were acquired by the Library in 2007 from Golbourne Antiques, London, with financial assistance from the Robert Gavron Charitable Trust. He died of cancer on 26 December 2006, aged 88.
John Heath-Stubbs was born in London on 9th July 1918. Partially-sighted from birth, by his late teens his sight had deteriorated so rapidly that he was sent to Worcester College for the Blind. His failing eyesight allowed him to apply for the Barker Exhibition in English at Queen’s College, Oxford, and so, despite having originally wanted to study biology, he became a student of literature[i]. Whilst at Oxford he was part of the generation which included Keith Douglas, Sidney Keyes, Philip Larkin (with whom he had an ongoing quarrel!), Kingsley Amis and Iris Murdoch, and was also heavily influenced by the teachings of C.S. Lewis.
Throughout his literary career, John Heath-Stubbs was a prominent figure in British poetry, winning many poetry prizes, including the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry and the Commonwealth Poetry Prize. He was appointed OBE in 1989. His prolific literary output included 30 volumes of poetry, as well as translations, criticism, drama and an autobiographical work. His most famous poems were The Divided Ways and Artorius.
His near blindness did not impede his literary career (he his right eye was removed in 1956, while his left eye had become too weak for reading by 1961) as he felt deafness must be a far worse disability, saying, “As a poet, I have found that blindness actually tends to stimulate the imagination.”[ii] He also scolded his friend Dannie Abse for describing him as “Heath-Stubbs, the blind poet” – which made him sound, he said, like “Porkie the learned pig”.[iii] Interestingly, he was known to have a close friendship with the deaf poet David Wright, editing many anthologies together. His deteriorating eyesight can be seen in this collection by the declining accuracy of his signature on most items.
It is clear from the amount of personal dedications, signed copies and limited editions within the collection that he was held in high esteem by contemporaries. TS Eliot saw him as among the foremost critics and poets of his generation, and Herbert Read said, “It is as though a modern architect had suddenly produced a perfect baroque temple”.[iv] Kathleen Taylor said that “Conversation with him was like having jewels scattered in profusion into your hands and lap”.[v]
Although described as a “towering solitary”, he was also a very sociable man who liked (most) people and welcomed their company.[vi] Despite his fading eyesight, he remained fiercely independent, regularly socialising with fellow poets in Soho and Chelsea, and insisted on attending literary events, living alone, entertaining and cooking for his many friends.
View the John Heath-Stubbs Printed Book Collection records via the University of Manchester Library website.
[i] Taylor, Kathleen. (2006). Appreciation: John Heath-Stubbs. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/news/2007/jan/06/guardianobituaries.obituaries, (Accessed: 23 April 2015)
[ii] Meyer, Michael. (2006). John Heath-Stubbs. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/news/2006/dec/29/guardianobituaries.booksobituaries, (Accessed: 23 April 2015).
[iii] Ezard, John. (2006). Poet John Heath-Stubbs dies, aged 88. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/dec/27/news.johnezard, (Accessed: 23 April 2015)
[iv] Taylor, Kathleen. (2006). Appreciation: John Heath-Stubbs. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/news/2007/jan/06/guardianobituaries.obituaries, (Accessed: 23 April 2015)
[v] Meyer, Michael. (2006). John Heath-Stubbs. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/news/2006/dec/29/guardianobituaries.booksobituaries, (Accessed: 23 April 2015).
[vi] Powell, Neil. (2006). John Heath-Stubbs : Poet of outstanding technical mastery, wry wisdom and deceptive lightness with a timeless lyric gift. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/john-heathstubbs-429904.html, (Accessed: 23 April 2015).