Keith Douglas, Poet: Grasping the Essence of War
For many readers of war poetry it is the poets of the Great War that come to mind. Indeed war poetry is often thought of as applying solely to the trench poets on the Western Front. One of those poets, Robert Graves, maintained that war poetry was unique to that war and the circumstances surrounding British culture. He saw it as a literary accident of history and the reason why it is better known today than the poetry of World War Two.
Most British poets who enlisted early in World War Two probably would have agreed with Graves. Arguably its most gifted poet, Keith Douglas, initially doubted the usefulness of more war poetry. Everything meaningful about war had been said by the 1914-1918 poets. There was nothing really new to be said from a soldier’s viewpoint: “…hell cannot be let loose twice; it was let loose in the Great War and it is the same old hell now.” In a letter to a close friend Douglas reiterated the point: “Almost all that a modern poet on national service is inspired to write would be tautological.” By the time he entered the army in 1940 Douglas had absorbed the poetry of the earlier war (as well as the poetry of Eliot and Auden) and generally praised its power and validity. He was happy to be called a war poet and saw himself a successor to Wilfred Owen, albeit an Owen devoid of the inflated pity and protest, despairing irony and emotional identification with the war’s victims.
From this vantage point, Douglas wrote in both poetry and prose about the fighting in North Africa as a tank commander in the British Eighth Army under General Bernard Montgomery. His poetry from the western desert delved into the meaning of heroism, the fleetingness of youth, love in wartime and man’s mortality. He was curious about death—-some critics would say obsessed by it—-including his own as he did not expect to survive the war. His verse can be read on one level as a preparation for how he would come to terms with his own death. The curiosity surfaces in much of his poetry, and his treatment of the dead and dying—-and the proximity of life and death in battle—is one reason Douglas’s poetry is so original and different from the verse of the Great War. Related to this curiosity about death was his impatience as he feared he would not live long enough to finish what he felt he needed to say. In the army and through his verse, Douglas tried to remain in control of his life and keep the war and death at a distance. But increasingly his world lost its inner protections. Death lurked over the next sand dune. Chaos ruled. His poetry was foremost a means to comprehend.
Of the poets of WWII, Douglas identified the closest with the earlier poets, yet his verse was the most dissimilar. There are echoes of Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas, Rupert Brooke in his poetry but they are not essential. Douglas is closer in attitude and outlook to Isaac Rosenberg, the only WWI poet Douglas mentioned by name. In “Desert Flowers,” Douglas wrote: “Living in a wide landscape are the flowers—/Rosenberg I only repeat what you were saying….” Douglas is referring to Rosenberg’s “Break of Day in the Trenches,” the poem many critics cite as the finest of 1914-1918, and its lines, “Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins/Drop, and are ever dropping:/But mine in mine ear is safe,/Just a little white with the dust.” Somewhat of a contrarian all his life, Douglas had little use for Britain’s rigid class structure, in the army or in civilian life, and identified with Rosenberg’s fate. Neither grew up in an environment of privilege or believed in a beneficent god or in a life of ease through birth and inheritance. Unlike many poets of both wars, Douglas and Rosenberg were not shocked that Britain found itself fighting a world war that was barbaric and which personally inconvenienced them.
Douglas was unique in that he enjoyed the rigors of military life, had the physical bearing and mental temperament of a soldier and saw himself as a man of action. Just days after the breakup of a love affair while still at Oxford he enlisted and told a friend he had joined a calvary regiment and would “bloody well make my mark in this war. For I will not come back.” The war provided Douglas with an immediate purpose in life, not unlike Brooke’s and several other poets’ decision to enlist in 1914-1918. It would provide the experience and challenge Douglas felt he needed to become a mature poet. By the late 1930s he knew war was likely and he would have to fight. Long before enlisting Douglas was preparing himself to be a soldier and to write about the coming conflict—-his need to “picture coming events.” Not that he loved war and killing. It was a hell but also, as he saw it, “a test” of his worthiness as a soldier and a poet.
