Notes on Keith Douglas’s “Vergissmeinnicht”

It’s easy to see why “Vergissmeinnicht” is so much admired. Plain-spoken as it mostly is, it combines clarity with force, even before we get to the punchline, and the plain words are deployed with striking sensitivity in the shifting and combining of tones.

 

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.

 

Here are a few more detailed impressions.

In the first stanza, lines of four irregularly placed stresses create a sinister, forward-surging momentum at odds with the backward-looking suggestion of “gone”. Even before we reach the word “nightmare” we seem to be trapped in a pattern of nightmarish repetition: “Three weeks gone and the combatants gone / returning”. This effect is reinforced throughout the first two stanzas by the way sounds and whole words return, with “gone” twice in the first line, “found” twice in the third, and six of the first eight lines rhyming or half rhyming with each other. The impression of being trapped among recurring sounds may suggest the way the soldiers are caught up in the compulsive mechanisms of war, but such a mimetic function isn’t its only role. There’s a momentary sense of release in the fourth line, which stands out because it seems less locked into repetitions than the others (“sun” only half rhymes with “gone”). This gives greater clarity of impact, emphasis and signifance to the image of the sprawling soldier[1].

The battle of three weeks ago and the present moment blur briefly in the second stanza: “As we came on” seems at first to refer to something happening at the time of the return visit. It gives the memory of the battle something of the vividness of a flashback.

Douglas’s flair for releasing contradictory energies in his language is present here too, if to a lesser extent than in “How to Kill”. “Like the entry of a demon” is a case in point. It suggests the din and terror of the shell’s impact, and the firestorm that might have followed if it had actually pierced the tank’s armour. Perhaps it also suggests that the soldiers inside are damned souls fit for haling to hell (see the third stanza of “How to Kill”). But they weren’t killed. The shock registers and then the relief – this is only like the entry of a pantomime demon on a stage.

“Dishonoured” and “abased” carry a sexual connotation (“the dishonoured picture of his girl”). Her photograph in the wreckage of the gunpit may be smeared with blood and dirt. This violation is the more poignant for the stiltedness of her inscription and the fact that it’s written in a “copybook gothic script”, giving her a prim and almost childish innocence, the aura of a schoolroom worlds away from the war. The really powerful violation appears in the description of the corpse, though. When Douglas imagines how the girl would weep if she saw Steffi as he is now, he layers two different imaginary scenes over and under each other. The inspection of the body, its skin, eye and stomach, is so physical and intimate that it’s almost as if a transparency of a lover gazing into the soldier’s eyes and running her hands over his living body were shining through the horror of the mere thing he’s become.

I admire the restraint that makes Douglas refrain from direct statement of his pity for this soldier, as opposed to implying it by presenting the girl’s imagined  grief. Partly it’s a matter of sheer economy. More, though, it’s a matter of analytical clarity, of registering the essential difference between perspectives, a difference that is part of the fundamental truth about war. To show it, he must avoid blurring the difference between the enemy combatant’s and the lover’s views. Replacing a focus on the situation itself by a focus on his evolving reactions would weaken this contrast and also I feel there’d be something cheapening and disrespectful about doing that, as if his reactions mattered more than the dead man or what the situation in itself says about the nature of war.

The poem comes to a powerful conclusion in its statement of the duality that haunts so many of Douglas’s poems. If I like “Vergissmeinnicht” less than “How to Kill” it’s partly because of the very intellectual clarity and roundedness of this conclusion, hammered home by neat syntactical parallels and contrasts. The intellectual formulation of a contradiction seems to take over from imaginative dwelling in its presence in a way that doesn’t happen in the more imaginatively open-ended and disturbing “How to Kill”.

 

[1] Douglas seems to have absorbed and concentrated the irony of Rimbaud’s famous “Le dormeur du val”, which he translated at Oxford, into this one short line.

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