Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Keith Douglas: 'Vergissmeinnicht'

The best blog for scholarly discussion of poetry is The Era of Casual Fridays. Its attention to what John Hollander has called 'the minute particulars of particular poems and...the great particularities of particular poets' is forensic in breadth and detail. The blog's author, Mark Richardson, has made his reputation as a scholar and editor of Robert Frost, but Emerson, Dickinson, Melville, and Hardy also feature prominently in his canon.

Richardson's latest blogpost considers the use of rhyme in Byron's 'She Walks in Beauty' and three heavily anthologised poems of the Great War: Owen's 'Dulce et Decorum Est' (about which I have already had my say) and Sassoon's 'Base Details' and 'Blighters'. Directly or indirectly, Richardson's arguments about rhyme follow in the tradition of W. K. Wimsatt's classic essay (which you will probably need to access via a university network.) However, I like his distinction between 'conjunctive' and 'disjunctive' rhymes. Our brains seem ready to assume that words which rhyme also have semantic connections, which is why Byron's counter-intuitive rhyme 'Aristotle' / 'bottle' works to such comic effect. Richardson points out other disjunctive rhymes in Owen and Sassoon, such as the macaronic rhyme 'glory' / 'mori'. That is a complicated example, because in another sense the rhyme may be conjunctive after all: the paths of glory lead but to the grave. And maybe, just maybe, death is battle can be glorious, as most war literature through the ages has insisted.

Although Richardson focuses on full rhymes, a related issue concerns the conjunction or disjunction (harmony or disharmony, consonance or dissonance) of sounds in rhyme. When Owen rhymes 'escaped' with 'scooped', 'groined' with 'groaned', he is inventing what Edmund Blunden definitively termed 'pararhyme'. The exam-hall response to Owen's pararhymes---that they are a strategy for jarring and unsettling the reader---is no less true for being a truism. I suspect that a computer with a good ear would discover that war poetry has a disproportionate number of pararhymes, slant rhymes and off-rhymes of one sort or another.

One problem with pararhyme is that it can relax into predictability. In those poems where he pararhymes at all, Owen pararhymes consistently throughout. Keith Douglas, the grateful inheritor of Owen's experimentation, demonstrates how much can be achieved by using different kinds of rhyme unexpectedly.


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.

This is Owen's 'Strange Meeting' replayed for a more brutal and certainly less conciliatory scene, in which the only tears shed are those of a girlfriend who 'would weep to see' what she will, in fact, never see: pity and voyeuristic fantasy become inseparable. 'Look', commands the living soldier; he takes pleasure in wanting the reader, as well as Steffi, to witness what he has done on our behalf, and to linger over the details. If we refuse the challenge and turn away squeamishly, we are hypocrites. But by looking, we take part in the dishonouring of Steffi's photograph: women have always been a 'spoil' of war, and here she is mercilessly despoiled while the erect machinery mocks her lover's 'decay'. 'Decay' has overtones of detumescence---coming as it does from the Old French decheoir with its implications of falling, weakening, declining. The dead soldier's 'equipment' may be 'hard and good', but his equipment (wink, wink!) will never be hard and good again. Owen's 'Strange Meeting' had ended with enemies befriended and lying down together; Douglas's strange meeting celebrates the continuing potency of the living who laud it sexually over the dead.

Owen invites us to pity; how is Douglas inviting us to feel? If 'Vergissmeinnicht' is, as I believe, one of the greatest lyrics of its century, it is because it discomforts so profoundly. As readers, we never feel assured in our response; we never feel trustful of the speaker's attitudes or intentions. The poem steadfastly refuses to settle into a formal or tonal pattern, its rhymes constantly disconcerting but never becoming predictable. So what sounds initially as if it might reproduce the stanza of In Memoriam---fittingly for a well-behaved elegy of the kind that this turns out not to be---marks its resistance with the slant rhyme 'gone' / 'sun'. A stanza break appears to augur a fresh pattern, but 'gun' / 'on' / 'one' / 'demon' clash amongst themselves and look back to the previous stanza. Eight lines into the poem, and having already encountered pararhyme, slant rhyme and full rhyme, the reader still has no idea of the rules. And so it goes on, with that horrible conjunctive slant rhyme, 'spoil' / 'girl', and a macaronic rhyme of which Owen would be proud: 'Vergissmeinnicht' / 'script'. A poem which can rhyme on 'Vergissmeinnicht' (forget-me-not) is slyly aware that rhyme is itself an act of memory and recall, a repetition-with-variation. What makes Douglas's rhyming powerful is that the variations are themselves so various.

