Marching Through Exits: Keith Douglas and the Fated Estrangement of Self

Keith Douglas - Poet/HeroPerhaps the one truly effective distillation of war has been succinctly expressed by General William T. Sherman in his statement “War is hell.” There are, possibly, no other ways to encapsulate the loss, moral complication and sense of brutality in so few words and with such accuracy. Social and historical critics who have hoped to provide alternative condensations are often left displaying their agendas; they become stuck in unsustainable positions of supposed insight, demonstrating the ease with which political writers can operate when safely distanced from the iron sights – and maybe more importantly, the targets on the other end.

Problems arise quickly and in direct proportion to the extremity of critical reduction because the act of war and the things that compose the act are, in many ways, one cumulative hell arranged from many complex systems of varying sizes that are fully grasped only from within. For example, these systems include the coordination of mass movements of soldiers or supplies and the infinite intricacies of a transport system – as well as the sweeping disciplinary existences of each solider, who is demanded to provide action over objection for the duration of his or her deployment. The former system coordinates items, the latter addresses the psychological heartiness of the individual; yet, each is equally vital in the cumulative idea of war.

When civilians try to pull reasonably elementary abstractions of military concepts like these close to themselves through the mind’s eye – i.e., moving the foreign, logical denial of all that is non-militaristic to achieve in a combat environment to the front of the consciousness – there is an inevitable disconnect that cannot be overcome for the non-soldier. The system civilians occupy is one of public opinion about the war. Here, they may approve or disapprove, attempt judgments, ridicule troops and leaders or add the yellow ribbon magnet to a car’s rear panel; but regardless of any stance, their actions manifest in polarizing forms of protest or support. Civilians do not participate in overseas tours, nor do they experience the strain of reloading artillery under fire; they do not know the stress of the battlefield medic or even “the whole subdued sound of this hot time” before their initial deployment – unless their reactions to what soldiers undergo is so severe, that they too finally decide to enlist (Douglas Canoe).

Once an individual becomes a soldier, “a day’s traveling” will allow “[him to] reach a new world,” where the conceptual understanding of some of these systems of war is simply made available, whether or not insight is desired or further pursued (Douglas Cairo Jag). Observers, be they poets or reporters, can imagine, sometimes effectively, never accurately. Observers do their best to juxtapose a mere belief of a soldier’s experience over the safety and freedom provided by non-military lives, thereby Hollywoodizing, at best, a psychology and image that provide civilians a place which is only momentarily inhabitable to empathize from; thus, “the lover and killer are mingled” only through the application of the title of Soldier finally eclipsing that of Civilian (Douglas Vergissmeinnicht).

Beautifully entrenched in these ideas of strange separation, the war poetry of Keith Douglas is situated somewhere around this manner of reflection – one of musing through a subtraction of some odd or unattainable data – and aspects of Douglas’s life and work both point in the direction of a ghostly philosophical and melancholic removal. He has been called an individual of a “very singular kind of temperament” who was “both original and super-sensitive” to experience and the inevitable emotional reflection on experience (Dickey 80). Consider this disposition and how it might become problematic during war. If any individual (civilian or soldier) reflects on the nature of a skirmish, it is perhaps agreeable that each small battle indicates a heavily recurring system within the larger war, which could possibly be explored down to each moment a round is required (via chain of command) to be discharged. Reducing life and death to an investigation of expenditure would quantify the situation in terms of strict material economy – , although these nonmaterial dealings are absolutely subsystems of any larger skirmish. Therefore the following questions must be addressed out of preparatory functionality, if for no other reason than insuring those with a “particular temper of mind” will adhere to a Standard Operating Procedure (Dickey 81): how will the soldier react in a future skirmish under similar adversity? What are his thoughts and feelings post-battle and in preparation for the next? Is there also an economics which deals with maintaining a pragmatic military attitude, and if so, how malleable is it for the singular individual who receives training?

Much of the brilliance and beauty of Douglas’s work lies in the poetic evocation of questions. Through a synthesis of battlefield psychology, bizarre occurrences of violence, and an intelligent ever-active brain, Douglas has been made even more alive, and becomes almost completely awakened to the true immediacy of the present and the past only because of having undergone military training. There are singular eyes darting about in his poetry, observing the landscape for hidden threats, studying the indigenous “rags afflicted with fatalism and hashish,” and in this moment of sensory collection, he is simultaneously organizing the world and the self, with a looming danger and creative force (Douglas Cairo Jag). It is not an obsession with images of despair, but a channeling of only as much of an urgent reality as is necessary; Douglas has intentionally refused to “[concentrate] on the terrible conditions, waste and death that the two world wars have involved, [and instead] provides a view of warfare as it appeared to the professional, highly-trained soldier,” where the expert is made all the more complex because he has contemplated the nature of his occupation as it relates to that of the average citizen (Matterson 57).

