The forgotten battlefield poet whose verse ‘spat out shrapnel’

Keith Douglas: Tank commander in the Second World War desert campaign in North Africa

Three days after the D-day landings in June 1944, Capt Keith Douglas’s armoured unit was stranded on high ground overlooking Tilly-sur-Suelles in Normandy. Leaving his tank to carry out a reconnaisance, he was killed by German mortar fire. He was 24.

Douglas is known mainly, but not widely, as a war poet, although most of his poetry was written before going to war. His descriptions of wartime Cairo and desert fighting, and his contemplations of death, reveal what was a fast-maturing energy accompanied by an unadorned diction.

He joined the military when the Second World War began, cutting short his education at Oxford where he was editor of the student newspaper Cherwell, although he wasn’t called for training until the summer of 1940.

The following year he was posted to the Middle East as a tank commander in the Allies’ campaign against Rommel. Douglas wrote some of his most acclaimed poetry at this time and his vivid memoir, Alamein to Zem Zem, illustrated with his own drawings, was published after his death.

Now, on the centenary of Douglas’s birth, we have a new biography, Simplify Me: the life of Keith Douglas (Infinite Ideas, UK £30, July 2020) by Richard Burton, the managing director of Infinite Ideas, Oxford, and previously a biographer of the English modernist poet Basil Bunting (1900–85), to whose poetry he was introduced while completing a PhD on the early poetry of W B Yeats.

For many years, Burton had lamented the neglect of Bunting’s works and sought to revive interest in them, as he now does with those of Keith Douglas. To that end, Simplify Me is a laudable and worthy endeavour aiming to elevate Douglas’s standing among twentieth-century poets. It’s most definitely a biography of record, painstakingly researched down to minutiae of Douglas’s day to day living and the wartime urgency that beset his love life involving several women.

Burton asserts that Douglas has been both overlooked and misunderstood and remains shamefully under-appreciated as a poet, his lyric achievements also still going unrecognised.

Latest scholarship

Making use of newly-emerged facts of Douglas’s life and previously unpublished and uncollected war poems and essays, Burton also refers to the latest Douglas scholarship, including the recently discovered archives of Poetry London magazine, launched in 1939, contributors to which included Dylan Thomas, George Barker, Herbert Read, Stephen Spender and Lawrence Durrell. Burton also finds that pacifist Douglas suffered PTSD prior to conflict in wartime Oxford.

An accomplished writer and artist for his age, Douglas was in his mid-teens when his poetry began to appear in periodicals in the 1930s, but the only volume published in his lifetime was Selected Poems in 1943. His Collected Poems appeared in 1951, and a selection with an introduction by Ted Hughes in 1964; a biography by Desmond Graham was published in 1974, followed by the complete poems in 1979.

Born at Tunbridge Wells in Kent, Douglas as a young person was precocious and soon became insufferably arrogant and self-centred as he progressed through his teens and into his twenties, from school at Christ’s Hospital to university at Merton College, Oxford, where he studied English and his tutor was Edmund Blunden, the poet of the First World War. Douglas, however, did little to distinguish himself at Oxford.

Cynical, sarcastic and impetuous, he did not endear himself to people, nor will he to readers of this new biography, I’m afraid — not that this should, or does, affect literary judgement of his writing in any way, of course. He was always contemptuous of authority, even in the army, although after his death, his army colleagues and others rallied round in praise of him, with ‘genuine affection’ expressed in letters of condolence to his mother, says Burton.

From an early age, Douglas suffered from bouts of depression, his ‘bête noire’ — ‘the name of a poem I can’t write’, he later noted — and Burton describes him as a paranoid depressive. ‘I alternate between extreme conceit and an extreme inferiority complex,’ Douglas wrote in 1940.

His attitude to people and to life doubtless was shaped by being sent to boarding school from the age of six, and by the fact that at eight years old his father went out of his life and failed to communicate with him for ten years (Douglas senior left Keith’s mother and ran off with another woman, remarrying in 1930). Douglas was badly affected by the absence of his father; when finally his father wrote to him in 1938, Douglas refused to meet him.

Formative years

In a 1940 letter, Douglas said of his childhood: ‘I lived alone during the most fluid and formative years of my life and, during that time, I lived on my imagination which was so powerful as to persuade me that the things I imagined would come true.’

Ominously, this included premonitions of his death. Published in the Christ’s Hospital magazine The Blue in 1938, against the background of growing tension in Europe, the poem ‘Dejection’ revealed Douglas’s gloom about his chances of surviving the coming war: ‘death is the season’. It was not a ‘poetic pose’, says Burton, for Douglas genuinely believed he would be killed.

Perhaps Douglas’s best known poem, ‘Simplify me’, from which the title of Burton’s biography is taken, is more than a young man’s hope for a kind of immortality through recognition by later generations. It presumes, says Burton, that the writer will not return from the war: ‘In a sense it is Douglas’s own elegy on his death’. In it, as in other of his poems, one hears echoes of seventeenth-century Metaphysical poetry, say, that of John Donne.

Simplify me when I’m dead

Remember me when I am dead
and simplify me when I’m dead.

As the processes of earth
strip off the colour of the skin:
take the brown hair and blue eye

and leave me simpler than at birth,
when hairless I came howling in
as the moon entered the cold sky.

Of my skeleton perhaps,
so stripped, a learned man will say
‘He was of such a type and intelligence,’ no more.

Thus when in a year collapse
particular memories, you may
deduce, from the long pain I bore

the opinions I held, who was my foe
and what I left, even my appearance
but incidents will be no guide.

Time’s wrong-way telescope will show
a minute man ten years hence
and by distance simplified.

