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Douglas, Keith Castellainfree

(1920–1944)
  • Jon Stallworthy

Keith Castellain Douglas (1920–1944)

by unknown photographer, c. 1942

© reserved; Brotherton Collection, University of Leeds; © reserved in the photograph

Douglas, Keith Castellain (1920–1944), poet, was born on 24 January 1920 at the Garden Road Nursing Home, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, the only child of Captain Keith Sholto Douglas MC, soldier and chicken farmer, and his wife, (Marie) Josephine (b. 1887), daughter of Charles Castellain, a man of private means. His childhood was spent in Cranleigh, Surrey, and he was educated at Edgeborough School, Guildford, where he revealed precocious talents as artist, poet, and sportsman, and at Christ's Hospital, London. In 1927 his father left home and, in due course, remarried. Like Lord Byron, who suffered a similar deprivation and whom he would grow to resemble in other ways, Douglas hero-worshipped the absent captain, at twelve beginning an autobiographical essay: 'As a child he was a militarist, and like many of his warlike elders, built up heroic opinions upon little information—some scrappy war stories of his father.'

In 1938 Douglas won a scholarship to Merton College, Oxford, where his influential tutor was Edmund Blunden, soldier–poet of an earlier war than that for which Douglas enlisted in 1940. A year later, now a second lieutenant, he sailed to Palestine to join the Nottinghamshire Sherwood Rangers yeomanry, a cavalry regiment that had recently exchanged its horses for tanks. Moving with them to north Africa, he was initially held in enforced inactivity behind the lines, a problem which he solved in characteristic style:

The Battle of Alamein began on the 23rd of October, 1942. Six days afterwards I set out in direct disobedience of orders to rejoin my regiment. My batman was delighted with this manoeuvre. ‘I like you, sir,’ he said, ‘You're shit or bust, you are.’ This praise gratified me a lot.

So ends the introduction to Douglas's prose memoir of that battle and its aftermath, Alamein to Zem Zem. Published posthumously in 1946, with his own illustrations and an appendix of poems, this rendered the war in the western desert as graphically as Blunden's Undertones of War (1928) had depicted life and death on the western front.

Douglas had an artist's eye for the horrors—and also the absurdities—of battle. Technically, his war poems show the influence of those of Wilfred Owen, but their language is simpler, more direct, and they have nothing of his indignation. There was less cause for indignation in the desert than in the trenches, and Douglas never lost his insatiable appetite for experience. Where Owen's preface to his poems had declared 'This book is not about heroes', Douglas in both his poetry and prose celebrates the last stand of the chivalric hero, men such as his colonel, Piccadilly Jim. In his poem 'Aristocrats' he asks:

How can I live among this gentleobsolescent breed of heroes, and not weep?

His language, finely responsive to his theme, fuses ancient and modern: his fellow officers are 'gentle', like the 'verray parfit gentil knight' of Geoffrey Chaucer, and at the same time 'obsolescent'.

Douglas was wounded by a mine in January 1943, but survived the desert campaign. Back in England for Christmas, he wrote some of his best poems, collected and copied others, and by the end of March had completed manuscripts of Alamein to Zem Zem and a volume of poems.

Douglas commanded a tank troop in the main assault on the Normandy beaches, and his death outside the village of St Pierre, on 9 June 1944, robbed English literature—as had Owen's death in 1918—of the most individual and accomplished poet of his generation. He was unmarried, and was buried in the war cemetery at Tilly-sur-Seulles, France.

Sources

  • K. Douglas, Alamein to Zem Zem, ed. D. Graham (1979)
  • The complete poems of Keith Douglas, ed. D. Graham (1978)
  • Keith Douglas: a prose miscellany, ed. D. Graham (1985)
  • D. Graham, Keith Douglas, 1920–1944: a biography (1974)

Archives

  • BL, corresp., literary MSS, and papers, Add. MSS 53773–53776, 56355–56360, 57977, 59833–59835
  • U. Leeds, Brotherton L., corresp., literary MSS, and papers
  • BL, letters to Brenda Jones
  • BL, letters to Margaret Stanley-Wrench, Add. MS 57977

Likenesses

  • photograph, 1942, U. Leeds, Brotherton L. [see illus.]
  • K. C. Douglas, self-portrait, BL
  • photograph, NPG
  • photographs, U. Leeds, Brotherton L.

Wealth at Death

negligible: Graham, Keith Douglas