Monday, 9 June 2014

Keith Douglas: "Well, I Am Thinking This May Be My Last Summer..."

British soldiers near Bayeux, Normandy on 11 June 1944. Photo by Laing (Sgt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit. Used under IWM Non-Commercial Licence

Keith Douglas died 70 years ago today, on 9 June 1944. The fact that this anniversary closely follows that of the D-Day Normandy invasion is of course no coincidence. Douglas had survived the battles of North Africa (including an incident where he stole a truck and against orders drove to the front at El Alamein) and D-Day itself on 6 June 1944, only to be killed by mortar fire near Bayeux a few days later.

After reading Douglas's poems and letters, it feels particularly strange to me that his life just stopped so suddenly. That's especially the impression when looking at the 'Recipients of letters' section of Keith Douglas: The Letters (edited by Desmond Graham, Carcanet, 2000. Any quotations from letters are taken from this volume.) Douglas's mother died in the 1980s, his girlfriends died in the 1990s, but his life (and poems, and letters) just stopped in 1944; and it seems especially strange and sad for one so full of life. He was only 24. The incredibly tragic thing is that countless families had similar experiences of losing children, spouses and others during the World Wars.

I read Douglas's letters a while ago and found myself mostly caught between laughter and a desire to give him a slap. He was not exactly a reliable boyfriend and was engaged in a lot of dramatic on-off relationships. Some of his poems, or earlier drafts, appear in the letters, but he gives relatively little commentary on his actual poetic technique. This is why you will tend to see the same passages quoted on Douglas's approach, including this one: "[M]y 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 a line. [...] I see no reason to be either musical or sonorous about things at present" (page 295 of The Letters).

Rather less frequently quoted are comments such as: "I have actually written another poem. Great stuff. I've only shown it to Hamo Sassoon who said 'Ugh! Strange and awkward', and a Canadian who read it without asking and said nothing" (page 68. Hamo Sassoon was Siegfried Sassoon's nephew). As well as being funny, this does provide some insight into Douglas's wry personality, and so do many of the other letters. He was a rather contradictory character, tough and romantic - I suspect this was partly down to genuine complexity, and partly down to being a very young man whose personality was still developing.

Possibly most entertaining of all is the letter he wrote to a girlfriend in which he suggests a comprehensive makeover: "You could look (to use your favourite word), marvellous, if you would only wear the right clothes for your figure and colouring. I would hesitate to tell you in a way because you would be surrounded with boys in no time and forget all about me. [...] In your thin dress you are skinny and unhappy-looking. Go in for checks and autumn sort of woven scarves and you would be the best of yourself, and attractive. [...] Chris don't be offended by all this, but I would love you to look as nice as I know you could" (page 51). In at least one other letter Douglas mentioned an interest in clothing design - as well as art, horses, ballet, water-polo and pretty much anything else you can think of. The existence of Keith 'Colour Me Beautiful' Douglas is perhaps something that has escaped the notice of many enthusiasts of World War II poetry, but he obviously liked girls so much that he wanted them to look good. It all made me laugh and also made me sadder about his early loss. He was already an incredible poet and a talented artist, and he wanted to try everything, if only he'd had the chance. In his last poem, the prophetic 'On a Return from Egypt', he wrote: "...time, time is all I lacked".

Clive James, the Australian broadcaster, critic and poet who has recently talked about his terminal illness, was filmed a few weeks ago reading and discussing Douglas's poem 'Canoe', around the release of the anthology Poems That Make Grown Men Cry. You can watch the video here:

'Canoe' begins: "Well, I am thinking this may be my last summer..." It is a breezy enough opening that you might assume he is just saying goodbye to a summer girlfriend - until you realise that this is yet another of Douglas's many poems about what he saw as his imminent death. Douglas, who often seems consciously light-hearted in his letters, was also very preoccupied with his own end, which may just have been a symptom of those deathly times. He was quite a headstrong young man, though, and one wonders if his fatalism and his expectation that he wouldn't survive may have made him that much more reckless, and that much more likely to lose his life. 'Canoe' is in any case a very touching poem.

Douglas will be out of copyright next year, so I expect to write about and post many of his poems then. It is just like my sadness about Sidney Keyes; both could be alive today if it weren't for the war.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this post, Clarissa! I had actually read it days ago and thought I commented on it, just to find out I didn't...

    Anyhoo, Douglas' life and poetry both seem fascinating. But from what I read he might be one of those people that would be very difficult to deal with in real life but that are delightful to read about in fiction. Does that make sense? I mean, I would not like to be the recipient of that fashion advice letter, despite his good intentions... But I'm probably not doing him any justice as a young poet and soldier and I bet his girlfriends (and mother) would be very ready to defend him. xx

    1. Hi Paula, so nice you stopped by. As much as I have a crush on Keith Douglas, I do agree with you. In his letters he is sort of adorable and completely infuriating at the same time. I think he probably drove his girlfriends crazy. But he's just so vivid in them, and in a different way, in his poems. He seems like the kind of guy you'd know and laugh about in high school or university (whether or not you were friends with him!). And he was just young too, which certainly comes across, and makes it all the more sad he didn't live longer. He is also such a contrast, both in poetry and life, to my other World War II poetic favourite Sidney Keyes. Sidney was even younger but he was a really intense serious emo kind of guy... They were both at Oxford but it seems they were either distant acquaintances or possibly didn't know each other personally at all. I don't think they would have been the best of friends...