English soldiers return to the scene of a battle fought three weeks previously and find the dead body of a German soldier, which still lies in the sun and is now decomposing. Beside it lies a photograph of his girlfriend back home on which she has written the word, Vergissmeinnicht (German for forget-me-not).
Structure and Form
The poem is set out in six stanzas of four lines each (quatrains). The rhyme scheme is irregular, with full rhyme in some places and half rhyme in others. This was a technique used by Wilfred Owens and is known as ‘pararhyme’, which you can read more about here. The rhythm varies too, with seven, eight or nine beats per line. It is mostly iambic. We can assume that the poet has deliberately avoided traditional rhythm and rhyme schemes to illustrate the upset and reversal of norms caused by war.
Although the tone is sombre it is almost matter-of-fact about the soldier’s death, and almost devoid of pity, with the exception of stanza five with the reference to his girlfriends and how this sight would make her ‘weep’. A sense of world-weariness prevails: that this is just another casualty of war, and at least he belonged to the enemy’s side. The language employed is simple and unsentimental, but this in no way detracts from the message of the poem, that war is bloody and brutal.
The first two lines are confusing as we struggle to picture how the gun is overshadowing. The poet uses personification in ‘the frowning barrel of his gun’. Is this done to suggest that the gun has failed to protect him and is thus frowning? There is further reference to this in stanza four. Next the diction almost moves into the register of direct speech, as though the speaker in the poem is relaying to his comrades what happened on the day of battle, retelling it in simple monosyllabic language: “he hit my tank with one’. This makes the following simile more hard-hitting: ‘like the entry of a demon’ which shows the harsh and diabolic violence of war. The tone is interesting here as we wonder is the speaker trying to either take credit for having killed this enemy soldier as the first line of stanza four suggests: ‘We see him almost with content,’ or is he trying to justify why he had to kill him.
Again here the direct speech carries on, as though the speaker is leading us, the readers, by the hand, as well as his comrades, to show us his handiwork. The full stop after ‘Look.’ is deliberately jarring as we stop to observe the scene. The line ‘gunpit spoil’ sounds almost clinical, The men now see the man for who he was, not just a random fighter on the opposing side, but a man with a private life and a sweetheart who loved him. However the tone is still dispassionate although at least it is acknowledged that the picture has been ‘dishonoured’ lying beside or on the dead man, presumably sullied by the flies and his remains. Once more the absurdity and horror of war is shown in contrast to real life and her perfect writing in ‘copybook gothic script.’
This is a hard-hitting verse as it reflects the attitude of the onlookers, as they take in the scene before them without sadness or remorse. This is a dog-eat-dog word, the sense prevails that it is a them-or-us situation and rather him than them. In losing this battle he is now ‘abased’ as though he should feel ashamed for having succumbed to death, and this notion is magnified by his munitions. They remain: ‘hard and good when he’s decayed’. The consonance of the ‘ck’ sound in ‘mocked’ and then the hard ‘d’ sounds in placing ‘hard’ and ‘good’ together, are harsh and clipped suggesting that he deserved his fate. Conversely, we could think of the contrast between hard metal and soft flesh and the repercussions when they meet.
Now the true horror of the scene is made explicit. The poet employs vivid imagery to show the extent of the soldier’s injuries. Hard-hitting graphic language is used to make us visualise the flies as they swarm around is face; the delicate skin around the eye is dried so it resembles paper, and finally the description of ‘the burst stomach like a cave’. This simile effectively shows how the shell of gunfire has hollowed out his stomach. He had no chance of survival.
In this concluding stanza finally we feel some appreciation that the corpse which lies here, abandoned to the elements, was a person who meant something to others. It is impossible to differentiate between the soldier and the lover, for they are one in the same. The repetition of the statement ‘one body and one heart’ is moving and we feel that this is perhaps coming home to the soldiers here. The enemy here is seen as ‘death’, which is personified as having ‘singled him’. Tis could be interpreted as his killer shrugging off responsibility, war is war and it is death which takes life, when it chooses. But there is a sense of pity expressed here for the girl, since in losing her lover, she too, has been done a ‘mortal hurt’.
About Keith Douglas
Keith Douglas, (1920-1944) was a blossoming young poet who was tragically killed in the Invasion of Normandy in 1944. In his poetry we can see how he was inspired by the First World War poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, in his direct use of language and unsentimental portrayal of the battlefields.