Notes on Keith Douglas’s “Dead Men”

“Dead Men” as a whole is less satisfying and less achieved than “Cairo Jag”, but the three opening stanzas are unforgettable:

 

DEAD MEN

Tonight the moon inveigles them
to love: they infer from her gaze
her tacit encouragement.
Tonight the white dresses and the jasmine scent
in the streets. I in another place
see the white dresses glimmer like moths. Come

to the west, out of that trance, my heart –
here the same hours have illumined
sleepers who are condemned or reprieved
and those whom their ambitions have deceived;
the dead men, whom the wind
powders till they are like dolls: they tonight

rest in the sanitary earth perhaps
or where they died, no one has found them
or in their shallow graves the wild dog
discovered or exhumed a face or a leg
for food: the human virtue round them
is a vapour tasteless to a dog’s chops.

 

The first stanza hovers equivocally between maintaining a dream and undermining it. The balance between succumbing to and resisting the moon’s suggestion seems constantly shifting without ever coming down on one side or the other. On the one hand, soft sounds, murmuring articulations, entrancing hesitations, suspensions and musical repetitions all support the dream, or perhaps dramatize the entranced state the speaker finds himself in. On the other, “inveigles”, “infer” and “tacit” imply the speaker’s scepticism by suggesting a kind of guilty collusion between the moon’s deceit and the lovers’ eagerness to be deceived.

I said maintaining or undermining a dream. A second dream seems to be in play, though, shaping the feeling of the lines, if not their rational interpretation. Reading the poem in the light of the title, you find yourself with difficulty brushing aside the idea that it’s dead men that the moon is inveigling to love. The speaker or the poem seems to be caught between two visions, one a literal contrast between lovers far from the front and soldiers on the battlefield, the other that more surreal vision of dead men hearing the moon’s call. The two make sense on different levels, and I think it’s this swimming between different levels, like the mind caught between sleep and waking, that makes the poem so haunting. You can of course rationalise the surreal vision by pointing out that the living will die (Borges somewhere describes us as simply ticket of leave corpses) but there’s something reductive about that kind of explaining of an imaginative impact.[1]

Although the dreamer tells himself to “Come / . . . out of that trance”, there’s still something trancelike and unreal about what follows, and I think that’s why all the first three stanzas are so haunting. The dreamlike quality of the second and third stanzas is more difficult to pin down than in the first, more a matter of language than sense, but it’s still very strong. We feel it partly in the sleep-talking slowness of the instruction to himself, with that trailing enjambement between stanzas; partly in the slithering between precision (“Come”) and vagueness (“to the west”) and between geography (“to the west”) and mental state (“out of that trance”). Again, this kind of blurring is characteristic of the state between sleep and waking. Addressing his heart, as if he were a sixteenth century sonneteer, adds to the general feeling of dissociation and entrancement. Of course it’s too rationalistic to talk about this trance as just the speaker’s, though. The point and power of the poetry lies in the way it makes us ourselves participate in this entranced mode of perception. That is the reason why rationally explaining the surreal vision of the first stanza feels like a violation or betrayal of the imaginative impact of the writing. The trancelike state is sustained through the second and third stanzas by the peculiar syntax and punctuation that makes the different groups, the living, the to-die, the dead, the buried, the unburied, the unearthed, swim together in our minds.

I think these first three stanzas gain their power and imaginative hold by the way they bring different mental states into simultaneous and shifting play, without allowing one or another to achieve dominance. Unfortunately there’s a real loss of overall imaginative power in the second half of the poem, memorable and effective though individual phrases are. Fundamentally the loss comes because the rational, argumentative mode of thought takes over from more imaginative modes, and the suggestiveness of the metaphors comes to be tightly constrained by the argument. This argument is itself a schematic and artificial posing of alternatives that belie the fluid way in which we all live with contradictions every day. The result is that a poem that begins brilliantly by inhabiting contradictions ends up driving itself into a blind alley by trying to repress them.

Here is the whole poem:

 

DEAD MEN

Tonight the moon inveigles them
to love: they infer from her gaze
her tacit encouragement.
Tonight the white dresses and the jasmine scent
in the streets. I in another place
see the white dresses glimmer like moths. Come

to the west, out of that trance, my heart –
here the same hours have illumined
sleepers who are condemned or reprieved
and those whom their ambitions have deceived;
the dead men, whom the wind
powders till they are like dolls: they tonight

rest in the sanitary earth perhaps
or where they died, no one has found them
or in their shallow graves the wild dog
discovered or exhumed a face or a leg
for food: the human virtue round them
is a vapour tasteless to a dog’s chops.

All that is good of them, the dog consumes.
You would not know, now the mind’s flame is gone,
more than the dog knows; you would forget
but that you see your own mind burning yet
and till you stifle in the ground will go on
burning the economical coal of your dreams.

Then leave the dead in the earth, an organism
not capable of resurrection, like mines,
less durable than the metal of a gun,
a casual meal for a dog, nothing but the bone
so soon. But tonight no lovers see the lines
of the moon’s face as the lines of cynicism.

And the wise man is the lover
who in his planetary love revolves
without the traction of reason or time’s control
and the wild dog finding meat in a hole
is a philosopher. The prudent mind resolves
on the lover’s or the dog’s attitude forever.

 

[1] If anyone thinks this is taking the implications of the title too seriously, I’d point out that imagining the living as dead is simply the reverse of what happens in the line “till you stifle in the ground”, which gains its power from imagining the dead as living.

One Response to “Notes on Keith Douglas’s “Dead Men””

  1. Asmaa Khalaf said:

    May 02, 20 at 3:21 pm

    hello Mr. Edmund,
    i appreciate your reading of Douglas` ‘Dead Man;. I notice Douglas adopts multi roles to presents the authenticity of the scene, He doesn’t depict only the soldier in the front line but also he sheds light on him as a human, a lover and a dead man. this what makes Douglas different and unique.


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