The final stanza contains a feminine rhyme ('mingled' / 'singled') and a pararhyme ('heart' / 'hurt'). In Richardson's terms, 'mingled' and 'singled' are disjunctive: to mingle is to do something like the opposite of 'singl[ing]'. By contrast, 'heart' and 'hurt' go straight to the point, because this is a romantic tragedy in which Steffi has already been imagined broken-hearted. But these chivalric tones are jeering, not respectful: the inversion of 'soldier singled', the lover's 'mortal hurt'---such orotund pronouncements, pumped full of their own afflatus, relish absurdity. What power the living are seen to wield: they can even turn the dead soldier's epitaph into travesty.


  1. Fascinating comments on the rhymes. I also like the way he uses voice and personal pronouns. Re "we never feel trustful of the speaker's attitudes or intentions", I think that's also because we are never allowed to know for sure whether the narrator of this poem, the soldier, is identical with the poet. And that repeated "we" - in "we found the place again", the "we" are plainly soldiers. But in "We see him almost with content" it sounds much more possible that we, the readers, are being associated with the "we" - after all we do, through the poet's agency, "see" the body.

  2. Thanks, Sheenagh. That's a very good point about the speaker. Your comment also reminds me of something I should have mentioned: 'almost with content' is brutal enough, but the more natural phrasing would be 'almost with contempt'. That possibility is barely held at bay, conspicuously absent.

  3. Thanks for the pointer to that blog.

    Neat how, after all the brutal detail, there's the line "And death who had the soldier singled" which to me is distancing, less human - making the whole event small in the greater scheme of things, then smacking back to personal again with "done the lover mortal hurt."

  4. The rhyme, pararhyme, assonance, shifting stanza form all go with the poem's way of wrong-footing us. It sets out to shift our ground in every way. An obvious example is t2he first two stanzas- the implication of "the soldier sprawling" is that he is still alive and it is only slowly that we suspect and learn that he is dead. It's only in the second stanza that we learn he was an enemy soldier.
    Surely the speaker of the poem is "plainly" a soldier, though. He is a soldier, but only by inference and he is not identified exclusively as a soldier as his victim is until the last stanza. On the other hand, the speaker is still alive, so does that mean he is the better soldier too?

  5. Tim, this is a really excellent post. I wondered where rhythm might fit in Douglas' approach here? It feels as though the tentativeness of the pararhymes is matched by a comparative tentativeness in the beat: virtually every stanza seems to be interrupted in some way through the use of punctuation, lending a halting quality to proceedings. It's only in the final stanza where the rhythm is allowed to march unimpeded, and as a result an effect akin to doggerel is achieved, which possibly underlines your argument about the poem's ironic intent in its final lines.

    Also, as an addendum, a couple of days ago you left a comment on my blog, but as a result of troubles that Blogger seemed to be having at the time with new posts, it's been involuntarily deleted. I thought I'd assure you that this wasn't a blogosphere snub on my part, as it's great to have you as a reader.

    All the best,

    Simon @ Gists and Piths

  6. Hi Tim,

    Thank you for the kind words about the Era of Casual Fridays, and for sending me back to my dog-eared copy of "The Verbal Icon" (un-consulted, as the marginalia in it suggests, since my grad school days). Hollander does do some of the best work along the lines you suggests, doesn't he? As in "Form and Resonance," e.g. Thank you also for "Vergissmeinnicht," and your discussion thereof; I'd not known it. (I also now know, and my gratitude for it, the proper term of art for those things I've been calling cross-linguistic rhymes and puns: "macaronic." Good to have the proper name.)

