Week 248: Vergissmeinnicht, by Keith Douglas

I think that of all the poems of the Second World War this one comes closest to the spirit of Wilfred Owen in expressing ‘war, and the pity of war’. Of course, in many ways Douglas is nothing like Owen. There is none of the exalted, quasi-religious diction of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, none of the dreamlike imagery of ‘Strange Meeting’. Just a warrior’s grim acceptance of the necessity of combat and the facts of combat, yet at the end, as in ‘Strange Meeting’, that same redeeming recognition of the enemy’s humanity, captured in the perfectly balanced, metaphysical neatness of the last stanza.

Vergissmeinnicht

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 by 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.

Keith Douglas

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