Keith Douglas is widely accounted the best British poet of the Second World War. It is a just accolade, but in common with many other ‘war poets’ it is founded upon strikingly few poems. The reason for this is obvious: the designation ‘war poet’ carries the implication that the poet did not survive the war together with the sense of ‘waste’ and loss.
This is true too of Douglas who was killed in Normandy within days of the D-Day landings. No doubt this fact has affected his reputation though it has not produced the kind of pathos which attends that of Wilfrid Owen, nor Owen’s degree of subsequent celebrity. In a culture whose currency is celebrity this may be because there are only so many places reserved for ‘war poet’ and we have enough of them already, or it may be that the triumphalist tone which has been so much part of English culture since World War Two has no use for the undeceived, utterly unsentimental manner of poems like ‘How to Kill’ and ‘Dead Men’ where the ‘human virtue’ surrounding the fallen dead of El Alamein ‘is a vapour tasteless to a dog’s chops.’
The best of Douglas’s poems are the war poems and moreover by 1943 he seems to have connected the experience of combat as necessary to the furtherance of his poetry. In an illuminating letter to J.C. Hall in August of that year he writes that
I never tried to write about war (that ...
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