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Vergissmeinnicht -- Keith Douglas

       
(Poem #710) Vergissmeinnicht
 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
Vergissmeinnicht means "forget me not" in German.

The phrase 'War Poets' usually calls to mind names such as those of Wilfred
Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and their contemporaries from the First World War
(the 'Great War', as it was called in its immediate aftermath); although the
Second World War did produce its share of important poems, most of them were
written at some remove from the trenches (the work of Empson and Auden
springs to mind) (cue a flood of emails from Minstrels subscribers pointing
out my ignorance of WW2 poetry). Douglas is the exception: like Owen, he
distinguished himself on the front lines (thus achieving a moral stature
which enabled him to criticize the carnage around him); like Owen, his
poetry has a universality which speaks to readers removed from its immediate
context; and like Owen, he was killed in action.

Douglas' verse itself, though, is quite different from Owen's; where the
latter is a blend of (barely-restrained) outrage and compassion, the
former's "unquiet intensity" has been compared to the Metaphysicals -
detached and clinical on the surface [1], yet deeply thought-out and
meaning-laden. "Vergissmeinnicht" is an excellent (if somewhat
over-anthologized) example of this... the final couplet, especially, is
justly celebrated for its encapsulation of the paradox of war.

thomas.

[1] Michael Schmidt quips that for Douglas, "the poetry is in the
pitilessness", reversing Owen's famous comment on his own work, which you
can read at poem #132

[Biography]

  b. January 20, 1920, Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent, England
  d. June 9, 1944, Normandy, France

British poet who is remembered for his irony, eloquence, and fine control in
expressing the misery and waste of war, to which he was to fall victim.

Douglas' education at Oxford University was cut short by the outbreak of
war. By 1941 he was serving as a tank commander in North Africa, where some
of his most powerful poems were written (Alamein to Zem-Zem, 1946). He was
moved back to Britain in 1944 to take part in the D-Day invasion; he fell in
combat in Normandy on his third day there. His posthumous Collected Poems
(1951) enhanced his reputation as a war poet, but in 1964 Ted Hughes's
edition of Douglas' Selected Poems established him as a poet of universal
significance.

        -- EB

[Links]

See poem #707 for a list of
other war poems; don't miss the ones by Wilfred Owen, especially.

38 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Andrew Horsfield said...

Keith Douglas was a poet soldier, in itself fascinatibgly
unusual. He was reckless, courageous,
artistic, unhappy and confused about women, incredibly
young to die, somehow heroic. He was an accomplished
poet at 14, and a master at 16 (Ted Hughes calls a poem he
wrote at this time (Encounter with a God) flawless.)
Keith Douglas had recurring premonitions of his own death.
His poetry is modern war poetry, existensial, precise,
tough, spare.

Kellybestford said...

i am reading this poem for an assignment at university and i hve taken on
board all your comments...its helped loads..cheers! Kels xxx

yellow87 said...

I'm studying War Poetry for English Literature at GSCE level and would like to comment on Vergissmeinnicht. Not being a fan of the German Language, I was a trifle put off by the title, but i would like to state that The unquiet intensity of this piece is reminiscent of that found in some Elizabethan 'metaphysical' poetry. Don't you think?

Tessa Courtney Bennett

The Milton Nole said...

This is one of the most moving poems ever written. The history of it's author makes it even more meaningful. As a veteran, this poem comes to mind every time I stand above the rows of white crosses at Normandy, Luxembourg, or visit the fields at the Battle of The Bulge. Every mother's son had but one body and one heart. God bless and keep my brother and sister veterans.---Gerald Giles, USAF

John Schenkels said...

hey! my name is jordan schenkels, i am 16 years old. My class and i are
studying Vergissmeinnicht in my grade 11 English class. Not only is this
poem expressing what a lot of soldiers could relate to, but it also
expresses the loss and misery many others went through. Family, lovers,
children etc...
I just wamted to say that this is a great site for getting to know more
about Keith Douglas. A little hitn though, for future researchers, you
should try to list the Genre, Theme, Format and so on. I'm not the best
one at knowing those kind of thing from looking at a poem! thanks!

James Weidman said...

I taught High School English for over 30 years, and one of my
strengths as a teacher was my real love for poetry. Already a great
enthusiast of Wilfred Owen, during the great concluding episode of
"The World at War," narrated by Sir Lawrence Olivier, I heard for the
first time "Vergiessmeinict," and that is a GREAT POEM, in every
conceivable way! I had my students read it every year after that
until I (alas! in some ways) retired.

Sincerely,
Jim Weidman

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Busana Muslim said...

in this case, the enchantment of the night. (This takes a page
from Jacques Derrida's postmodernist playbook.) And yet we keep trying,
as the poem so wonderfully points out.

Jasa Penerjemah Tersumpah | Jasa Penerjemah | Penerjemah Resmi said...

in this case, the enchantment of the night. (This takes a page
from Jacques Derrida's postmodernist playbook.) And yet we keep trying,
as the poem so wonderfully points out.

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We are doing poetry in my year 9 class, this site was really helpful to me when I was writing my analytical response for my essay on how war poems convey the theme of conflict.

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