Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Drummond Allison, bulldog poet

drummond allisonFor no particular reason, time for an honourable mention of WW2 poet Drummond Allison – possibly the only baby ever to have been named after Sapper’s thuggish gentleman detective Bulldog Drummond, on account of his strikingly pugnacious physiognomy as a newborn – at least in his mother’s eyes.

Photos and recollections reveal no thug but “an extrovert, a rackety enfant terrible with tow-coloured hair” (David Wright), resembling, as another friend remarked, an “almost grown-up” Just William. His exuberance, generosity and humour coloured his poetry, which is energetic, quirky, jagged but stately, musically alliterative, telegraphic, with little concession to poetic fashion, though he had clearly absorbed Auden and George Barker among others. Here’s a personal favourite:

O sheriffs

the yellow nightO sheriffs hung with long pearlhandled guns
Showing your stars, coachditching dark road-agents,
O Pony Express on Sioux-surrounded plains,

Mushers of huskies, dudes in border towns,
Rustlers of painted mustangs down thin gorges
And tumblers out of rustler-run saloons,

O Darrell who the revolving logs defy,
O Billy caught with bacon, mad-eyed Hardin
Daring to draw each pallid deputy.

God like a lone and lemon-drinking Ranger,
Or at a far fur-station the half-breed stranger,
Them string up undecayed and stellify.

eight oxford poetsIt could be objected that the last verse suffers by the necessary inversion of “Them string up” and by the obscurity of “stellify” (turn into a star). But let’s face it, “stellify” is a cracking word. And “God like a lone and lemon-drinking Ranger” – just how good is that?

From one boyhood constellation to another passion – cricket. Of all Allison’s poems, “Verity” may be the best known, featuring Death as a batsman, and written for the Yorkshire and England bowler Hedley Verity, killed in Sicily in 1943, a few months before Allison’s own death:


The ruth and truth you taught have come full circle
On that fell island all whose history lies,
poemsFar now from Bramall Lane and far from Scarborough
You recollect how foolish are the wise.

On this great ground more marvellous than Lords
– Time takes more spin than nineteen thirty four –
You face at last that vast that Bradman-shaming
Batsman Whose cuts obey no natural law.

Run up again, as gravely smile as ever,
Veer without fear your left unlucky arm
In His so dark direction, but no length
However lovely can disturb the harm
That is His style, defer the winning drive
Or shake the crowd from their uproarious calm.

But Allison is no mere boyish, or even Boy’s Own Paper, poet. His subjects range from suburbia, class allegiance, social change and Marxism to war, death, girls and sex. Try this study of unlucky love in which every humdrum object embodies uncertainty:

Rejection Song

Now from closing car park and last bus stop start
Vehicles whose muffled passengers and drivers
Have worked out true bearings on their loved and lovers,
But explain no variation of my heart.

collectedNow admitting it my error to have thought
You the right reply to each unsure red setter,
To the query in each clockface in each clutter
Of bewildered boulders, every doubtful fort;

Every question mark that forms on spark-scorched grass,
Puzzled stares of Greenline coach and double decker,
Unconvinced old slot machines, the startled knocker
And the flabbergasted spareroom looking-glass;

Now aware not only unity and shared
Hunts for reasons and for purposes, but looking
More than most, but kissing tired and watching waking,
Are like birds that tantalise their leader snared;

Yet before the unlit fire I know my need
Of your thighs your throat your abdomen their movements,
Yet beside the dry-voiced bookcase on pale pavements
I repeat the quite incredible my creed.

Lieutenant John Drummond Allison left for the front in October 1943. Little more than a month later he was killed in the assault on Monte Camino. He was 22 years old.

A biography by Ross Davies appeared in 2009, though I can’t pretend to have read it. At the same time, Allison’s Wiki stub still consists of just four sentences. His work, sadly, is thoroughly out of print, a 1994 Collected (published by his old school in an edition of 300, and admirably edited by Stephen Benson) being his most recent appearance. Before that, we have a 1978 Poems (Whiteknights Press in a run of 200), his posthumous 1944 collection The Yellow Night, and his modest appearance in the 1941 anthology Eight Oxford Poets.

VerityLimited editions or not, none of these are at all pricey second hand – a sure sign of neglect. Of Allison’s fellow Oxford soldier poets who never returned, Keith Douglas and Sidney Keyes, Douglas is now properly regarded; Keyes remains interesting but was hugely overrated at the time. Allison stands up solidly against Douglas, and is a far more important poet than Keyes, but both the latter are still in print, with Faber and Carcanet no less. A manuscript of “Verity” in Allison’s hand, on the endpaper of a Yorkshire County Cricket Club programme for 1911, turned up at Christie’s in 2004. It made £72.

His poetry demands urgent recognition. Him string up undecayed and stellify.

