You may recall I said we weren’t done with Bertolt Brecht, and this week both he and T.S. Eliot are back, albeit in the background, so to speak.
Our poet this week, you see, was what you could convinvingly call a “poet warrior in the classic sense”; he wrote poetry, but he also drove a tank in North Africa against the “Jerries”.
Brecht wrote poems about tanks, but you wouldn’t call him a “tank poet”. Captain Keith Douglas ticks all the boxes: wrote poetry, drove tanks; even died young and tragically at the top of his game.
Reading something someone wrote while at war carries special significance. There is such a thing as a “war poet”, or “trench poet”; which latter I suspect is meant to be taken slightly pejoratively. Brecht didn’t really like the war poets. As I understand it, he thought what they were doing wasn’t real poetry, and besides, he was more interested in theatre, as I’ve mentioned.
T.S. Eliot read Keith Douglas. Edmund Blunden, who was a first world war poet, was Douglas’s English tutor while he was at Oxford, and sent Eliot, who was an editor at Faber and Faber, some of Douglas’s early poems. By that time, however, the poet Douglas had gone on to Sandhurst military academy to also become a warrior.
I should urge you to make your own exploration into the fascinating life of Keith Douglas. He was of the old Errol Flynn stock, and I would say they don’t make them like that anymore, but they do.
Douglas was a hero. But he was also a poet, an artist, and an intellectual. These are the people you don’t necessarily want to have fighting your wars for you, because they will tell the truth about it.
And the truth is war is hell. The failure of communication. The breakdown of society. You should always be extremely wary of people who say they function better in wartime, and tell you that society must be broken down so that a new race of supermen can rise from its ashes.
There has been myriads of poems written about the glory of war itself. If you saw “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), you may know who William Blake is.
Here’s something he wrote about war. It is called “A War Song to Englishmen”:
“Prepare, prepare the iron helm of war,
Bring forth the lots, cast in the spacious orb;
Th’ Angel of Fate turns them with mighty hands,
And casts them out upon the darken’d earth!
“Prepare your hearts for Death’s cold hand! prepare
Your souls for flight, your bodies for the earth;
Prepare your arms for glorious victory;
Prepare your eyes to meet a holy God!
It goes on like that, but I think you take my meaning.
Contrast this with the following Keith Douglas poem on the same subject:
How To Kill
Under the parabola of a ball,
a child turning into a man,
I looked into the air too long.
The ball fell in my hand, it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
Behold a gift designed to kill.
Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears
And look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the wave of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.
The weightless mosquito touches
her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches
– Keith Douglas
Douglas doesn’t mince words. He also doesn’t try to sell us the idea this is something grandiose, wonderful, and necessary. All he says is how it happens.
If you are reading this, chances are you will know what the “approach of the mosquito death” is; the sound of a projectile through the air, missing you by inches. Douglas stares in childlike amazement at the bullet in his hand, the hyper-efficient instrument of death of the industrial age. So simple, like a toy.
All you do is point it at someone, and in an instant they are dust. It damns you. Condemns you. He can already see the mother grieving by the soldiers grave as he pulls the trigger, her shadow on the headstone. The fact he can still marvel at all this tells him he must be damned.
Douglas never saw the other side of the war; he was killed by shrapnel four days after landing in Normandy with the 8:th Armoured Brigades Sherwood Rangers.
I don’t really know what to say about that.
Except please join me in giving thanks to Captain Keith Douglas for his service; not because he was a soldier, but because he was a poet, and tried to tell us what being a soldier is actually like.
Aristocrats: ‘I Think I Am Becoming A God’
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 fading into two legends
in which their stupidity and chivalry
are celebrated. Each, fool and hero, will be an immortal.
These 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.
– Keith Douglas
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 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.
– Keith Douglas