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2. Modernist Non-fictional Narratives of War and Peace (1914-1950)
I/ Non-fiction Fusions and Generic Instability

Life-Writing, Subjectivity, Art: Keith Douglas in Egypt During the Second World War



This paper argues that Keith Douglas’s art is centrally about the condensation or simplification of emotion into image. It examines Douglas’s approaches to writing war. By looking at the several modes of Douglas’s war writing (autobiography, letters, poetry and the short story), it traces the evolution of the autobiographical into the poetical and outlines Douglas’s aesthetic strategies of turning (war) experience into art or, on a more general level, demonstrates how life-writing translates itself into poetry.

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1In May 1943, having completed several war poems and started on his narrative of desert fighting in North Africa, Alamein to Zem Zem, Keith Douglas writes an essay that reads almost as a complaint, an essay he entitles “Poets in this War”. In it, Douglas appears bemused by the fact that “In the fourth year of this war, we have not a single poet who seems to be an impressive commentator on it” (“Poets in this War” 351). The First World War, Douglas argues, had “inspired [the writers of WWI] to their finest efforts” and demanded a new aesthetics, “a new type of writing to comment” (“Poets in this War” 350). Second World War writing, conversely, had not. “There are such poets but they do not write. They do not write because there is nothing new, from a soldier’s point of view, about this war except its mobile character. […] Hell cannot be let loose twice […] Almost all that a modern poet on active service is inspired to write, would be tautological” (“Poets in this War” 352). Douglas here self-reflexively questions a literary tradition of representing the personal imaginary in war, negotiating his own position as both critic and “modern poet” who is thinking, writing and reading the lived realities of the Second World War in the light of the modernist tradition.

2This essay would like to use Douglas’s argument as a starting point to subsequently interrogate his non-fictional prose writings as an expansion and potential revision of modernist ways of thinking and writing war. Having been tutored by Edmund Blunden at Oxford, Douglas was only too well aware of the generation of writers and writing before him and only too interested in renewing and rewriting their ways of transforming experience into art. Like many of his predecessors, Douglas has become known for his war poetry, yet much of his own early responses to the desert war are prose and non-fictional: we have his Letters and his autobiographical narrative, Alamein to Zem Zem, written during the desert war, as well as his Collected Poems. My paper will examine Douglas’s approaches to writing war and thereby also think about ways in which Second World War writing is indebted to or moving on from both the writings of the First World War and its characteristic modernist techniques, as Malcolm Bradbury suggested in “What Happened to Writing in the 40s, or Closing Time in the Gardens of the West” (1987). Where this volume as a whole is interested in the non-fictional prose writings of the modernist period, this essay would like to extend the idea of the modernist in spotlighting Keith Douglas’s conscious reworking of these traditions as a case in point. In Modernist Non-Fictional Narratives: Rewriting Modernism, Christine Reynier and Adrian Paterson have questioned how “modernism becomes tradition” and emphasised the need for a “reinvigorated sense of modernism’s own historical arc, which reconsiders its continuities and conventions, and the foundations of its lexicon” (2). As the essay quoted above makes clear, Keith Douglas’s writings on the Second World War are an interesting example of the expansion and continuities of this historical arc and of the conscious employment as well as the personal revisioning of this modernist lexicon.

1. Authenticity, experience, art

3The perhaps central idea to Douglas’s above-quoted essay “Poets in this War” is his belief that new experience is quintessential to a new way of writing and representation. Douglas stresses this again a couple of months later, in a letter to J.C. Hall dated 10 August 1943, and thus well into what has been termed Douglas’s “second” and mature phase of writing: “I never tried to write about war… until I had experienced it” (Letters 295). All of Douglas’s writing is deeply rooted in personal experience and it is striking how his war writings, poetry and prose, interrelate in a complex layering of this. Many of Douglas’s writings hover between the autobiographical and the poetical, yet they always return to the fundamental belief in personal experience and the autobiographically referential.

4This becomes very clear in Douglas’s journalistic narrative of the desert war, Alamein to Zem Zem, which he opens by insisting that

I am not writing about these battles as a soldier, nor trying to discuss them as military operations. I am thinking of them – selfishly but as I always shall think of them – as my first experience of fighting: that is how I shall write of them. To say I thought of the battle of Alamein as an ordeal sounds pompous: but I did think of it as an important test, which I was interested in passing. (5)

5Alamein to Zem Zem, we may understand, is about individual, lived experience of the desert war, but it is life-writing more than objective war description, it is potentially more about the author’s attempt to create reputation and autobiographical self than about an objective rendering of collective history. At the same time, however, Douglas marks his text as a consciously literary account employing and originating in aesthetic strategy:

I observed these battles partly as an exhibition – that is to say that I went through them a little like a visitor from the country going to a great show, or like a child in a factory – a child sees the brightness and efficacy of steel machines and endless belts slapping round and round, without caring or knowing what it is all there for. When I could order my thoughts I looked for more significant things than appearances; I still looked – I cannot avoid it – for something decorative, poetic or dramatic. (Alamein to Zem Zem 5)

6Observation and encounter, perhaps even intuitive effect rather than cognitive understanding, is here followed by a process of ordering of experience, described as a process of selecting significant form that needs to be differentiated from mere appearance and fleeting impression. As I will argue below, there is a gradual progression in Douglas’s war writing which transforms experience and personal emotion into what he called “extrospective” writing and which simplifies and narrows down what Virginia Woolf might have called the “myriad impressions” of life into the single powerful image or text. Looking at Douglas’s war writing, we can observe his aesthetic strategies of turning (war) experience into art and, on a more general level, see how subjective experience is turned into life-writing which in turn translates itself into poetry in what I will call a characteristic strategy of “simplification”.