    For my money, Hardy's 1917 volume "Moments of Vision" is among the best responses to the war by a non-combatant. Speaking of Hardy, you've already treated at War Poetry his (later) "Christmas 1924," which has as disjunctive a rhyme as I can imagine (that sting in the tail of the second couplet):

    “Peace upon earth!” was said. We sing it,
    And pay a million priests to bring it.
    After two thousand years of mass
    We’ve got as far as poison-gas.

    "Years of mass" / "poison gas": I guess the wicked joke has as much to do with the gaseous pieties we "pay" priests to purvey, sincerely or not, and which we then believe, sincerely or not, as it does with one kind of "Christian soldiering" and munitions.

    Best regards,

  7. Thanks to all for comments. Blogger is misbehaving. Another reply on this thread has disappeared; I await its second coming.

    I made one or two additions to my original post which have also vanished. I had observed that abba becomes abab and aabb; even the rhyme scheme is unpredictable. Simon's point about the rhythm and punctuation is spot on. I've seen two accounts of the poem which believe that there is such a place as a 'gunpit spoil', for example. I enjoyed Mark's comment on the Hardy poem: 'years of mass' and 'poison-gas' kills the established Church with a single rhyme.

  8. Terrific poem and analysis. Tim, thanks to you and comments too. Yes, rhymes come true... sometimes; they do.

    In long-past versifying, I used slant/off/bigger-words-for-it rhyme a great deal. Heart/hurt? No problem. Nicht/script? Well worth the reach (even if perhaps exceeding grasp). But spoil/girl strikes my ear wrong--too dismissive; a reductio abase'em (to coin a phrase that foolishly exceeds grasp). Also, I believe stanza 2 is more fixed than you suggested, with scheme abab via intended albeit attenuated rhyme: came on/demon.

    In sum,
    a rhyme scheme
    not odd
    but post-Post Mod,
    for prime time
    and fame.

  9. The first sentence of my second paragraph should read: "Surely the speaker of the poem is not "plainly" a soldier, though."
    The last time I tried to correct this my whole comment vanished...

  10. Hadn't read any of this poets work before nor had I even heard of him. Obviously a very talented poet - sad he was taken away so young, yet great that his name lives on in the literary world.

  11. Thank you for your post, I am looking for such article along time, finally i found it in your blog.

  12. Very interesting conclusions about the rhyme scheme; ones I had not reached myself. Although I would say Vegissmeinnicht/script is only a slant-rhyme at best. Although I suppose within your framework, that would be Douglas's intent. ;)

    1. Elizabeth Marsland15 February 2012 at 21:44

      "Vergissmeinnicht" seems to have a obvious parallel in Ivor Gurney's "To His Love", since both involve a speaker, a dead man, and the latter's "love" to whom in Gurney's case the poem is addressed (the counterpart of Steffi). Both are concerned with remembering, and Gurney, too, makes special use of the speaking voice. In the opening, "he", the dead man who was the speaker's friend, is merged with "we" in the memory of idyllic experiences that the three shared, but there is an obvious distinction is between "us" who survive and "he" who is dead. However, it becomes clear gradually, though with increasing urgency, that the more crucial division is not between the dead and the living but between the two groups of survivors--"you", who can find comfort in memories and consolation in the thought of "noble" death, and "I", representing all who have seen active young men reduced to a "red, wet/Thing", whose aim must now be to forget.
      Placing the two poems alongside each other, one realizes how very clearly each represents its own historical period--neither could have been written in the other war.

  13. Does anybody know if the photograph survived or might it be in any of Keith's papers?
    Also what is the source of the German lines in the 1943 version he called "The Lover":
    Mein Mund ist stumm, aber mein Aug'es spricht
    Und was es sagt ist kurs - Vergissmein[n]icht