Keith Douglas: The Soldier Poet

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Not long before his cruelly early death, Douglas matched the grim reality of war with a lyric passion. Seventy years ago, the poet Keith Douglas was killed during the Allied invasion of Normandy on 9 June, three days after D-Day. He was 24.

Douglas had shown a talent for poetry since childhood – as well as a passion for all things military. At Oxford, where he was taught for a time by Edmund Blunden, he already knew his task as a poet: it was to fuse the “cynic and lyric” aspects of his nature to form “a balanced style”. If he admired the first world war poets, he was determined not to follow their path with protests and pity. Such writing, as he said, would have been “tautological”.

Keith Douglas began to publish his verse in periodicals in the 1930s, while he was still studying at Oxford; however, the only volume to be published in his lifetime was ‘Selected Poems’ (1943). While serving in the north African campaign Douglas was killed by a mine in Normandy. His reputation rests mainly on his war poetry, particularly that depicting the desert warfare he experienced in North Africa. The unquiet intensity of this piece is reminiscent of that found in some Elizabethan ‘metaphysical’ poetry. The German title, ‘Vergissmeinnicht’, means ‘Forget me not’

Vergissmeinnicht (Forget-me-not)

Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.

The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.

Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.
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 swart 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.

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