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A Short Analysis of Keith Douglas’s ‘Vergissmeinnicht’

A summary of a classic WWII poem

Keith Douglas (1920-44) described his poetry as ‘extrospective’, a neat coinage designed to dovetail with the more usual introspection of much English poetry. Douglas, who was killed during the invasion of Normandy on 9 June 1944, aged just 24, is now regarded as one of the greatest British poets of the Second World War, and ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ is one of his most celebrated poems.

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.

‘Vergissmeinnicht’ is the German for ‘forget me not’, which helps to point up the fact that Douglas’s poem is not just a war poem, but a poem dealing with the theme of love. In summary, ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ is spoken by a British soldier who, upon returning with his fellow soldiers to a scene of battle three weeks after the conflict, finds a dead German soldier rotting in the sun. By the dead soldier is a picture of the soldier’s sweetheart, Steffi, who has autographed the picture with her name and the German message ‘Vergissmeinnicht’, ‘forget me not’.

Douglas said in another of his poems that he was simply repeating what Isaac Rosenberg had said. Rosenberg, for Douglas, had perfected war poetry in the previous global conflict, the First World War. And certainly the matter-of-factness that characterises Rosenberg’s finest work, such as his celebrated poem ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’, is also found in Douglas’ poetry, especially in ‘Vergissmeinnicht’. There is no sentimentality here, nor is there even much pity, that staple emotive feature of Wilfred Owen’s work.

But one thing which Douglas may have taken from Wilfred Owen is the use of pararhyme, that off-rhyme falling somewhere between free verse (no rhyme) and full rhyme. Owen frequently deploys this device in his poetry, by ‘rhyming’ ‘killed’ with ‘cold’, for instance. But in ‘Vergissmeinnicht’, Keith Douglas doesn’t employ pararhyme regularly, instead varying between full rhyme and pararhyme throughout the poem. The effect of this is to unsettle our understanding of the poem’s tone, since we cannot be sure sometimes whether we are being offered a quatrain or a pair of couplets in a stanza:

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.

Although ‘gun’ rhymes with ‘one’ here, and ‘came on’ with ‘demon’, the presence of pararhyme in the previous stanza (gone/sun) disturbs any clear distinction between ‘gun’, ‘on’, ‘one’, and ‘demon’, so that ‘gun’ and ‘on’ might almost as easily go together, just as ‘one’ and ‘demon’ chime as pararhyme. Similarly, because the first stanza had rhymed abba, and not abab, we might expect such a rhyme scheme in the second stanza, only to be brought up short just as the soldiers are taken aback by the sight of the decomposing enemy soldier. Then, in the third stanza we get a different ‘rhyme’ scheme again, with pararhyme giving us aabb. In the final stanza, rhyme and pararhyme are placed side by side as the full rhyme of ‘mingled’ and ‘singled’ (two words which complement each other only by looking in opposite directions) is juxtaposed with the pararhyme of ‘heart’ and ‘hurt’. This lends the poem a finality, like the couplet at the end of a Shakespearean sonnet, but a muted finality, given that the last line completes a pararhyme, on the chilling word ‘hurt’.

Then there is the syntax of the poem, which is actually odder than it might first seem (given Douglas’s direct and plain manner of addressing us), and shows what a linguistic innovator Douglas was:

The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing.

Overshadowing what? And where is the main verb in this ‘sentence’? ‘We see him almost with content’ is a similarly troubling phrase, at first leading us into familiar Wilfred Owen territory (the idea that the dead soldier is at peace at last, sleeping and free from all the horror of war), until we realise that ‘with content’ does not apply to ‘him’, the dead soldier, but to ‘We’, the living soldiers who are gazing on him. This borders on Schadenfreude, that distinctly German word which English refuses to allow to be Anglicised (‘gloating’ is the best we have), with Douglas and his fellow soldiers glad the man is not only dead, but rotting, his stomach ‘burst open like a cave’, in the sunshine.

‘Vergissmeinnicht’ is a chilling poem partly because of its directness and its refusal to sentimentalise the scene it describes, or treat the dead soldier with much pity. The only pity is vicariously present in the imagined mourning of Steffi, the girl whom the soldier leaves behind. Douglas offers not ‘the pity of war’ in any obvious sense but a more detached, analytical view. Keith Douglas: The Complete Poems by Keith Douglas (2011-05-19) is available from Faber and Faber and is worth getting hold of. Douglas may have felt he was simply following Rosenberg, but his poetry about the Second World War shows a distinctive and powerful voice. His poetry is worth analysing and studying, but in the first place, he’s worth reading.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on August 31, 2017, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. This is a beautiful poem and an interesting analysis. One note that needs to be added, though, is that “vergiss mich nicht” would be the actual expression of “don’t forget me.” Vergissmeinnicht is actually the name of a flower, the same “forget-me-not” flower we have in English. And it has a cultural heritage already in German with songs by Mozart and Schubert and a poem by Franz von Schober. Ths relation to the flower would be maybe in communication with In Flanders Fields by John McRae.
    Just thought it’s important to add.

  2. New to me: he looks like an innocent schoolboy , but this is savage brutal stuff.

  3. I’d never heard of Douglas, but this is vivid, sharp and brutal. And a very helpful analysis, thank you

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