Keith Douglas, “The Marvel” and “L’Albatros” by Baudelaire

Rereading Baudelaire’s poem “L’ Albatros”, I’ve been struck again by how superior, to my mind, Keith Douglas’s “The Marvel” is. I imagine that Douglas’s poem was fed by Baudelaire’s and flies partly on its wings – his Complete Poems includes several translations of poems by Rimbaud written before “The Marvel”, and the similarity of metaphorical vehicle between the two poems is obvious. But the essential superiority is to do with how Douglas’s mind worked. Where “L’ Albatros” basically expresses one idea, Douglas’s is a brilliantly unresolved mishmash of conflicting feelings, ideas and impressions. No doubt in part this reflects the dislocations of war and the consequent dislocations of response expressed in “Negative Information”:

To this there’s no sum I can find –
the hungry omens of calamity
mixed with good signs, and all received with levity,
or indifference by the amazed mind.

It also reflects a deep-seated habit of mind – the truthfulness about the contradictoriness of his own feelings and the openness to the conflicts of life that make him write so much more illuminatingly about war and about life in general than, say, Owen can.

Both his eagerness to cram everything in and his refusal to simplify contribute to how laden with adjectives “The Marvel” is:

A baron of the sea, the great tropic
swordfish, spreadeagled on the thirsty deck
where sailors killed him in the bright Pacific

yielded to the sharp enquiring blade

How much the adjectives contribute to the muscular, forward-driving power of the writing, and how inadequate they make the standard advice to cut down on adjectives seem. There’s nothing wrong with adjectives if they really have something to say. Here, they’re packed in like explosives in a pot. Unexpectedness is vital to their force, and how unexpected “spread-eagled” is as a description of a fish – and how right it is here. “Eagle” has connotations of power and majesty that go with what the fish was; “spread-eagled”, so incongruously human, evocative of a man flat on his face, has all the grotesque comedy of the swordfish’s present situation as the energy-surge of the first nine words collapses into the bathos of the rest of line two, only to be lifted out of it again by the hard brilliance of “the bright Pacific”. But there’s a fundamental instability to the contradictions of the poem, which are not simple or organised. Just as “Pacific” rhymes with “tropic / swordfish”, the plosive b and P link alliteratively to “baron”, so that underlying the poem’s presentation of the contradiction between the swordfish’s power in its native element and its degradation out of it there’s a contradictory sense that what has happened to the swordfish is apt and right. When the fish yields to a sharp blade it is like a knight or baron being vanquished by a superior foe. At the same time, the word “yielded” is surely chosen with irony: it has connotations of courtesy or at least chivalry incongruous with the brutality (more robber baron than knight of the Round Table) of a fish’s life. The brightness of the Pacific belongs to an element alien to “the dim country” where the swordfish was a lord, but it is also like the brightness of a sword. “Thirsty” is not just a vivid way of saying that the deck is hot and dry; it intimates a vision of the whole natural order as suffused with predatory appetite. In fact the swordfish’s fate is presented with a kind of violent elation rather than with pathos – he has lived by the sword, metaphorically speaking he dies by it, that is how the world is, and the fact that it is so is exciting rather than sad.

This feeling of an elated, excited riding of the violent contradictoriness of the world is sustained through the first four stanzas. Adjectives can often be felt to resist the onward movement of a piece of writing as the mind pauses to register the qualities they describe. I think they work in a paradoxical way here, though. Just as a line ending can break the back of a sentence if there isn’t enough syntactical momentum to stride over it, but can make one feel an extra surge of energy if  there is, as one does between lines one and two here, so I feel that in this poem the thrust of thought swerves between the particularities of “semi-darkness”, “strong traveller”, “powerful enlarging glass” and so on, but keeps on going, sustaining momentum like a large, powerful fish changing direction in response to changes of vibration or looming rocks in the water he swims through.

Most of what I’ve noticed so far has a kind of unity of tone about it. “Powerful enlarging glass”, for example, is a brilliant phrase, meaning much more than “strong magnifying glass” would because by rephrasing the idea it makes us take it on board with less glazed familiarity and register the impact of each word separately. At the same time, it belongs to the same world of feeling as all the other adjectives of force and size, and intensifies rather than redirecting their impact. A quite different tone is suggested by

it is one most curious device
of many, kept by the interesting waves –

Instead of the ironic but excited embrace of violence and absorption in a world of violent intensities, we have a language that stands back in very cool, very detached intellectual reflection. And then, in almost immediate contradiction to that too, in another quite different poetic register, we have the extraordinary hallucinatory imagining of what drowned mariners could tell us:

Let them be your hosts

and take you where their forgotten ships lie
with fishes going over the tall masts.

To sum up, what I think is most remarkable about this poem is not just how startlingly good it is but what startlingly different kinds of goodness it has compacted and bundled together within itself, left in a state of unresolved tension that is true to the contradictoriness of the world. It’s apt that its last word is “too”. “L’ Albatros” may be a highly accomplished piece of writing, but it’s one-dimensional, and there’s an essential shrillness to it, with its insecurely blustering, if also apologetic, romantic image of The Poet (Baudelaire himself?). In “The Marvel”, instead of talking about or justifying himself in face of the world, Douglas grapples with and opens himself to – you might almost say channels – the contradictory marvellousness of the world around him. This, it seems to me, is the truest calling of the poet. And what a poet we lost in Douglas when he was killed at twenty-four.

You can read “L’ Albatros” at . I haven’t been able to find a link to “The Marvel” but for those who don’t already own it, I can’t recommend Douglas’s Complete Poems too highly.

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