The words most frequently used to describe the war poetry of Keith Castellain Douglas are sincere, honest, emotionally reticent, descriptively precise, detached but compassionate, unpretentious. There is no self pity in his verse and very little that is melodramatic. From this literary vantage point Douglas wrote in both poetry and prose about the war in North Africa in 1942-43 as a tank commander in the British Eighth Army. His poetry from the western desert delved into the meaning of heroism, the fleetingness of youth and man’s mortality in wartime. He was curious about, some critics would say obsessed by, death, including his own. He did not believe he would survive the war, and in some of his poetry Douglas implied that time was not on his side, that he wouldn’t have time to complete what he felt he needed to say.
Douglas was born at Tunbridge Wells, Surrey, 24 Jan., 1920. He displayed a literary precociousness from an early age, writing impressive verse in grammar school. By his mid-teens he had arranged his first collection of poems. Douglas also displayed an artistic temperament. He enjoyed drawing and made sketches while on a trip to Europe in 1935. Many of his pen and ink drawings of the desert war would find their way into his war memoir, Alamein to Zem Zem, published posthumously in 1946. His first collection of poetry was published 1938.
At Merton College, Oxford (1938-40), he read English, with First World War poet and memoirist Edmund Blunden as tutor. Douglas was editor of The Cherwell and co-editor of Augury, both literary magazines. Notable during this period was the inclusion of six of his poems in Eight Oxford Poets, an anthology arranged by fellow students Michael Meyer and Sidney Keyes and published in 1941.
During the 27 months (August 1941 – November 1943) billeted in Cairo or pursuing the forces of Erwin Rommel, Douglas completed some 37 poems. These form the bulk of the verse on which Douglas’s reputation rests as one of the foremost poets of the Second World War. Another 10 were written in England between the time he enlisted in the Second Derbyshire Yeomanry in Feb. ’41 and left for North Africa in June. One, “Simplify me when I’m dead,” and “On a Return from Egypt,” one of only two he completed after his return to England, form the bookends of his war poetry output. For much of the early months of 1944 Douglas was busy with training for the Normandy invasion. Douglas survived the June 6 landings and was in one of the first Allied units to enter Bayeux, but on June 9 during a reconnaissance mission he was killed by a mortar shell near Caen.
It is clear from his poems and letters that Douglas was well acquainted with the Great War poets (one of his friends at Oxford and later in the African campaign was Hamo Sassoon, a nephew of Siegfried’s). Initially, after entering the army Douglas maintained that the 1914-18 poets had said all that needed to be said about war; there was nothing really new from the fighting man’s point of view: “…hell cannot be let loose twice; it was let loose in the Great War and it is the same old hell now.” In “Desert Flowers,” Douglas paid tribute to Isaac Rosenberg, who wrote one of the most celebrated poems of the earlier war, “Break of Day in the Trenches,” in which the poppy becomes a powerful element of the story and would become the symbol of the battlefields of Flanders. “Living in a wide landscape are the flowers—/Rosenberg I only repeat what you were saying—/the shell and the hawk every hour/are slaying men and jerboas, slaying/the mind: but the body can fill/the hungry flowers and the dogs who cry words/at nights, the most hostile things of all….”
There are hints of several Great War poets in some of Douglas’s poetry, but they are unessential. Douglas was happy to consider himself a war poet in the Owen tradition but strenuously avoided the Owenesque pity and suffering. Rather, Douglas’s verse is usually coldly antiseptic and impersonal. He avoided verse that highlighted emotionally charged individual suffering in wartime. He did not concern himself with personal discomfort or loneliness, either during his army training or on the battlefield. He took pains not to allow any form of war propaganda or pro-government sentiments blemish his verse. And he shied away from making his own political statements. He accepted without reservation the necessity of prosecuting the war.
For most of the British Great War poets, the Western Front was their preoccupation. The never ending static battles and bombardments largely determined the content of their poetry and distinguished their work from that of the Second World War poets in which Britain fought in much of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East and south Asia. Civilians died in even greater numbers than combatants. Fighting in the African desert, Douglas did no have to contend with refugees, dislocations of urban life at home, bombed out cities, concentration camps and atrocities. In a sense, his war embodied his own “western front,” albeit a mobile one. Like the Great War poets, he fought in a familiar environment with its own dramatic desert landscape and horrors, death and the detritus of tank warfare constantly around him. In “Landscape with Figures 2,” Douglas talks about 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….The decor is terrible tracery/of iron.” In “Cairo Jag,” the city is described in all its fascinating humanity: “…there are streets dedicated to sleep/stenches and the 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,…”
Such unsentimental descriptions of the dead occur in much of Douglas’s verse. In Vergissmeinicht (Forget Me Not), he surveys a German soldier’s death unemotionally but with detached pity. In “How to Kill,” one of his most anthologized poems, Douglas discusses death based on his combat experience—how easy it is to kill and be killed: “Being dammed, 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.”
Douglas had a conflicted opinion of his army superiors (two army colonels in his battalion had been killed in action). He despised and pitied them and thought of them as diffident and ineffectual, but they could be applauded because they differed so markedly from their German counterparts—their insouciance and lack of overt militarism left them uncontaminated by the war. In “Aristocrats”—the poem also is titled “Sportsmen” in a slightly altered version—Douglas expresses these opposing feelings.
Here is the entire poem:
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?
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.
Michael D. Wormser, April 2015
Douglas Poetry Collections: Alamein to Zem Zem (1946), with 14 selected desert war poems
The Collected Poems of Keith Douglas (1951)
Selected Poems (1964), edited and with an introduction by Ted Hughes
Collected Poems (1966), edited by John Waller, G.S. Fraser and J.C. Hall, with an introduction by Edmund Blunden
The Complete Poems of Keith Douglas (1978), edited and with an introduction by Desmond Graham
Jonathan Bolton, Personal Landscapes (1997)
R.N. Currey, Poets of the 1939-1945 War (1960)
Paul Fussell, Wartime – Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (1989)
Brian Gardner, The Terrible Rain – The War Poets 1939-45 (1966)
Desmond Graham, Keith Douglas 1920-1944 – A Biography (1974)
Edna Longley, Poetry in the Wars (1986)
Vernon Scannell, Not Without Glory: Poets of the Second World War (1976)
Victor Selwyn, et al., eds., Return to Oasis – War Poems and Recollections from the Middle East,1940-46 (1980)