Yet there is an evolution even beyond abstractions of the metamorphosis displayed by Douglas in his effort to remove “the mass of irrelevancies, of ‘attitudes’, ‘approaches’, propaganda, ivory towers, etc., that stand between [him] and [his] problems and what [he has] to do about them” (Graham 294). This philosophy is presented indistinguishable when under fire by a critic or literally by an enemy, and is therefore consistently reductive. The analogy of a soldier’s requirement to hump a rucksack for miles, of often comparable weight to its carrier, may be useful: if the desired lessening of a burden is achieved, we must ask what necessity or comfort item has been taken out to allow for facilitated travel. If enough weight is removed, the heroism of traveling light during war becomes pathetic through an obvious lack of situational perception, and the poet becomes so light that his existence barely maintains its earthly tether because he has given up so much, akin to ideas expressed on the Czech Revolution by Milan Kundera. It is though a poetic equation to define the self has been formed:

Present Existence as Soldier – Memory of Existence as Civilian = Realized Self

Remaining “detached, and at the same time super-observant” from an early age allowed Douglas to grow up musing on war from a position of inevitable safety. As young as six years old, he was writing letters to his grandfather about having “bought a gun for 4d. wich [sic] was marked 6d. at the toy storl [sic]” (Graham 4). For a child like Douglas, whose mother describes him as a youth who “pored over books he couldn’t possibly read, comparing shapes of words he knew with shapes he didn’t know [and thereby trying] to guess their meaning,” the inclusion of a numeric reference in a 1926 letter from boarding school regarding the transaction of armaments is too interesting to overlook (Scammell 1). That moment depicts some type of inventory being taken; an acknowledgement of value and economy that displays an understanding of provisions and a worldly observation that seeks application. At six, Douglas shows signs of stepping out of a child’s self referencing behavior and into an adult attitude as he concedes to the notion of price. He expresses an idea that he was on the beneficial end of a deal, perhaps hoping to relay to his grandfather how smart he is becoming, or how his mind has developed solid reasoning and can discern a ripe opportunity.

This situational sensitivity as a youth is robust, and continues to allude to his future as a soldier and poet when he becomes occasionally frustrated at his classmates’ failures to experience life with the same eye for detail. In a letter to his mother he comments that “the little boy [he sleeps] whith [sic] is somtimes [sic] nice and somtimes [sic] rather boring;” and yet, while Douglas shows an effort to separate himself from other children, he has great enthusiasm for team sports, and even an affinity for wearing a uniform (Graham 5). He writes to his grandmother:

“I hope you are quite well. I am engoying [sic] myself very much I play games of football and have my colours stocings [sic] jersey ect [sic]. At present I am in the 1st form but I have three friends and engoy [sic] myself just as much as I would if I was in 2nd form and more I thingk [sic]” (Graham 6).

The “forms” he mentions are elusive. They might be variations of the daily schedule for students, or they could be coordinated outfits to distinguish teams for football; both readings seem applicable. Douglas at six years old has not yet fully built the track necessary to move a plump train of thought, but he is enthusiastic to point out his ability to operate in a team, and the joy he receives from visually identifying with a distinct side. As a boy who would grow up to become “almost sure he would be killed in the war,” his “acutely lonely” disposition allowed him to supply these small hints at how he would define his life by bending or escaping civilian titles, which dressing in uniform often inadvertently provides a wearer (Graham vii).

It is not just the act of gradually removing oneself from an average civilian life which Douglas explores; as he matures, he also writes on a soldier’s naturally ephemeral tether to the very state of living or being, through a consistently expressed idea of eliminating the body with decomposition or philosophy, in hopes of placing himself inside an enduring protection from physical agony.

War poetry provides a critic with reasonably clear lines for what is inside and outside of the genre. Points of comparison can be set up easily, and Tim Kendall’s essay “Keith Douglas and Self-Elegy” is extremely useful for exploring the distance from physical suffering that diction provides a poet. Kendall holds Rupert Brooke’s war poetry up against that of Douglas, and by using a single line of Brooke’s “The Soldier,” he finds a method of approaching the severity and heart of Douglas’s poetry, which will become available 25 years later.

The specific line Kendall seizes on is the opening, where Brooke confides in England that “If [he] should die” in the war, he wishes not to be eulogized, but to receive some appropriate dissolution within the larger praise bestowed on the nation by its countrymen, as it is the glory of this ideal for which he has given his life. Kendall undermines Brooke by asserting that “A phrase such as ‘If I should die’ reflects the complex uncertainties of its time in a way that soon began to annoy the retrospectively wise” because “should takes the place of shall,” and thus causes death to be “viewed as less likely or less welcome than some alternative” (Kendall 366). The issue is blown open as Kendall entertains even safer substitutions like “If it so happen that I die,” and uses these increasingly passive choices to construct arguments about the implied distance of death from the poet, at last choosing to read should as a statement of “duty, obligation, or propriety” in which “the poet ought to die,” but Brooke’s “tonal ambivalence [which] denotes a fleeting tension [in attitude] to his fate” prevents this from occurring (Kendall 366).

