Books: The Metropolitan Critic — Keyes and Douglas |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Keyes and Douglas

Keith Douglas and Sidney Keyes go together, or rather went together, like Owen and Rosenberg — they were the World War II version of the pair of utterly different young poets yoked by death. Keyes died in North Africa in 1943 before he had turned twenty-one. Douglas also served in North Africa but had to wait until the Normandy invasion before getting killed: it happened after he had been in France three days. He was twenty-four. Soon it will be thirty years since they were brushed from the board.

There’s no question that Douglas is the easier poet to admire. First of all he had more raw talent. In the business which Yeats called ‘articulating sweet sounds together’ Douglas left Keyes nowhere. On top of this, he was completely unhindered by abstract imagination. An abstract imagination takes a long time to form into anything resembling coherence. A concrete imagination, like Douglas’s, is usually coherent from the beginning, and from then on may expand steadily by accretion; whereas an abstract imagination, like Keyes’s, is usually over-expanded at the start and shows only a fitful development as it hunts about for something to focus on. Douglas was only nineteen when he wrote

The stars still marching in extended order
Move out of nowhere into nowhere. Look, they are halted
On a vast field tonight...

Douglas could do that at will when Keyes just had to grope. As an extended metaphor, this poem (‘Stars’) is more than just an exercise, yet somehow less than serious. It illustrates — or perhaps exhibits — his military preoccupation, 1940 keen to be 1942, and most of the romanticism it displays is boyish. But beyond that, there is a superb cleanliness to the way the idea has been registered. He isn’t saying that the stars are marching tonight: he is saying that they marched today, and will march again tomorrow. Tonight they are encamped. So we get the sense of a huge stillness dotted with innumerable camp-fires, and the fixed spaces between those fires. From the way the verse is handled we can tell the exact dimension of the events. ‘Move out of nowhere into nowhere’ gives the sense of majestic arrival, and ‘vast field’ is an expansive, totally relaxing thing to say, almost like a yawn. When such an idea is handled with such an easy-seeming neutrality of language, we are obviously in the presence of a prodigious gift. More profoundly than a direct allusion, such a piece of writing demonstrates the solidity of the young poet’s background in Classics — he has extracted the essence of Virgilian presentation in the same way Dante did. Almost from the start, and certainly from his first few minutes in Oxford, Douglas was able to produce a sumptuous resonance from plain statement. Here is more of it:

The long curtained French windows conceal
the company at dinner by candlelight.
I am the solitary person on the lawn,
dressed up silver by the moon...

Effortlessly suggestive. A certain effect of wordiness can also be noticed, which Douglas was never to get rid of entirely. Determined to avoid the iambic thump, he packed out his major stresses with minor stresses and rhythmically pleonastic syllables, giving a conversational movement which exactly suited a poetry designed to argue, rather than accumulate effects. But the reader often stumbles, not knowing quite where to tread. ‘Canoe’ was probably his first perfectly realized poem, but an extra and unlooked-for tension is produced in the reader by the fact that it hovers on the brink of technical disaster: that last/part/art/aghast progression in the first stanza is like skiing on one ski, and rather overdoes its part in the job of setting up the powerful recurrence of the same sound in the beautiful third line of the second.

Well, I am thinking this may be my last
summer, but cannot lose even a part
of pleasure in the old-fashioned art of
idleness. I cannot stand aghast

at whatever doom hovers in the background;
while grass and buildings and the somnolent river
who know they are allowed to last for ever
exchange between them the whole subdued sound

of this hot time...

But the poem’s force of argument is unquenchable, and from that point the story is closed out with confident authority. In the second line of the last stanza he has avoided a regular plod only to verge on a mumble, and so nearly ruins that line’s relationship with the calculated — and wholly successful — sublimity of the one that grows out of it: but it scarcely matters.

What sudden fearful fate
can deter my shade wandering next year
from a return? Whistle and I will hear
and come another evening, when this boat

travels with you alone towards Iffley:
as you lie looking up for thunder again,
this cool touch does not betoken rain;
it is my spirit that kisses your mouth lightly.