8 responses to “Drummond Allison, bulldog poet

  1. Stephen Benson January 6, 2014 at 11:12 am

    I was delighted to read your plug for Drummond Allison only the day after it was placed online. I edited his “Collected” years ago when I was Head at Bishop’s Stortford College (not enough to do if you delegate!). I was hugely taken with the man as much as by his poetry though some of his imagery sticks in the mind.
    In ‘Verity’ comes the line that sums him up for me as a raw young poet of huge promise:
    “veer without fear your left unlucky arm” – the first three words are clever but somehow clunky. But “your left unlucky arm” is poignant, literary and beautiful.
    I cooperated with Ross Davies in his project to shed more light on the man behind the pen and I think the result is very well done.
    I was given the manuscript of “The Oval 1942” by one of Drummond’s Oxford girl-friends just before my publication came out. I had never seen it mentioned anywhere except once in a letter from Allison to Heath- Stubbs commenting that he thought it not good enough for publication. It could so easily have been lost forever. I think it’s brilliant. Sheer chance.
    I had a sort of agreement to publish a second edition of the “Collected” with Cecil Woolf a few years ago but it never happened – so perhaps Drummond will have to be satisfied with a few fervent fans like you and me. It’s more than he would have expected after the disappointment of being overlooked when others like Keyes and Douglas were lionised.
    Had he survived the war, who knows?
    Anyway, you made my day. Thank you.
    Steve Benson

    • richardawarren January 6, 2014 at 11:38 am

      Thanks very much for your kind comments. Where would we be without your edition of the “Collected”? A shame about the projected second edition – maybe at some future point? Yes, I liked “The Oval” very much – certainly publishable, and a must for any anthology of cricket poetry. Though it is a lament cum celebration, without quite the metaphysical depth and darkness of “Verity”, at least to my mind. But there is so much to enjoy in DA’s work. Thank you again.

  2. Charlotte Mackie May 21, 2014 at 9:14 am

    My mother was a friend of Drummond Alison when they were at Oxford University during World War Two. I believe he wrote a poem to her entitled ‘Cynthia’ but maybe it was another man in their set of friends? Years ago, I saw this poem in the British Library – I might go there and enquire if indeed it was written by Drummond Alison. I know, my mother being very pretty at the time, that he quite fancied her!
    As children, we were struck by the fact that, out of my mother’s close circle of university friends, most, if not all, of the men were killed in the war. We found this fact unbearably sad.
    I, too, wish someone would republish Drummond Alison’s poems – there is a short one I once read where death is being cheated by those it has killed having experienced something before death – I can’t lay my hands on it now, which is very moving.
    Thank you for highlighting what a superb poet Alison was.
    Charlotte Mackie
    daughter of Cynthia Mackie, formerly Clarke

    • richardawarren May 21, 2014 at 4:48 pm

      Charlotte, many thanks for this! How fascinating. Actually, Stephen Benson’s “Collected Poems” of DA has two addressed to your mother – “Walton Street Sonnet (for Cynthia Clarke)” and “For Cynthia”. He must have been well enamoured … Both good poems, too, though the second seems a little bitter. I’m guessing the second is the one you saw, so no need to visit the BL! The last line is interesting, given that it seems there’s no such word as “perspection”. What did he mean by it? “Seeing through”?

      Anyway, here they are:

      “Walton Street Sonnet (for Cynthia Clarke)”

      Dimmed headlights, chinks in curtains, lowered torches
      Like notes on Walton Street’s obscurity;
      The tower that talks at us, the stone-stepped porches,
      Wet curbs and scuffled gratings, energy
      Of chimney-outlines now hold new solutions
      For every problem this November sets.

      But when, if fear has broken off relations,
      Headlines diminish and they settle sites
      For reconstruction; or if still refuses
      Oxford in European death to pry;
      Eyes of you singers some pale night peruses
      Straggling from sherry parties up the High,
      Through building-shadows down Cornmarket thrusting:
      May book and recollection need no dusting.

      “For Cynthia”

      Close any pamphlet whose insistence catches
      Your heart without its sentries and evokes
      Nothing but mercy looting all love’s riches,
      Talking but never using. Nor attempt
      Hills the despondent labourer forsakes
      Immune from all our zeal. But by trite birches
      And chairs your seemly customs keep, from truth exempt.

      Crossed in our opulent ambition
      Yet fierce from each rejection
      Neither will dare complete attrition
      Till liking leaves the eyes.
      Hold back your heart from neat dissection
      Inured to boldest lies,
      Allow me no perspection.

    • Stephen Benson November 16, 2014 at 4:22 pm

      Dear Richard – I have just revisited your site and have read the correspondence with Charlotte Mackie. Actually there are three other poems in the Collected dedicated to her mother, Cynthia Clarke, namely Yorktown Gate Guard, May 1942 and October 1942. He certainly fell for her!
      Could you see if Charlotte would be prepared to get in touch with me to pursue this further? I could never find anything about her and yet clearly she was DA’s greatest muse at Oxford – and Sandhurst? Best wishes, Steve Benson
      P. S . The poem about cheating Death is Come Let Us Pity Death.

      • richardawarren November 18, 2014 at 7:22 pm

        Hello Stephen. I’ve copied your message on to Charlotte, with your email address, so I hope she’ll feel able to contact you. “Yorktown Gate Guard” I later sussed out, but I hadn’t realised that the other two were also addressed to her. The second is particularly passionate. Yes, he must have been well and truly smitten … Thanks for the contact, and I hope this brings you some useful information. Best, Richard.

  3. Alexandra Davis October 1, 2014 at 3:56 pm

    Have you by any chance a poem of his called ‘Semper Eadem’? I am trying to track it down as it is the school motto where I work as an English teacher. Would be grateful for any help!
    Many thanks,
    Alex Davis

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