Unlike Brooke, Douglas does not flinch in the decisive moment and instead steps heroically into the demise, asking for simplification only “when [he] is dead” (Douglas Simplify Me When I’m Dead). Without faltering, he detaches himself and stares at the “perfectly mannered flesh [falling]” from the “doomed boy” as young soldiers follow the SOP and mistakenly “[open] the door for a shell as [they] had learnt to do at school” (Douglas Gallantry). This violent and paradoxically peaceful death typifies a poetic eye which is both “‘established and avoided,’ for it is the particular ability of Douglas’s art to disconcert” with the “[exhibition and] coolness” of a “bracing diffidence and restraint” (Sherry 295). The Zen-like stillness is where the glory resides, and it is reserved for those who maintain a golden-aged American worldview that sees “maps all frontiers and railway lines,” where “[children are dressed] as mimic sailors and [courage is celebrated] as the primary masculine virtue” (Scupham 22).

Douglas needs to have his body removed by violence or a sense of wholeness in order to be free, but he is not looking to achieve spirituality through “an infinitely compassionate” relation to mankind; he is instead “interested in the battle, war, what happens between men, what happens when men are busted apart with their legs blown off, their guts blown out – [this] is something that was interesting to him, even if he was the one to whom this happened” (Dickey 81). For Douglas, “the processes of earth [stripping] off the colour of [his] skin” yields a personal insight, the termination of his physical form reflecting divine knowledge (Douglas Simplify Me When I’m Dead). This is not surprising; he is bred for war like the “noble horse with courage in his eye [who casually] looks up at a shellburst” in Aristocrats, recalling the dialogue from Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket when Crazy Earl comments:

“Does America belong in Vietnam? I don’t know. I belong in Vietnam, I’ll tell you that.”

Douglas “had long been consciously in training to become an actor on a martial stage,” which his earliest letters sent home from boarding school indicate, and it is either much more convenient for him to be killed than it is to become enlightened, or that to become enlightened he must first be killed (Scupham 22).

What is also fascinating is the residual disembodied nature of the personal observer Douglas so often expresses through his images, as “most of his war poems offer post-combat [settings, where the] dead are the figures in his warscapes,” and “yet these tableaux are as if alive; the dead are usually arrested in the gestures of life, and of life at its most intense in the instant of its extinction,” which is only discernible upon its arrival from the vantage of distanced meditation (Sherry 296). Involvement yields action, and action for Douglas almost yields survival; there must be an idle witness present in order to die well, and this conflicts with a soldier’s training and the natural response to preserve the self. There is a need to be recognized for existence in death which makes a soldier’s civilian experience a real thing, but Douglas’s split between resistance and submission may throw him into an unrecoverable realm of predestined literary transience.

The modernist poets of the First World War experienced an incredible public success with an “immediate” impact which affected “the next generation of writers,” so perhaps the Second World War was set up to be much less artistically dynamic, inevitably “[producing] a great deal of mediocre verse” in comparison, “[that] was left stranded when the high tide of little magazines and poetry publishers receded” (Scammell ix). There were no longer any texts which could equate with the “paradigms both of high modernism and of the ‘post-war’ era in the 1920’s,” and while “Movement poets and angry young men do typify the greyer ethos of the 1950’s… no such convenient exemplars exist in the 1940’s” (Smith 585).

Douglas is thus lobbed into an ephemeral poetic generation with “no unifying geographical or emotional motif” (Smith 585), and because “his subject is frequently his own sense of isolation” or the “pathos of war,” history’s own urge to diminish the entire decade has inadvertently engulfed him (Smith 587). This puts academic individuals interested in resurrecting his work in an odd situation, as one can feel the necessity of romanticizing his work from a civilian stance bordering on injustice to the poet, who believed in the requirement of fully immersing into the thing itself if hopes to come across any true resonance are desired. His poetry must be accepted as a series of exits and simplifications instead, and its premonitory construction is ultimately the most tangible beauty Douglas leaves.


    1. Dickey, James. Classes On Modern Poets and the Art of Poetry. South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.
    2. Douglas, Keith. The Letters. Graham, Desmond, ed. Manchester: Carcanet Press Limited, 2000.
    3. Douglas, Keith. Poems obtained on printer paper through Dr. Aidan Wasley, Associate Professor of English, University of Georgia.
    4. Kendall, Tim. “Keith Douglas and Self-Elegy.” Essays in Criticism Vol. 53, Number 4, October 2003, pp 366-383.
    5. Matterson, Stephen. “Douglas’ Vergissmeinnicht.” Explicator Vol. 45, Issue 2, Winter 1987, pp 57-59.
    6. Scammell, William. Keith Douglas: A Study. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1988.
    7. Scupham, Peter. “Simplify Me When I Am Dead.” PN Review Vol. 25, (1 [123]), Sept – Oct 1998, pp 22-24.
    8. Sherry, Vincent. “Hectic Stasis: The War Poetry of Keith Douglas.” University of Toronto Quarterly Vol. 58, Issue 2, Winter 1988-1989, pp 295-304.
    9. Smith, Rowland. “War and After: Poetry in the Forties.” Dalhousie Review Vol. 65, Issue 4, 1985-1986, pp 585-593.
    Footnote: Assuming there is no real-time scale implemented to continually measure psychological distress.
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