Vergissmeinnicht: in memory of Keith Douglas

28/02/2012 § 2 Comments

[I meant to post this on Keith Douglas’s birthday on Friday 24th January, but I didn’t finish it in time.]

Keith Douglas, the greatest British poet of the second world war, would have been 92 today, had he not died during the invasion of Normandy. He was 24.

For a while, I was slightly obsessed with this picture of him:

His face looks so open, but you can’t really see what he’s thinking. He looks so carefree, but at the same time so confidently experienced.  There he is, in the middle of a desert, in the middle of a war, younger than I was at the time. It seemed so strange to me that men of my age could just have marched off to war.

It must have seemed as strange to Douglas himself. His war poems are full of the conflict between the human being he is and the killer the war forces him to be: in Vergissmeinnicht, where he pictures the girlfriend of the dead German soldier (‘But she would weep to see today/how on his skin the swart flies move’), or in Cairo Jag, where ‘a man with no head/has a packet of chocolate and a souvenir of Tripoli’. 

Perhaps it’s best expressed in How to Kill:

Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears

and look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. 

The language is so direct, so close to ordinary speech but so much more precise and considered. He wanted his poems to be like reportage, for his experiences as a soldier to be recognisable in his verse. From his letters:

My object (and I don’t give a damn about my duty as a poet) is to write true things, significant things in words each of which works for its place in the line. My rhythms, which you find enervated, are carefully chosen to enable the poems to be read as significant speech: I see no reason to be either musical or sonorous about things at present. When I do, I shall be so again, and glad to. I suppose I reflect the cynicism and the careful absence of expectation (it is not the same as apathy) with which I view the world. 

Cairo Jag, with its jarring contrast between leave-time pleasures in Cairo and the war-torn desert battlefield (‘the vegetation is of iron/dead tanks, gun barrels split like celery’), reminds me a lot of Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy, where Simon Boulderstone moves back and forth between his tank crew and the dissipated British expat crowd of the Anglo-Egyptian Club.

I’ve often wondered whether Olivia Manning (another of my favourite writers) knew Keith Douglas; they must have moved in similar circles in war-time Cairo. The imagery is probably common to the North African war experience, but there are a few passages in Manning which directly echo Douglas’s poetry–the burned out tank that Simon Boulderstone encounters, for example, when he and his tank crew mistakenly believe the other crew are having a brew-up only to discover that they are corpses, burned alive as they tried to scramble free. Perhaps she had read Douglas’s poetry, or his memoir of the desert war Alamein to Zem-Zem.


His earlier poetry isn’t as visceral as the war poetry, but contains one of my favourite poems, Stars, with its shivery beauty and the menace, possibly, of the war that was shortly to come:

The stars still marching in extended order
move out of nowhere into nowhere. Look, they are halted
on a vast field tonight, true no man’s land.
Far down the sky with sword and belt must stand
Orion. For commissariat of this exalted
war-company, the Wain. No fabulous border

could swallow all this bravery, no band
will ever face them: nothing but discipline
has mobilized and still maintains them. So
Time and his ancestors have seen them. So
always to fight disorder is their business,
and victory continues in their hand.

From under the old hills to overhead,
and down there marching to the hills again
their campo extends. There go the messengers,
Comets, with greetings of ethereal officers
from tent to tent. Yes, we look up with pain
at distant comrades and plains we cannot tread.


Tim Kendall writes more about Keith Douglas on his War Poets blog, including an interesting note about Douglas’s influence on Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. You can also read a review of Douglas’s letters on the Carcanet blog.



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