This appears to have been the last poem that Keith Douglas wrote, before his death at the age of 24 during the Normandy campaign on June 1944, a loss to English poetry that was great if little recognised at the time. I do not think it is quite as perfectly realised as some others of his poems, like ‘Vergissmeinnicht’, ‘Canoe’ or ‘Aristocrats’ that I have already featured, but I do find the third stanza in particular very moving. One might speak of pathos, but really there is nothing pathetic about Douglas: this is not an invitation to sympathy but more like a great howl of frustration from a poet who knows he has so much more to give but also has a growing sense that he has little time left in which to give it. ‘Time, time is all I lacked…’. Indeed.
On A Return From Egypt
To stand here in the wings of Europe
disheartened, I have come away
from the sick land where in the sun lay
the gentle sloe-eyed murderers
of themselves, exquisites under a curse;
here to exercise my depleted fury.
For the heart is a coal, growing colder
when jewelled caerulean seas change
into grey rocks, grey water-fringe,
sea and sky altering like a cloth
till colour and sheen are gone both:
cold is an opiate of the soldier.
And all my endeavours 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.
In its naked pain this poem of lost or unrequited love may seem very much a young man’s outpouring, but after all Keith Douglas was only 24 when he died, something that one tends to forget, given the power and originality of his best poems.
I Listen To The Desert Wind
I listen to the desert wind
that will not blow her from my mind;
the stars will not put down a hand,
the moon’s ignorant of my wound
moving negligently across
by clouds and cruel tracts of space
as in my brain by nights and days
moves the reflection of her face.
skims like a bird my sleepless eye
the sands who at this hour deny
the violent heat they have by day
as she denies her former way:
all the elements agree
with her, to have no sympathy
for my tactless misery
as wonderful and hard as she.
O turn in the dark bed again
and give to him what once was mine
and I’ll turn as you turn
and kiss my swarthy mistress pain
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.
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.
This was the first Keith Douglas poem I came across, and I was struck by its air of almost throwaway accomplishment masking a deep emotional lyricism.
Well, I am thinking this may be my last
summer, but cannot lose even a part
of pleasure in the old-fashioned art
of idleness. I cannot stand aghast
at whatever doom hovers in the background
while grass and buildings and the somnolent river
who know they are allowed to last for ever
exchange between them the whole subdued sound
of this hot time. What sudden fearful fate
can deter my shade wandering next year
from a return? Whistle, and I will hear
and come another evening when this boat
travels with you alone towards Iffley:
as you lie looking up for thunder again,
this cool touch does not betoken rain;
it is my spirit that kisses your mouth lightly.
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 falling into two legends
in which their stupidity and chivalry
are celebrated. Each, fool and hero, will be an immortal.
The 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.
In this poem Keith Douglas, who was killed in action in the Second World War, manages to combine the perception of the modern intellectual that the martial virtues are outmoded and even faintly ridiculous with an acknowledgment that they remain nonetheless heroic: the result is a beautifully balanced elegy for the men he fought beside.