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Though I probably knew more about his past than any living person, a great many things about Bob’s life came more clearly into focus, especially as I read through several thousand letters written to his mother, close friends (Amis, Larkin, Anthony Powell), Margaret Thatcher, and many other literary and political figures on both sides of the Atlantic. Other than the fabled (and even in these liberal times, still unprintable) “Mexican Pete” — a sequel to the folk ballad “Eskimo Nell” written with his friend John Blakeway during the final Oxford “Schools” term of 1939 as they waited for the war they knew was coming — there were no shocking revelations. Instead, I was left with an increased appreciation of a long and full life. To paraphrase Walter de la Mare on Jane Austen: with love and loss, success and failure, life made him familiar.

From a young age, Bob wrote poetry. In 1931, as part of the exams that won him both a scholarship at Charterhouse and a place at Winchester, he wrote “Perseus” — 34 lines of heroic couplets in which Polydectes, Hermes, Pallas Athena and Andromeda make appearances. At Winchester, and as an Oxford undergraduate, he filled notebooks with verse, much of it surrealist. Two of these appeared in 1938, in Julian Symons’s magazine Twentieth Century Verse (one reprinted later in The Penguin Book of Surrealist Verse). He filled more notebooks during the war — battered but still legible records of his early work.

In 1945, while serving in Bulgaria, Bob received a letter from Symons suggesting he enter a competition sponsored by PEN for the Brazil Prize, to be awarded to the best long poem by a British author about the war. He sent — in four sections on Service airmail letters — “For the Death of a Poet, for D. A., killed in Italy, December 1943”. The judges — Richard Church, C. Day Lewis, and Herbert Read — were unanimous in selecting this poem from the 250 entries submitted. (Another — “In the Marshes” — won a Festival of Britain prize.) Years later he wrote,

The war’s effect on my own writing (in intention at least) was to make me seek clarity and honesty untainted by the symbolism and pretentiousness that marred the poetry I had written as an undergraduate. It also — in the Mediterranean Theatre, though  this would not probably be so true of the Western Front — made one more sensitive and responsive to the qualities of sky and landscape, of the phenomenal world, in contrast both to the ruined cities and desolated farmlands and to one’s own possible impending extinction.

Some of the poems in these notebooks appeared in Bob’s first collection The Colour of Doubt, published by Macmillan in 1955 as Poems. But not all. In these unpublished poems one glimpses the turbulence — personal and political — of those years.
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