2. Emotion, perspective, “extrospection”

7If Douglas’s work is deeply rooted in personal experience, part of the transformation of subjective experience into art for him lies in the transformation of momentary emotion into image and/or what Yeats might have called the emotional symbol. In Alamein to Zem Zem Douglas frequently stresses how “These were the intensest moments of physical fear, outside of dreams, I have ever experienced” (Alamein to Zem Zem 36). The process of writing comes as a quasi-Wordsworthian process of condensation of this strong personal emotion: on 11 July 1943 Douglas writes from the front to his London publisher Tambimuttu how “What I have written has been written in hospitals, Con. Depots, Base depots etc. – emotion recollected in tranquillity” ( Letters 126). As Douglas details in a letter to JC Hall dated 10 August 1943, writing is also a process of selection and simplification into the significant or the true –

A lyric form and a lyric approach will do even less good than a journalese approach to the subjects we have to discuss now. I don’t know whether you have come across the word Bullshit – it is an army word and signifies humbug and unnecessary detail. It symbolizes what I think must be got rid of – the mass of irrelevancies, of “attitudes”, “approaches”, propaganda, ivory towers, etc., that stands between us and our problems and what we have to do about them. … But my object (and I don’t give a damn about my duty as a poet) is to write true things, significant things in words each of which works for its place in a line. […] Perhaps all this may make it easier for you to understand why I am writing the way I am and why I shall never go back to the old forms. You may even begin to see some virtue in it. To be sentimental or emotional now is dangerous to oneself and to others. (Letters 294-5)

8For Douglas, then, the transformation of the personal into art, or even of the emotional into “true things” lies in selection, in simplification and in the finding of new aesthetic forms. I would like to argue here, however, that Douglas’s own strategies as evidenced in his own literary writings, do in fact go back to “old forms”, centrally to the modernist strategy of condensing personal emotion into image.

9Already in his earlier writings, dating back to his Oxford days, Douglas writes how he had hoped “that some of the earlier experiences may shake out into a perspective in which I may look at them unemotionally” (Prose Miscellany 9). The “unemotional” is also what Douglas calls “extrospection”, perspective, or form. Douglas’s friend J.C. Hall complained of this in a letter to Keith’s mother, finding that “these poems from abroad seem to lack the emotional and intellectual validity of his best work…He seems to me to be writing too remotely, cleverly, but not movingly”(Prose Miscellany 121). Douglas, however, in turn criticised Hall’s writing as “too involved and precious”, advising him in a letter dated 26 June 1943: “I think you need a little more cynicism, or should I say Indifference to emotion once felt…You are too much affected” (Letters 288). Douglas’s biographer, editor and critic Desmond Graham has accordingly likened Douglas’s writing to “reportage”, and argued that “forms became his perspective, a means to detachment” (IX), that even his poems are “a report on experience”, “lucidly and with a control which was more disquieting than a show of emotion” (IX). More recent critics have called Douglas “cold-hearted and chillingly gifted” and attributed to him “an anaesthetizing cynical energy” (Adam 18). Yet, as argued above, Douglas himself attested in Alamein to Zem Zem how all of his writing roots in intense emotion: “I am not likely to produce anything but virtual repetitions of these, until the war is cleared up now, because I doubt if I shall be confronted with any new horrors or any worse pains, short of being burnt up, which I am not likely to survive” (Prose Miscellany 123). Writing war, for Douglas, is about the transformation of horror and emotion into art and historical truth, a transformation effected through perspective and, centrally, through visual form.

3. “Pictures”: simplification, image, significant form

10In both his autobiographical narrative and his poetry and shorter fiction, Douglas seems obsessed with visual impression and indeed, the centrality of image to writing. Two letters confirm this: sending a couple of freshly written poems from Cairo to Edmund Blunden at Oxford, Douglas writes on 3 September 1943: “What I am aiming at is a series of pretty simple pictures” (Letters 297). In a subsequent letter to Tambimuttu dated 2 January 1944 he again insists on the pictorial, “the idea being entirely to give a vivid picture, more than an account” (Letters 313). Keith Douglas’s letters, his autobiographical narrative Alamein to Zem Zem and his poetry and short stories all centre on highly constructed “pictures” or images. In these writings, we find recurring passages which are indicative of Douglas’s method, the condensation of a central image to express emotion and, conversely, his simplification of intense personal emotion into what he calls “pictures”. I find two examples of how these “pictures” progress from autobiographical narrative into poetry and fiction particularly pertinent.

