Tough Guy

Ian Hamilton

  • Keith Douglas: The Letters edited by Desmond Graham
    Carcanet, 369 pp, £14.95, September 2000, ISBN 1 85754 477 3

Keith Douglas was 24 when he was killed in action, in 1944, and although quite a few of his poems had by then appeared in anthologies and magazines, he was not generally thought of as a significant ‘war poet’. But then, who was? ‘Where are the war poets?’ was a familiar journalistic cry from 1939 to 1945, and few answers were forthcoming. There were two main poetic fashions on offer at the time: clapped-out Audenesque or a torrid Neo-Romanticism that had Dylan Thomas as its vaguely guiding force. Keith Douglas had no particular allegiance to either camp, although he was closer to Auden than to Thomas and had had a poem published in New Verse when he was still at school. But he was also represented in Eight Oxford Poets (1941), a supposedly key selection of the time, in which one of the editors, Sidney Keyes, apologised for the ‘over-floridity’ of his contributors, explaining that ‘we have on the whole little sympathy with the Audenian school of poets.’ Keyes himself was killed, aged 20, after only two weeks of active service, leaving behind him several florid verses in which he urged the young men of England to ‘go on, go out/Into the badlands of battle’ and thus ‘plant a better orchard’, but Douglas seems to have known little of his work and was pretty scathing about Eight Oxford Poets when he eventually saw a copy (‘Some of the decade’s worst printed verse,’ was his summation).

On the whole, Douglas kept his distance from literary company, allowing friends like Edmund Blunden and J.C. Hall to push his work, and when successes came his way, he tended to respond to them with a theatrical offhandedness. Talking further of Eight Oxford Poets, he offered a grim picture of the current poetry scene:

Their attitude to the war is that of the homosexual guardsman returning from Dunkirk – ‘Oh my dear! The noise! and the people!’ They turn a delicate shoulder to it all. But no paper shortage slows the production of hundreds of slim volumes and earnestly compiled anthologies of wartime poetry, Poems from the Forces etc. Above all, there are a hundred shy little magazines, whose contributors are their most ardent supporters. Benevolent publishers, it seems, are constantly patting blushing young poets on the head . . . and encouraging them to lisp in numbers.

Edmund Blunden at one point sent a batch of Douglas’s work to T.S. Eliot at Faber and Eliot’s response was encouraging. Douglas, though, made sure that he was not caught blushing. His reaction was to wonder how much he could get for Eliot’s autograph.

Some of this was tough-guy affectation but a substantial part of it was genuinely felt. Douglas wanted to write poems but he had no wish to be regarded as a cissy-poet. He had a soldierly distaste for emotional display and always had one eye on his ‘cynical’ or commonsensical self-presentation. And this sometimes made things difficult for his admirers. Douglas soaked up their praise as if it meant not very much, got ratty when his work was criticised on technical grounds or found to be insufficiently ‘poetic’, and altogether made a point of seeming to be quite indifferent to the ins and outs of poetry politics.

Even after his death, there was something leisurely about the progress of his reputation. His Collected Poems did not appear until 1951 and was one of the final books published by Tambimuttu’s Editions Poetry London, by then a somewhat discredited enterprise. The book bore the look of a memorial tribute and was received accordingly: attention was focused on the dead soldier-poet rather than on the living soldier-poems. It was not until the 1970s that Douglas’s standing could be said to have approached its present eminence. The ministrations of Ted Hughes, a tough guy too, had much to do with Douglas’s ascent (Hughes found in him ‘the burning away of all human pretensions in the ray cast by death’), and so did the labours of his assiduous biographer, Desmond Graham, who now brings us this thorough but often rather dull selection of Douglas’s letters. In 1974, the anniversary of Douglas’s death was marked far more lavishly than anyone could have easily predicted thirty years before: there was Graham’s full-scale biography – ten pages for each year of Douglas’s brief life – and a big exhibition of the poet’s paintings and manuscripts at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Not long afterwards, Faber reissued the Poems, along with a new printing of Douglas’s super-clinical prose memoir of the Desert War, Alamein to Zem Zem. All this was greeted with approval on all sides, with some critics finding parallels between Douglas’s understatedness and that of certain East European Cold War poets. There was almost a feeling of relief that literature had finally come up with a reply to that ‘Where are the war poets?’ jibe

Why, then, did it take so long? Part of the trouble, presumably, was that Douglas failed to fit with postwar summings up of ‘Forties Verse’. The tendency in the 1950s was to write off what had immediately gone before – and in particular the ‘poetry of war’. War-weariness was in the air, and there was a general feeling that Poetry had failed to measure up to the Big Subject. ‘All a poet can do today is warn,’ Wilfred Owen had said, and in his own work he had indeed issued some formidable warnings. A comparable tone of admonition had been struck throughout the 1930s by Auden and his acolytes. By 1939, it could not justly be complained that poetry had refused to follow Owen’s lead. But what had been achieved by all this admonition? Everybody knew what another war was likely to be like but here they were: at it again. What role, then, for the poet? Even when he had a role, or thought he had, nobody listened.

