Keith Douglas

(January 24, 1920 – June 9, 1944 / Tunbridge Wells, Kent)

Vergissmeinnicht - Poem by Keith Douglas

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.


Comments about Vergissmeinnicht by Keith Douglas

  • Mike Houlding (8/23/2017 6:55:00 PM)


    A wondrful poem and poet. Totally unsentimental and with no self pity. (Report) Reply

    1 person liked.
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  • (4/7/2017 5:15:00 PM)


    Death, love, victors and victims. Life filled with fever and favor. We all win, we all lose. (Report) Reply

  • Lantz Pierre (4/7/2017 3:29:00 AM)


    There is very little to add to the thorough and penetrating critique of this poem supplied by Terry Craddock below. Such meticulous and insightful analyses are rarely met with on these pages and I applaud his effort.

    The only addition I can offer is the important role of the title, Vergissmeinnicht, a German word meaning forget me not. I think it is key that this word has not been translated, but left in its original as found in the third stanza of the poem as part of a note between soldier and lover. As it appears in the poem it is pure reportage of the scene, we don't even know if the observer is aware of its English meaning. But it does telegraph the nationality of the dead figure, and thus the greater setting of the poem. Furthermore, used as a title it begs the reader to find a translation and meaning as it applies the whole work. And as it applies to the totality of the poem I think it's clear that the reference is to both the deceased soldier and the horror of war as well as the presumably innocent lover who has been forever detached from this object of her desire. A stunning, thought provoking work.
    (Report) Reply

  • Bernard F. Asuncion (4/7/2017 2:32:00 AM)


    The dust upon the paper eye.... thanks for posting... (Report) Reply

  • Edward Kofi Louis (4/7/2017 12:55:00 AM)


    Three weeks gone! ! Thanks for sharing this poem with us. (Report) Reply

  • Terry Craddock (4/30/2015 9:16:00 PM)


    Three weeks dead is a ripe convulsive corpse, the imagery is stark, unsettling, graphic, realist, form the personification of the 'frowning barrel of his gun' lies the implication of other hits upon other tanks both made and not made; the last hit was upon the narrator's tank

    As we came on
    that day, he hit my tank with one
    like the entry of a demon.

    No mention is made of deaths or casualties suffered by the narrator's tank crew, this is a surgical viewing of the fallen enemy, who has been left not on the glorious heroic field of battle but on the 'nightmare ground' unburied.

    The first stanza introduction to this slain enemy is low key, he is 'found
    the soldier sprawling in the sun' as if sunbathing. In the third stanza like tourists viewing points of interest in a foreign landscape we are commanded

    Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
    the dishonoured picture of his girl
    who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.
    in a copybook gothic script. **

    No pity is immediately expressed, no remorse, the implications of simmering anger and hatred linger, are expressed as

    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.

    He his paid the price for his past killings in death, even his equipment is valued more than he, his weapons remain hard and good as he decays, will remain formidable when he is completely decayed. The impact of how his corpse looks crawling with flies is delivered through contrast, his girlfriend or wife, remembers him strong youth as he was

    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.

    In the last stanza are intermixed two images, 'lover and killer', the lover she knew who will never return and the killer left to rot. She remembers 'one body and one heart', we have been introduced to the staring face of death; the paper eye dust covered is lifeless, the stomach blown open with a horrific wound like a cave, the open life upon the features of this decaying wreck of youth is 'on his skin the swart flies move'. This is the image we carry into the final stanza, without a prayer we will leave this rotting corpse

    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.

    Death is stronger than love, love failed to protect the soldier, the lover's heart will beat no more, because death singled this lover out and did his 'lover mortal hurt.' Those who glorify war should learn a lesson from this poem.
    10+++
    (Report) Reply

    Rod Mendieta Rod Mendieta (4/7/2017 11:24:00 AM)

    Yes. All along I was thinking 'a slap in the face of those thinking it's glorious to die for your country'... though we don't really know if his soul was spirited away by a beautiful Walküre.

  • (12/4/2005 5:30:00 AM)


    Litteral and metaphorical memories of a past battle. (Report) Reply

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Read poems about / on: soldier, girl, today, death, sun, heart



Poem Submitted: Monday, January 13, 2003



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