For the trench poets of the Great War, the Western Front was their preoccupation. The endless static battles and bombardments and horrific loss of life molded the content of their verse. In WWII the British fought in Africa, the Middle East and Asia as well as in Europe, and the new war poets reflected this totality of global war on the ground, at sea and in the air. Douglas’s war in the western desert—from late October 1942, when he disobeyed orders by leaving a desk job in Cairo and joining his battalion just as the crucial battle of El Alamein was underway, until he was reassigned and returned to Britain in December 1943—-was the source of his best poetry. It was at El Alamein that the German advance under General Erwin Rommel’s Africa Korps was stopped just 60 miles from Alexandria. The battle was Douglas’s first encounter with the dead, the dying and those about to die, central themes of his poems for the next 13 months. Turning the tide of WWII in North Africa came at a terrible cost. A cemetery at El Alamein contains the graves of 7,367 British, Commonwealth and Allied soldiers. Its central monument bears the inscription: “Their name liveth for evermore,” words suggested by Rudyard Kipling in 1917 for honoring the Great War dead, and commemorates the fallen “of all faiths and none.” For readers of war poetry, this burial site in Egypt could be seen as affirming Rupert Brooke’s sentiments in his best known sonnet, ”The Soldier.”
Writing about war in the vastness of the western desert, Douglas had no need to concern himself with bombed out cities and mass population dislocations and refugees, Nazi atrocities and concentration camps. The desert landscape in which the battles against Rommel were fought embodied Douglas’s own “Western Front,” albeit a mobile one. Douglas had a constant, familiar landscape with its discomforts, human suffering and endless corpses. Instead of the trench poets’ rain, sleet and mud, Douglas faced the alternating heat of day and cold at night, the searing wind that irritated the tiniest cut or skin irritation, the ubiquitous desert flies and periodic sandstorms.
His dilemma was to write truthfully and dispassionately about war, about life and death, through words that did not repeat what had already been said with consummate skill in the Great War. In the poem “Words,” Douglas wrote, “Words are my instruments but not my servants.” Truthfulness meant verse free of cliches and officially sanctioned propaganda, and a meticulous avoidance of politics. He viewed his verse as “significant speech.” It would result in a unique, highly innovative style that was direct, terse, precise and unemotional. He said that “to be sentimental or emotional now is dangerous to oneself and to others. To trust anyone or to admit any hope of a better world is criminally foolish, as foolish as it is to stop working for it.” For the most part his poems are about the aftermath of battles and its consequences rather than of the fighting itself. (An exception is “The Offensive” with its reminder of Owen’s “Spring Offensive,” though Douglas’s poem focuses on the preparations for battle while Owen’s involves the battle itself and its aftermath as well.)
In his quest for the essence of a scene or event Douglas’s descriptions often are repellent, grotesque, even disgusting. In “How to Kill” he wrote: “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…./How easy it is to make a ghost.” In “Dead Men” soldiers lay in shallow graves where “…the wild dog/discovered and exhumed a face or a leg/for food…”.
The desert landscape fascinated him in all its natural beauty and harshness—-which now included the steel detritus of mechanized warfare. “Landscape with Figures II” records the scrub and sand where “…dead men wriggle/in their dowdy clothes. They are mimes/who express silence and futile aims/enacting this prone and motionless struggle/at a queer angle to the scenery,/crawling on the boards of the stage like walls,/deaf to the one who opens his mouth and calls/silently. The decor is a terrible tracery/of iron. The eye and mouth of each figure/bear the cosmetic blood and hectic/colours death has the only list of….”
In one of his first poems after experiencing combat, “Cairo Jag,” the city is described in all its fascinating humanity: “…there are streets dedicated to sleep/stenches and sour smells, the sour cries/do not disturb their application to slumber/all day, scattered on the pavement like rags/afflicted with fatalism and hashish….” And the battlefield is only a day’s travel where “…the vegetation is of iron/dead tanks, gun barrels split like celery/the metal brambles have no flowers or berries/and there are all sorts of manure, you can imagine/the dead themselves, their boots, clothes and possessions/clinging to the ground, a man with no head/has a packet of chocolate and a souvenir of Tripoli.” Squalor, death and disorder exist equally in Cairo and on the battlefield.