In 1939, with war declared and all verse-warnings utterly unheeded, it was a rare versifier who did not feel himself to be somewhat redundant. And yet poetry continued to be written. For poets of the Audenesque persuasion, there was a quasi-documentary function: describing how it felt to be in the Army, what olive groves looked like, how peculiar life seemed to be in Africa and Burma. For Thomasites, on the other hand, there was the dark unconscious, the ‘surreal’ rendering of soon-to-be-blitzed inner territories, along with a defiant assertion of individual personality in the face of mass manipulation. The typical war poet came across as gawky misfit or as loopy narcissist.

Keith Douglas was determined not to qualify for either of these categories. He saw himself as well prepared for army life – his father had won an MC at Gallipoli and Douglas had been brought up on stories of military valour. At the age of six, he was to be found dressed up in combat gear and standing guard at his front door: visitors to the Douglas household had to get past little Keith. Later on, at Christ’s Hospital, he was a king-pin of the school cadet corps. Although rebellious when faced with schoolmasterly authority, he changed his tune as soon as he put on a uniform. He seemed to enjoy polishing his footwear and keeping his equipment in sparkling nick. From him, then, there would he no wartime tales of boot-camp inconvenience. Nor would there be any sensitive recoiling from the vulgarities of his co-Tommies. Douglas always took it for granted that he would be given a commission. He knew, too, that his military knowhow would gain him the immediate respect of his comrades, and that he would probably not find those comrades vulgar.

So much for the awkward-recruit approach to army life. Although Douglas in his later work would style himself as a reporter, he had little patience for the deary-me astonishment that marked and undermined the work of so many soldier documentarists. And he had even less patience for those (largely civilian) poets who argued – as, say, Tambimuttu did – for high-toned explorations of the self, ‘the roaring of our blood’, ‘the generous flame of our most powerful intuitions’, and so on. When J.C. Hall once dared to suggest that Douglas’s work might aim for more sonority or ‘lyricism’, he was ferociously rebuffed:

I am surprised you should still expect me to produce musical verse. A lyric form and a lyric approach will do even less good than a journalese approach to the subjects we have to discuss now. I don’t know if you have come across the word Bullshit – it is an army word and signifies humbug and unnecessary detail. It symbolises what I think must be got rid of – the mass of irrelevancies, of ‘attitudes’, ‘approaches’, propaganda, ivory towers etc . . . To be sentimental or emotional now is dangerous to oneself and to others.

And this, one has to say, is pretty impressive, if a shade unnerving, from a chap of 23. But then Douglas was writing from the front and Hall was issuing his critique from Fitzrovia, or somewhere near it. This war poet felt much closer to his fellow warriors than to his fellow poets:

My object (and I don’t give a damn about my duty as a poet) is to write true things, significant things in words each of which works for its place in the line. My rhythms, which you find enervated, are carefully chosen to enable the poems to be read as significant speech: I see no reason to be either musical or sonorous about things at present. When I do, I shall be so again, and glad to. I suppose I reflect the cynicism and the careful absence of expectation (it is not the same as apathy) with which I view the world. As many others to whom I have spoken, not only civilians and British soldiers, but Germans and Italians, are in the same state of mind, it is a true reflection. I never tried to write about war (that is battles and things, not London Can Take It) . . . until I had experienced it. Now I will write of it, and perhaps one day cynic and lyric will meet and make me a balanced style.

