Sunday, 27 December 2015

Keith Douglas: 'On a Return From Egypt'

Keith Douglas


To stand here in the wings of Europe
disheartened, I have come away
from the sick land where in the sun lay
the gentle sloe-eyed murderers
of themselves, exquisites under a curse;
here to exercise my depleted fury.

For the heart is a coal, growing colder
when jewelled cerulean seas change
into grey rocks, grey water-fringe,
sea and sky altering like a cloth
till colour and sheen are gone both:
cold is an opiate of the soldier.

And all my endeavours are unlucky explorers
come back, abandoning the expedition;
the specimens, the lilies of ambition
still spring in their climate, still unpicked:
but time, time is all I lacked
to find them, as the great collectors before me.

The next month, then, is a window
and with a crash I'll split the glass.
Behind it stands one I must kiss,
person of love or death
a person or a wraith,
I fear what I shall find.

                                          [? March-April 1944]

'On a Return From Egypt' was published in Poetry (London) in December 1944, six months after Keith Douglas died in Normandy. It appears to be the last poem he wrote, or at least the last surviving poem. At the time he was in England awaiting D-Day and the Normandy campaign. He was to die three days after D-Day, on 9 June 1944.

'On a Return From Egypt' isn't a perfectly finished poem but - unfortunately - it stands as quite a fitting swan song for Douglas. It reprises and sums up many of the images which haunted him and which recur. He had already written about 'the wings of Europe' in the sweeping but very unfinished 'Actors Waiting in the Wings of Europe', and the restless, ambiguous movement of the sea appears again and again in poems such as 'The Marvel' and 'Song'. It is, of course, also about his death.

The really heartbreaking thing about this poem is when Douglas writes about the failure of his endeavours and the end of his time. One wonders what he meant by 'All my endeavours are unlucky explorers'. He had certainly achieved success in poetry and in the military, but perhaps these are not what he wanted. He may have been thinking of his failed romances. Douglas was a restless soul and many people much older and apparently wiser than him don't really know what they want, either. The image of the explorers 'abandoning the expedition' is extremely powerful and the poem really turns on the third stanza. It also reminded me of this quote from Isaac Newton, in both its seeking nature and its innocence: "To myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."

The final stanza also returns to some of his primary concerns - the ambiguous figures, the two sides of a window, a door or a mirror and the passage through. There is a harshly exposed quality to "I fear what I shall find" which helps to make this last word by a very young and gifted poet unforgettable. It's not a perfect piece of work, but it is powerful and utterly real.

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