Keith Douglas: Less a war poet, more the last great Romantic

Biographer Richard Burton on the legacy of a neglected and misunderstood English poet

WB Yeats famously declared in September 1913 that “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone” and Yeats, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound swept away all previous modes of poetic expression in the tide of Modernism that they unleashed in the 1920s and 1930s. But Romanticism stayed alive for at least another generation in England, until Keith Douglas saw action in the second World War and began to write his heavily anthologised poems about death and war.

Douglas was killed in the Normandy invasions of 1944 at the age of 24. We tend to think of him, if we think of him at all, as a war poet; perhaps the most important poet of the second World War. But the merest glance at the complete poems show that over 75 per cent were written before Douglas had any direct experience of war.

Ted Hughes wrote in 1964 that “now, twenty years after his death, it is becoming clear that he offers more than just a few poems about war, and that every poem he wrote, whether about war or not, has some special value”. One could argue that Douglas represented the last outpourings of the Romantic spirit. Wordsworth, for instance, wrote that poetry should begin as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” which the poet can then “recollect in tranquillity”, evoking a new but corresponding emotion the poet can then make into art.

If we take a poem like Douglas’s Canoe, for instance, it is difficult to see how the experience is not a Wordsworthian “spot of time”. It was published in The Cherwell magazine of May 18th, 1940 and as the translator, biographer and journalist Michael Meyer says it “perfectly captures the atmosphere of Oxford around the time France fell”:


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.

Like Keats, Shelley, Byron and Burns, Keith Douglas died young. It is pointless to speculate on what Douglas would have become had he not been killed in 1944 but, as Declan Ryan wrote recently in the Times Literary Supplement, when he died he “had arrived at a poetic maturity and accomplishment that almost defied belief”. Take his poem, A Round Number, first published in The Cherwell in May 1940:

'The monotonous evil clock
Is creeper climbing on my heart
and with rank ivy will pull down
my hope of happiness and renown.

My sacred lady who needs no art
gives an idiot place to mock.

I know the fragrant girl is dead,
and perished with my innocence
and died two hundred years ago:
or twice that time if Time is slow.

And so reflect for recompense
she only lived inside my head.

Then she is gone. I still remember
my early promise, looking for
obliging fame to make amends
and here my last existence ends.

For I can't feed hope any more
And Time has reached a round number.

This poem starts with his experience with women but moves quickly to fulfil Wordsworth’s promise at the close of Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood:

To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

If Douglas was a war poet, rather than an outgrowth of the Romantic revolution, the obvious comparison is with the famous poets of the first World War: Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas and Isaac Rosenberg.

Douglas was scathing about the quality of the poetry of the second World War, but what was the difference? Douglas himself was sure that it was because the poets of the second World War had nothing new to say. In an article written in May 1943 but not published until April 1971 he wrote that “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.”

The other reason for the difference is the one innovation of modern warfare that Douglas saw, its relative mobility, which “does not give the same opportunities for writing as the long routines of trench warfare”. This is more plausible than it perhaps may seem. Poets are ingenious and they will write about something else if the obvious subject is taken away. They could not be “war” poets in the tradition of Owen and Sassoon.

The sheer pointlessness of all this fighting had been captured perfectly in Owen’s sonnet Futility, and we are perhaps less shocked by the crowd of flies around the German corpse in Douglas’s Vergissmeinnicht if we have encountered Rosenberg’s queer, sardonic rat in Break of day in the trenches. We are shocked by the laconic delivery not the subject of Douglas’s poem. Its matter-of-fact tone stresses the universality of death in war. As Henri Barbusse famously wrote: “Two armies fighting is one great army that kills itself.”

We should not be surprised by the condition of any corpse, regardless of its nationality.
Richard Burton's Simplify Me: the life of Keith Douglas is out now published by Infinite Ideas