Thursday, 22 January 2015

'The Marvel' by Keith Douglas: Ways of Seeing

Wave Curl by Simon Turkas. Used under Creative Commons license

THE MARVEL (Keith Douglas)

A baron of the sea, the great tropic
swordfish, spreadeagled on the thirsty deck
where sailors killed him, in the bright Pacific

yielded to the sharp enquiring blade
the eye which guided him and found his prey
in the dim country where he was a lord;

which is an instrument forged in semi-darkness
yet taken from the corpse of this strong traveller
becomes a powerful enlarging glass

reflecting the unusual sun's heat.
With it a sailor writes on the hot wood
the name of a harlot in his last port.

For it is one most curious device
of many, kept by the interesting waves - 
and I suppose the querulous soft voice

of mariners who rotted into ghosts
digested by the gluttonous tides
could recount many. Let them be your hosts

and take you where their forgotten ships lie
with fishes going over the tall masts - 
all this emerges from the burning eye.

And to engrave that word the sun goes through
with the power of the sea,
writing her name and a marvel too.

                             Linney Head, Wales, [May] 1941

 In 1991, Seamus Heaney gave a lecture on Keith Douglas at Poets House in New York. Not only that, but you can listen to a full recording of the lecture here. I am only slightly exaggerating when I say that I nearly fell over when I discovered this recording - one of my most beloved poets speaking about one of my other most beloved (and much less famous) poets...

Early in the lecture, Heaney reads 'The Marvel' and calls it a poem "which seems to arrive from nowhere". After reading it he says "It has a certain Noli me tangere stride to it... It just walks in." I love that, and what a compliment! He also comments on the tension in the poem between the intellectual and the visceral, between aristocracy and brutality, which is very Douglas. The whole lecture is wonderful and if you appreciate Heaney, or Douglas, or especially both, you must listen to it.

My own take on this poem is that it's another riff on Douglas's obsession with seeing. I suppose that ways of seeing are the currency of poets. A poet is always looking for an alternative angle. But the array of angles and perspectives in 'The Marvel' is dizzying. In the space of a few lines, Douglas sees (most literally) through the eye of the great fish hunting its prey; through the written word and the implications of the sailor using the eye as a magnifying glass to write the "harlot's" name on the deck; through the eye of the sun itself and the power of the natural world; through the gaze of the drowned at "fishes going over the tall masts"... There is something hallucinatory but also very concrete about it.

This may be a strange comparison but when I re-read the poem this time I was suddenly reminded of Las Meninas, the painting by the great Diego Velázquez. The subjects of the poem and the painting may have nothing in common, but they are both masterpieces about physical and spiritual angles on vision, and the relationships between the viewer and the viewed. 


  1. Thank you for directing attention to this, Clarissa, both to your note on Douglas and the audio lecture. I would have thought, contra Heaney, that Douglas' music has more affinity with Edward Thomas than Dylan Thomas; it seems less emphatic to me, less sonorous and bardic, though I need to both familiarize myself more with Douglas' work and to listen to the recording again when I haven't sank the better part of a bottle of red.

    Another of his poems I recall which is famous and absent here, as you know, is the one ending with the lines "A shadow is a man / When the mosquito death approaches", which reminds me of Lowell's poem ending "This is death, to die and know it. This is the black widow, Death".

    The scenario Heaney alludes to in closing is one he also mentions, I think, in the introduction to an interesting anthology which I've owned since 1993 called Lifelines. Worth getting if you you don't know it. It's interesting because every poem is the favourite selected poem of everyone who's invited to contribute to the book and to give their reasons why. It opens with Hughes curtly and unequivocally saying that Donal Og is his favourite poem, in Lady Gregory's translation from the old Irish. When I saw him and Heaney read from the Rattle Bag on the South Bank in 1997 he suspected that Yeats probably helped her with the translation. I first heard Donal Og in John Huston's last film The Dead, one of my favourite films, after Joyce's story.

    Hope all's well - if all ever is.

    1. Hi Jim! Thanks for stopping by...

      To be honest, it is a while since I listened to the lecture in its entirety. When I was writing this I just listened to the bit about The Marvel again. I tend to agree - I don't hear a lot of Dylan Thomas in Douglas. Edward Thomas is a somewhat apt comparison...they are both good on the shifting perspective thing and a somewhat conversational approach. Thomas is more mature but given how much older he was when he was writing poetry, than Douglas, that's unsurprising. Douglas is also a lot more macho but attractive at the same time. Heaney picked up on that!

      The other poem you are thinking of is How to Kill, which may be his most famous. It is very detached, chilling, and remarkable in terms of his fascination with perspective.

      I am never sure who to compare Douglas to. In what might be my favourite of his poems, Desert Flowers, he says "Rosenberg, I only repeat what you were saying". He definitely owed something to Rosenberg. They are both sort of wry, and at the same time sometimes quite spectacular in the use of language, and with a certain coldness but to me it seems to mask a depth of emotion. I might be romanticising Douglas in particular though. I do have a bit of a crush on him!

      I will look up that anthology. I am so jealous that you saw Ted Hughes with Seamus Heaney. I did see Heaney a few times in the years before he died, which was a privilege. You must have seen Hughes not very long before he died.