Plenty of young men have written love poems announcing their imminent demise, but not many of them ever wrote one like that. For a moment, until you come to your senses, it almost makes you glad he was killed — an aberration helped along by that brilliantly functional (and again classical) affectation of fearing not death but the Fate which might stop his ghost returning. Even before he had left Oxford, Douglas commanded the poetic resources to make a Liebestod convincing. Though a decorated, not a stripped, vision, it’s a massively strong one, capable of presenting the most heavily adorned intimations of doom without sacrificing credibility: ‘but till the jewelled heart is dust and the gold head/disintegrates, I shall never hear the tread/of the visitor at whom I cannot guess,/ the beautiful stranger, the princess.’

When he got to the desert his concrete imagination was faced with a vastly expanded field of reference, and technically the chief fascination of his ‘later’ (i.e. least early) poetry lies in the way in which his powers of argument accommodated themselves to it, or failed to. The diet was rich. He gagged on it, producing only a few poems equalling the fully worked-out integrity of the Oxford ones. Everyone knows ‘Vergissmeinicht’, and there are two or three more as good, but in general the later work — locally piercing though it is — is fragmentary by his own standards. Not even a maturity as precocious as Douglas’s could grow up at that rate without becoming distorted, and in too many cases we find him being twisted aside from the steady progress of his discursive cogency and trying for an overcrowded, aridly mimetic equivalent of what he had been forced to look upon. Given time to ponder it all, there is no telling what he might have achieved. Critics are right to say that his best War poetry is in the same league with Alun Lewis’s, but wrong to suggest that he was writing at the top of his talent. Artistically, the real tragedy of Douglas’s death was that it occurred in a second formative period — it caught him when he was being born again.

Turning to Keyes, we see little of the maturity Douglas bore like a divine attribute. More correctly, we see none of it: he is altogether otherwise both in personality and mind — the type of the swot where Douglas was the type of the demigod — and immature even beyond his years. You have only to look at their war-time photographs to see the difference: Douglas the very image of the lean-lidded fighter, Keyes the large-lipped fish out of water. It’s easy to imagine them on patrol together, Keyes mooning along with his head up and Douglas shouting at him to get it down. Incoherence was practically Keyes’ medium. It wasn’t so much that his ear was tin, as that it simply wasn’t listening.

I am the columbarium of winged
Souls, full of wind and windblown prayer.

Temporarily chuffed with ‘columbarium’, he perhaps thought that ‘full of wind’ would go unremarked, but it’s more likely that he simply didn’t notice: his mind was too full of the dove-like lovers in Inferno V. He seems to have believed that a word can die its own length, and so leave room for another that interferes with its sense.

He noted singing birds that raked the sky
With pointed rods of sound like surgeons’ knives.

Those rods not only rake, they’re like knives. And then we are given comparisons so dead they’re practically coming out the other side and gaining eternal life as parody.

Fear of the enormous mountain leaning
Across thought’s lake, where blinded fishes move
as cold and intricate as love:...

As cold and intricate as that. Keyes’s Symbolist/Romanticist aesthetic was an intellectual lash-up with a disturbing resemblance to Surrealism, and his more flagrantly surrealistic excursions provide us with all we need to know about the forties at their dreariest.

Night’s work is momentary, and dividing
The coloured shapes of passion which it spawned,
Night strikes through the membrane to the gristled socket
And tumbles like a pebble through the skull.

Appropriate to Keyes’s abstract imagination was his habit of using literature as subject matter. Michael Meyer’s notes to the 1945 edition of the Collected Poems trace the crushing debt of the long poem ‘The Foreign Gate’ to Rilke, but he’s missed out on the hefty borrowings from Dante.

Fought in the shallow sand was my relief.’
‘I rode to Naseby’.. . ‘And the barren land
Of Tannenberg drank me.’

...‘At Dunkirk I
Rolled in the shallows, and the living trod
Across me for a bridge...’

