No Enemy But Death: The Poetry of Keith Douglas

Part of the Macmillan Studies in Twentieth-Century Literature book series (STCL)


‘Dear Grandpapa’, wrote Keith Douglas at the age of six, ‘I went to a Fate yesterday and a consert too. I bought a gun for 4d which was marked 6d at the toy shop there.’1 In this fragment from a letter of childhood, Keith Douglas naively reveals what would become the most significant difference between himself and the other major poets of the Second World War. For, attracted to the military from his youth and schooled in its ways, Keith Douglas gave himself gladly to the excitements and dangers of war. In a schoolboy’s analysis (possibly from 1932) he defined himself as a ‘militarist’ who ‘like many of his warlike elders, built up heroic opinions upon little information’.2 While lamenting the brutality of war, he still remained devoted to the Officers’ Training Corps and joined its Mounted Section for the free riding when he went up to Oxford in the autumn term of 1938. An aristocratic horseman and a courageous soldier by nature, Douglas also possessed the finely complex sensibility of the artist. Already a promising painter, he set out at fourteen to master the art of poetry. The war of 1939–45 proved his fittest subject, and he was its best poet.


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  1. 2.
    Keith Douglas, quoted in Desmond Graham, Keith Douglas, 1920–44, A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974) p. 1.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    See Jon Silkin’s introduction to his anthology The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979) esp. pp. 29 and 30.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Keith Douglas, ‘On the Nature of Poetry’, Augury: An Oxford Miscellany of Prose and Verse (Oxford: Blackwell, 1940) p. 38. Reprinted in G. S. Fraser, John Waller and J. C. Hall (eds), The Collected Poems (London: Editions Poetry London, 1951) p. 138 and in Graham (ed.), The Complete Poems of Keith Douglas, p. 123.Google Scholar
  4. 8.
    Keith Douglas, ‘Poets in this War’, Add. MS 53773. Reprinted in TLS (23 April 1971) p. 478.Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    Keith Douglas, Journal, Add. MS 53774, p. 1. The journal was printed as Alamein to Zem Zem (London: Editions Poetry London, 1946). Also Faber & Faber, 1966; also Oxford University Press, 1979.Google Scholar
  6. 14.
    Keith Douglas, letter to J. C. Hall, 10 August 1943, reprinted in Graham (ed.), The Complete Poems of Keith Douglas, p. 124.Google Scholar
  7. 17.
    Walt Whitman, ‘Reconciliation’, in F. DeWolfe Miller (ed.), When Lilacs Last in the Door Yard Bloomd: Sequel to Drum Taps (1865–6), a Facsimile Reproduction (Florida: Scholars Facsimiles and Reprints, 1959) p. 23.Google Scholar

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© Linda M. Shires 1985

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