Keith Douglas: a war poet

As we approach the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein, we should turn to the poetry of a young soldier who fought there, Keith Douglas, for in poetry of startling verbal and rhythmic virtuosity, he moved beyond the rhetoric and the politics, beyond the outrage and weeping of collective grief to capture instead the shock and bewilderment of young men who fought and died alone.

He could have sat it out. As a talented artist, he had been seconded to Staff Headquarters for humdrum duties designing camouflage, but as the day of the battle approached, Douglas felt a pull to be with his regiment and his men. The opening attack was scheduled for the night of the full moon, and that evening an unnerving silence passed over the battlefield.

Tonight’s a moonlit cup           
and holds the liquid time
that will run out in flame,
in poison we shall sup.

The moon’s at home in a passion
of foreboding. Her lord
the martial sun, abroad
this month will see Time fashion

the design we begin:
and Time will cage again
the devils we let run
whether we lose or win.

A few days later, Douglas stole away in a lorry and presented himself to his colonel who was already running short of officers and was glad to put him in command of a tank troop. In his pocket, Douglas carried some of the visionary poems he had recently completed in Palestine.

Walking along beside the beach 
where the Mediterranean turns in sleep
under the cliffs’ demiarch

through a curtain of thought I see
a dead bird and a live bird
the dead eyeless, but with a bright eye

the live bird discovered me
and stepped from a black rock into the air –
I turn from the dead bird to watch him fly,

electric, brilliant blue,
beneath he is orange, like flame,
colours I can’t believe are so,

as legendary flowers bloom
incendiary in tint, so swift he
searches about the sky for room,

towering like the cliffs of this coast
with his stiletto wing
and orange on his breast:

he has consumed and drained
the colours of the sea
and the yellow of this tidal ground

till he escapes the eye, or is a ghost
and in a moment has come down
crept into the dead bird, ceased to exist.

Douglas had grown up in the aftermath of the First World War and no-one of that generation could have remained untouched by the passion and pity of Wilfred Owen’s poetry, but:

– hell cannot be let loose twice: it was let loose in the Great War and it is the same old hell now. The hardships, pain and boredom; the behaviour of the living and the appearance of the dead, were so accurately described by the poets of the Great War that every day on the battlefields of the western desert – and no doubt on the Russian battlefields as well – their poems are illustrated. Almost all that a modern poet on active service is inspired to write would be tautological.

To escape tautology, Douglas developed a wry detachment from the carnage he witnessed, though, at times, an exasperated compassion breaks through:

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?

Or turned a clinical eye to the process:

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. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the waves of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.

Or captured the visionary moment:

The weightless mosquito touches        
her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches.

After North Africa, Douglas returned with his regiment to England for training in the seaborne assault that would open the second front in Europe. He was convinced that he would not return and it was with an agitated energy that he arranged for his poems to be published and sought out the last woman to whom he had felt any intimacy, stealing time out of his barracks to spend a last few moments with her.

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.

Three days after the D-day landings, on returning from a patrol to scout out enemy positions, a mortar bomb exploded in the tree above him and he was dead.

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