For some of this he is copying Eliot copying Purgatorio V, and for the last part he has independently picked up on the Buonconte da Montefeltro episode in the same canto. In other poems you will find lines like ‘The shadows of gulls run spiderlike through Carthage’, which seems to be a scrambled echo of Rilke’s idea about bat-tracks running like cracks in a tea-cup. It is all about as unassimilated as it can be, but it is an impressive token of how high Keyes was setting his sights. We need to remember that a wide and too-readily regurgitated reading is characteristic of this kind of imagination, whose beginnings are necessarily chaotic: the chaos being compounded, in this instance, by the fact that Keyes really was sensitive and intelligent, and wanted desperately to say something large about life. Scattered here and there throughout his work are moments of sudden intensity which show that his aspiring supra-logical mind could actually make the leaps he believed a poetic intelligence needed to be capable of.

My mind is a stone with grief going over it
Like white brook-water in the early year.

The only thing wrong with that striking first line is that the line after it kills it off, the word ‘early’ being a certain sign of Keyes’s Symbolist kit of parts getting dumped into the poem. Characteristic locutions were: early year, early month, earlier. The lovers’ (anything); love’s (anything); the (anything) (anything) of love. The brain (as in ‘The doubtful season of the brain’s black weather’). The eyeball. It’s impossible in Keyes to find a single passage in which limp language does not queer the act, but there is still a dignity in some of his writing which could have led on to important things. The promise of comprehensive imagination which Keyes held out to his contemporaries is hard for us to recapture now, but in a stanza like the following we can find a hint of it.

Guarded from love and wreck and turbulence
The sad explorer finds security
From all distraction but the thin lament
Of broken shells remembering the sea.

Keyes, as Philip Larkin put it, ‘could talk to history as some people talk to porters’. For a boy of twenty it was a considerable achievement even to give the impression of doing this. There is a literary ambition in Keyes that is worth respecting, even though — especially because — it largely remained an ambition. Of Douglas’s talent we can be in no doubt. Of Keyes’s talent we ought to do the decent thing and remain in doubt. He shouldn’t be written off: there was too much to him. He died young in a way Douglas didn’t, before his special type of mind had had a chance to prove itself. Criticism, I think, must take account of potential as well as actuality. Keyes needed time. Douglas didn’t. They both ran out of it. The sharpest difference between them as poets is that Douglas requires no sympathy. Keyes requires plenty, and the best way to supply some is to picture a brilliant, sensitive young man — drunk with too much literature, struggling distractedly with irreconcilable pretensions united only in being beyond his technique — who is buttoned into an ill-fitting battledress and shunted off to get killed. Wars rob young poets of achievement and leave only promise. Younger poets they rob even of that. My generation, I have been trying to remind myself, has been given the opportunity to grow from boys to men, but our cherished critical rigour will mean nothing — will be merely dismissive — if we forget that some of the men we place and judge were only boys.

(Listener, 1972)


Comparisons between poets whose names have been coupled by circumstance are rarely fruitful. Although MacNeice is continually being rediscovered, his reputation is always liable to sink again, solely because he is thought of as overparted in the Auden-MacNeice double-act, Ernie Wise to Auden’s Eric Morecambe. This is unfair, because although there was much Auden could do that MacNeice couldn’t, the few things MacNeice could do that Auden couldn’t were of special value and repay study — especially by other poets, who can learn almost nothing from Auden that will do them any good. In the case of Keyes and Douglas the danger of unfairness is, of course, much less. Indeed the best reason for uncoupling the two names is that Keyes was hardly talented at all, and if he had not died young it would not even have been cruel to say so: he would probably have become one of those useful literary all-rounders who write poetry early on and become better judges of it after they have given up. Douglas, on the other hand, was so clearly gifted that I made the tyro’s elementary mistake of supercharging my style as a tribute. The adverbs, especially, are working far too hard: ‘totally’, ‘completely’, ‘utterly’ and ‘exactly’ are all unnecessary. A would-be arresting two-word sentence is short of a verb but still has a word too many: ‘Effortlessly suggestive’ is effortfully written. Douglas warped my judgment. His visione amorosa of ‘the beautiful stranger, the princess’ haunted me like a mantra until I eventually wrote a song lyric — called ‘Beware of the Beautiful Stranger’ — and laid the ghost. Keyes and Douglas both used the same language but one of them could take three words from it and make a phrase to stop your breath. Talent is unjust in its nature, like good looks.

(Picador edition, 1994)

Hear Pete Atkin singing Beware of the Beautiful Stranger in 1970

See and hear Clive James reading Canoe by Keith Douglas in 2014