Through that lens see if I seem
substance or nothing: of the world
deserving mention or charitable oblivion,

not by momentary spleen
or love into decision hurled,
leisurely arrive at an opinion.

Remember me when I am dead
and simplify me when I’m dead.

With a view to publication, Blunden sent some of Douglas’s poems to T S Eliot and, early in 1941, Douglas received a letter from Eliot saying the poems were ‘extremely promising’: Douglas had completed a phase of ‘very accomplished juvenilia’ and started another ‘which you have not yet mastered’. Eliot wanted to see the second phase developed ‘to the point of formal mastery’.

Such an endorsement by the ‘high priest of modernism’ would have been invaluable for a young poet, but Eliot’s response could equally be interpreted as a delaying tactic. Typically, although apparently excited by Eliot’s remarks, Douglas’s response to a friend was ‘How much can I sell his autograph for?’

Burton does not shy away from Douglas’s anti-semitism but seeks to mollify the reader. In a letter to his mother, Douglas wrote: ‘The Jews en masse are horrible, and I can sympathise with anyone who feels an urge to exterminate them … They are filthy sullen slovenly swine…’

This is shocking, but Burton claims that ‘anti-semitism was intellectually, morally, socially and philosophically defensible, even attactive, at that time’, which was 1942. In October of that year, Douglas wrote to a girlfriend: ‘I don’t like, almost I hate & fear many Jews — yet I feel more & more that in the end it will be a Jewess I’ll marry. Probably from constantly suffering real or fancied injustice, I have acquired something of a Jewish mentality myself.’

Posted initially to Cairo and Palestine, Douglas was marooned as a camouflage officer at headquarters twenty miles away as the second battle of El Alamein started in October 1942, followed by numerous casualties from enemy anti-tank guns. Impatient with his situation, Douglas, against orders, drove to regimental HQ and lied to the colonel there that he was instructed to go to the front. This could have landed him in hot water but he got away with it by making an apology.

Stepped on a mine

Early in 1943, Douglas was wounded at Wadi Zem Zem and hospitalised for six weeks in Palestine. After some tanks had been knocked out, he and another officer had gone for help for wounded crew when he stepped on a landmine, injuring his legs and a foot, while the other man was more seriously hurt. Douglas returned to England as a captain in December 1943 and, after training and periods of leave, joined the D-day invasion force six months later.

I don’t recall Burton discussing the term (it’s not in the index of Simplify Me), but Douglas described his poetic style as ‘extrospective’, in that he based his work primarily on impressions from outside and much lesser so on inner emotion. The dictionary definition of extrospection is ‘consideration and observation of things external to the self; examination and study of externals’.

In a letter to J C Hall (June 10, 1943, Keith Douglas: The Letters, ed. Desmond Graham, Carcanet Press, 2000), Douglas wrote that ‘reportage and extrospective poetry’ was the kind ‘that has to be written just now, even if it is not attractive’. He felt that lyrical and musical verse was inappropriate for wartime.

The Irish poet Rory Brennan (b1945) once commented that ‘poetry and war go together like guns and ammunition’, and Douglas pulls no punches in his recording of the atrocities and horror of war. Indeed, his poems ‘spat out shrapnel’, wrote desert army comrade and fellow war poet G S Fraser (1915–80), co-editor of the 1951 edition of Douglas’s Collected Poems.

In Douglas’s poem ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ (‘Forget me not’), he describes in graphic detail finding a dead German soldier carrying a photograph of his girlfriend. Douglas imagines the woman weeping at her lover’s fate though he had become a killer:

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.

Douglas wanted to convey what something looked like rather than what it felt like, although one feels that his extrospection applied much less to his romantic poems. From ‘The knife’:

Yes, to touch two fingers made us worlds
stars, waters, promontories, chaos
swooning in elements without form or time
come down through long seas among sea marvels
embracing like survivors in our islands.

In 1964, Ted Hughes — another poet whose biography does not particularly endear him to readers — in reference to the poem ‘Encounter with a God’, dated 1936, spoke of the 16-year-old Douglas’s ‘flawless technique’, able to do credit to any living poet, and of his ‘impatient, razor energy’. Burton makes the point that Hughes, in these phrases, could have been talking about the whole of Douglas’s work.

Geoffrey Hill, in reviewing Hughes’s 1964 selection of Douglas’s poetry, said that Douglas ‘must count as one of the finest British poets of the last forty years’ but it was too late and, despite Desmond Graham’s biography in the mid-1970s, Douglas was largely forgotten.

Perhaps one reason why Douglas is so little known to the general reading public — despite plenty of references to him today on the internet — is that, like other poets of the Second World War, he was overshadowed by the poets of the First World War: the well known figures, for example, of Edmund Blunden, Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, Robert Graves and Ivor Gurney.

These are all household names — well, literary households anyway. Indeed Douglas, in his poem ‘Desert Flowers’, namechecks Rosenberg, saying modestly that he was only repeating what Rosenberg had already written. Few today would be able to name any Second World War poets without first looking them up.

Other reasons for the neglect of Douglas could be that, in the 1950s, his poetry was out of tune with that of the sensuous and nostalgic ‘Movement’ group and so was sidelined and, by the 1960s, pop culture was in full swing and there was a new war, in Vietnam, to write about.

Had Douglas not been killed at a tragically young age, he might well have gone on to greater things in the world of literature, but that can be only speculated upon. The regimental chaplain buried Douglas by a hedge near to the place he was killed and, after the war, his remains were reinterred in the Tilly-sur-Seulles war cemetery, south of Bayeux.

Writer, poet, tutor and mentor in literature and creative writing (MA and BA Hons degrees in English literature), editor, journalist and musician.

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