Douglas used his poetry to record with precision the consequences of war. This included honoring the dead, without sentimentality. In perhaps his most anthologized poem, “Vergissmeinnicht,” Douglas expresses a helpless compassion—the “mortal hurt” of both lover and soldier. This and several other poems reflect the sense of wasted life caused by war: “…Look. Here in the gunpoint spoil/the dishonored picture of his [a German soldier’s] girl/who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht [Forget me not]/in a copybook gothic script./We see him almost with content,/abased, and seeming to have paid/and mocked at by his own equipment/that’s hard and good when he’s decayed./But she would weep to see today/how on his skin the swat flies move;/the dust upon the paper eye/and the burst stomach like a cave./For here the lover and killer are mingled/who had one body and one heart./And death who had the soldier singled/has done the lover mortal hurt.” (Tunisia 1943)
Douglas had a conflicted opinion of his superior officers and wrote about them with a frankness Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg would not have contemplated. He despised and pitied them but also could applaud and revere them for their insouciance and lack of overt militarism, so different from their German counterparts: “The noble horse with courage in his eye,/clean in the bone, looks up at a shellburst:/away fly the images of the shires/but he puts the pipe back in his mouth./Peter was unfortunately killed by an 88:/it took his leg away, he died in the ambulance./I saw him crawling on the sand; he said/It’s most unfair, they’ve shot my foot off./How can I live among this gentle/obsolescent breed of heroes and not weep?/Unicorns almost,/for they are fading into two legends/in which their stupidity and chivalry/are celebrated. Each, fool and hero, will be an immortal./These plains were their cricket pitch/and in the mountains the tremendous drop fences/brought down some of the runners. Here then/under the stones and earth they dispose themselves,/I think with their famous unconcern./It is not gunfire I hear, but a hunting horn.” (“Aristocrats” Tunisia, 1943)
His thoughts after the African campaign was over were about endings rather than beginnings. His last completed poem, “On a Return from Egypt,” written in the weeks before the Normandy landings, ends: “And all my endeavors are unlucky explorers/come back, abandoning the expedition;/the specimens, the lilies of ambition/still spring in their climate, still unpicked:/but time, time is all I lacked/to find them, as the great collectors before me./The next month, then, is a window/and with a crash I’ll split the glass./Behind it stands one I must kiss,/person of love or death/a person or a wraith,/I fear what I shall find.”
Douglas was born in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, in 1920 and began writing poetry at an early age. As a student at Merton College, Oxford, (1938-1940) he studied English literature. His tutor at Merton was Edmund Blunden, a highly regarded poet himself of WWI and author of Undertones of War, his war memoir. Douglas edited and contributed to Cherwell and co-edited Augury, both literary magazines. Six of his poems were included in Eight Oxford Poets (1941), an anthology arranged by Sidney Keyes and Michael Meyer. Keyes, like Douglas considered a poet of great promise, also fought in North Africa and died in Tunisia in 1943.
During his posting in Africa Douglas saw more combat than any other British poet. In the pursuit of Rommel, his battalion covered almost a thousand miles across the Egyptian, Libyan and Tunisian desert. He was badly wounded on Jan. 15, 1943. During his convalescence he began writing his thinly fictionalized memoir about the desert campaign, Alamein to Zem Zem. Much of his war poetry is based on experiences and observations recorded there. Some 37 poems were completed during his time in North Africa (another 10 were written while still in England after he enlisted) and just two were completed after his return home to prepare for the 1944 Normandy landings. He was killed near Caen June 9, the third day of the invasion.
The poet Ted Hughes, who edited and wrote the introduction to Selected Poems Keith Douglas (1964), and other poets have maintained that Douglas was much more than a war poet, that he had taken English poetry in dramatically new and original directions. Had he lived he might well have been the dominant literary figure of his generation.