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VINCENT SHERRY Hectic Stasis: The War Poetry of Keith Douglas Since his death in 1944, Keith Douglas's reputation as a poet has grown considerably, but fitfully. Largely disregarded for his imaginative daring by the Movement writers, he appealed to poets a half-generation younger than himself, who found in him a stark vitality, a counterforce to what was, for them, the drably mechanical verse being written in the 19508. Ted Hughes hailed Douglas's 'burning exploratory freshness of mind'; Geoffrey Hill praised a 'fearlessness of the imagination.' Yet Hill's assessment in 1964 of Douglas's ambivalent stature - 'at once "established" and overlooked'1 - remains relevant today. 'Established,' one might say, and 'avoided,' for it is the particular ability of Douglas'S art to disconcert. The best of the war poems exhibit a coolness, a bracing diffidence and restraint. The sort of stoic verve that Yeats captures in his 'Irish Airman' Douglas can match in the icy bravura of 'How to Kill': Now in my dial of glass appears the soldier who is going to die. He smiles, and moves about in ways his mother knows, habits of his. The wires touch his face: I cry NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears and look, has made a man of dust of a man of flesh.2 Some readers may relegate such composure to the tight-lipped insensitivity of the officers' mess;3 others may find his insouciance a powerful coadjutor to the brutalities it records. Yet the combination of realistic violence and emotional composure strikes me as the mark of Douglas'S special achievement as a war poet. A pictorial as well as stylistic discipline informs his best poems; recognizing these components enables one not only to appreciate the verse, but to assess its complex effects and understand its place within the tradition of modern war poetry. Alamein to Zem Zem, Douglas'S diary-memoir of his experience in the North Africa desert campaign, is often a vivid narrative of combat action. UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 58, NUMBER 2, WINTER 1988/9 296 VINCENT SHERRY However, most ofhis war poems offer post-combat settings. The dead are the figures in his warscapes. Yet these tableaux are as if alive; the dead are usually arrested in the gestures of life, and of life at its most intense in the instant of its extinction. The picture of a frantic mortuary is Douglas's visual signature, as in 'Landscape with Figures 2': On scrub and sand the dead men wriggle in their dowdy clothes. They are mimes who express silence and futile aims enacting this prone and motionless struggle at a queer angle to the scenery crawling on the boards of the stage like walls deaf to the one who opens his mouth and calls silently. (CP, 103, emphases added) There is a kind of hectic stasis here; suspended in their frenzy, the figures are at once antic and grave. Similar images appear in 'Cairo Jag,' a post-combat scene glimpsed from the imaginative distance of the Egyptian city: '" you can imagine the dead themselves, their boots, clothes and possessions clinging to the ground... (CP, 97, emphases added) These scenes reveal more than a casually pictorial quality. Behind them lies the specific influence and model of Aubrey Beardsley, above all the graphic work he exhibited in the Yellow Book. Douglas wrote an essay on the Yellow Book in 1940 for the Oxford magazine the Cherwell. It is a revealing irony here that Douglas scolds a Beardsley who has 'postured away his life';4 Douglas is himself posturing in this piece, putting on an adult probity that must censor the English 'decadents.' For Douglas is engaged far more deeply and imaginatively by the vivid particulars of Beardsley's art than by its moral issues. Indeed, as prelude to the double effects in his own warscapes, he appreciates the rival qualities of the florid and statuesque in the drawings. He observes these opposing traits in consecutive perceptions, however, not yet as a simultaneity in the art. First he notes the hectic whorl: 'The decadents who produced the Yellow Book became entangled in their own complications, as the eye is entangled by the involved...


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