That day never came, of course. Douglas was wounded in the Desert War and could easily have opted out of further active service. He insisted on rejoining his regiment at D-Day and was killed in Normandy. The poems we are left with are more cynical than lyrical, it’s true, but cynical is not the word. What separates Douglas’s combat poems from those of his contemporaries (and remarkably few World War Two poems are actually to do with combat) is the neutrality of his approach. War poets are expected to be anti-war but Douglas’s war poems, although they are not short of corpses, cannot truthfully be so described. ‘Think of them as waxworks,’ he writes of dead bodies on a battlefield, ‘Or think they’re struck with a dumb, immobile spell.’ His dead are nearly always seen as statuesque, as figures in a landscape. And when it came to his own attitudes, Douglas always seemed less interested in deploring the idea of combat than in celebrating the daft, heroic gallantry of his military colleagues:

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.

In another poem, we are called on to admire the ‘scarlet and tall/leisurely fellows’ who ‘stroll with royal slow motion’ to their doom: a ‘gentle/obsolescent band of heroes’. Although Douglas served in the desert as a tank commander, he had originally trained for the cavalry and so, too, had most of his comrades. They rode their Shermans into battle, so to speak, as though they were still hunting in the shires, and Douglas was thrilled and impressed.

Douglas’s experiences in the Middle East are fully detailed in Alamein to Zem Zem and this printing of his letters provides little that is not already known, either from Desmond Graham’s biography or from Douglas’s own memoir, from which the biography drew generous support. Douglas’s letters from Palestine supply a few insights that are new to us – such as: ‘The Jews en masse are horrible and I can sympathise with anyone who feels an urge to exterminate them’ – but can often seem a little cryptic, thanks, no doubt, to the military censor. For example, Douglas’s story of how (without permission) he fled a cushy non-job at HQ in order to join his regiment in battle could not be fully told in letters home. It’s a good story, though, and it reveals a lot about the poet’s personality: his bravery, his pigheadedness, his constant fear that ‘I should look silly if I came home without going into action.’

Douglas’s early years, at school and university, are also comprehensively described in the biography, in which there are numerous quotations from the letters. Here, too, in terms of information, not much is added to the record by this latest publication. Indeed, it could be said that we get less than we already have. Douglas’s relations with his war hero father, for instance, were surely central to the shaping of his personality. Daddy Douglas, having indoctrinated his child in martial lore, left home when Keith was eight, and was never seen again (he ran off with the domestic help). Keith afterwards refused to speak his father’s name, and makes no mention of him in his letters, post-1928. His mother, on the other hand, is his chief confidant; she was sickly and impoverished but staunchly genteel – and impressively resourceful in her efforts on behalf of her entirely worshipped only child. And Keith in turn saw himself as both dependant and mainstay, as stand-in for his absent and unmentionable Dad. Little of his ‘cynical’ attitudinising can, I think, be grasped without this background, and Desmond Graham might have been well-advised to add more biographical commentary (every so often he directs us in a footnote to his Life – ‘see KD, pp. 9-10’ – which not everyone, presumably, will have to hand).

Before he left for Normandy, Douglas put the finishing touches to one of his best-known poems: ‘To Kristen, Yingcheng, Olga, Milena’. The dedicatees were four of the women he had dealings with at Oxford and/or after he joined up, and all four feature prominently in his correspondence. Indeed, most of the first half of this Letters book is given over to the Douglas love life, such as it was. As he saw it, the love issue was straightforward, and he approached it with his customary air of competence: he would surely die in battle, he believed, but before he did he wanted to have been In Love. (He also wanted to equip himself with a wife/widow, because ‘someone must have my pension.’ Mothers, it seems, did not qualify.)

With two girls, he imagined he had found his Ideal Woman, but on both occasions he was jilted, with a baffling abruptness. As a result, other less promising candidates were vetted with extra severity: ‘I like to have someone presentable to take about,’ he tells one possibility, and on another occasion points out that ‘I imagine your good looks won’t last you very long.’ Few love letters from a poet can have been less ardent. He criticises his girlfriends’ looks, dress sense, capacity to cope with his erratic, sometimes ugly, mood-swings, and so on. Now and again, he attempts to ensnare a girl by assuring her that he has no sexual designs on her – maybe through some temperamental hang-up of his own or maybe because she isn’t, well, sufficiently good-looking. ‘Expect nothing of me,’ he writes to one. ‘Except that I shall interest you. If you are ever bored with me, it will be because I am bored with you.’

Douglas’s two most hurtful Loves – Milena and Yingcheng – are dead now, and we can therefore learn a little more about them here than could be told in the biography. But they, and the others, remain as shadowy to us as they evidently did to Keith Douglas. In the end, we feel sorry for Douglas, the died-young unloving lover, but we can also understand why he was difficult, if not impossible, to love.