3.1 Autobiographical narrative > poetry, Alamein to Zem Zem > “Cairo Jag”

11In Douglas’s autobiographical narrative of the desert battle of El Alamein, he recounts his experience of fighting, chronicling the events and happenings of each day but also ordering them into what appears like a series of strategically constructed tableaux detailing the desert war. Very often these reflect a strange emotional distance, turning the involved speaker into an observer figure – in accordance with Douglas’s declared “extrospective” stance. A recurring motif is the encounter with dead bodies in the desert landscape. As Vincent Sherry has argued, the “dead are the figures in his warscapes” as Douglas “builds a scene in his prose-memoir around that creative paradox of hectic stasis […] and sets about turning images of chaos into a grim but placid statuary” (296-297). Douglas’s tableaux are reducing the action of battle to stills in a nightmare landscape, freezing time and life into the permanence of death and art.

12In the early pages of Alamein to Zem Zem, Douglas describes an encounter with the desert dead:

The bodies of some Italian infantrymen still lay in their weapon pits, surrounded by pitiable rubbish, picture postcards of Milan, Rome, Venice, snapshots of their families, chocolate wrappings, and hundreds of cheap cardboard cigarette packets. (Alamein to Zem Zem 50)

13This is only one example of many “images” of bodies – and by far not the most graphic one. I am choosing it here because it is one of the “pictures” Douglas defines in Alamein to Zem Zem and later rewrites in his poetry. The atrocity of war is concentrated in these images of the dead while the scattered objects and belongings around them re-humanise and re-subjectify them, as if a call for compassion or pity. They remind the reader that really they are “pitiable” human beings, while the speaker insists on their insignificance in the war waste land – having lost their individual histories they have become rubbish also, turned into objects which clutter the desertscape Douglas’s tank passes through. Sherry has concluded that the frequently “terse, even elegant understatement contrasts with and defines the violence in the scene. The lunatic stasis in the landscapes, then, is more than a visual conceit; it signals the composure of the speaker in the face of such violence. For the control required to frame a scene of carnage as an aesthetic object offers “’composure’ […] in the shaping spirit” (Sherry 297). Similarly, Tim Kendall speaks of a “photographic detachment” of Douglas’s speakers and argues suggestively that the “dead body is, overwhelmingly, the central image in Douglas’s work, and each corpse poses new ethical challenges for the poet and reader” (151). Kendall maintains that the “prominence of the visual is singular and fundamental to Douglas’s work: it constitutes nothing less than an ‘ethic of sight’” (151) as it “proposes that to look is a moral act – an act of self-recognition which also recognizes affinities between sufferer and spectator” (161). This leads to a technique where the “burden of emotion has shifted from the poet – as in Owen – on to the readers, who must therefore not merely approve the poet’s response but acknowledge their own disturbing emotions” (Kendall 158). The seemingly unmoved speaker’s position in Douglas contrasts and conflicts with the reader’s emotionality, compassion, pity or even horror – in this sense Douglas’s narrative functions not as a reflection of his own emotion but as a conscious play with the reader’s.

14This distinctly modernist use and manipulation of the reader’s emotion through a “picture” or tableau is something Douglas matures in his most powerful poetry. In “Cairo Jag” for instance he rewrites and develops the “picture” from Alamein to Zem Zem,

The vegetation is of iron
Dead tanks, gun barrels split like celery
The metal brambles have no flowers or berries
And there are all sorts of manure, you can imagine
The dead themselves, their boots, clothes and possessions
Clinging to the ground, a man with no head
Has a packet of chocolate and a souvenir of Tripoli (97)

15Sherry has commented on Douglas’s use of the poetic image here and his way “to let his pictures stand without building up the meaning of the poems from outside”. Sherry likens this use of the pictorial to the writings of Beardsley and Yeats, concluding that the “crafted paradox of hectic stasis in Douglas’s verse […] resonates strongly within the traditions of modernism and symbolism” (Sherry 298). While I would fully agree with this, the superimposition of the natural world and the war machine in “Cairo Jag”’s rewritten version remind me even more of Pound’s imagist idea of an “equation” of images as put into practice for instance in his “In a Station of the Metro”. The depiction of the war rubble in terms of nature produces the same conflicting image and emotionalities. Pound had written about finding an “adequate equation that came into consciousness” and the “pleasure in an arrangement of planes or in a pattern of figures” (464). Douglas, I would argue, is crafting his images through precisely such a conscious patterning. As the waste-land perversion of the natural world in “Cairo Jag” culminates in the reduction of the human to dead rubbish, however, he is playing less with equation than with conflict (fittingly for his subject): the natural innocence of the nature imagery he employs seems more than inadequate, even antithetical to, the horror of experience and to the war machinery it defines. Pound had said of his “one image poem” that “in a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective” (466). Douglas’s “Cairo Jag” employs exactly the same strategy. As the poem closes with the intensified image of the decapitated corpse holding its humanising objects it also amplifies its artistic strategy: the reduction of experience into the emotional symbol or “picture” calls for the reader’s involvement: “you can imagine”.

3.2 Autobiographical narrative > story, Alamein to Zem Zem > “The Little Red Mouth”

16This distinctly modernist use of “pictures” characterises Douglas’s war writings throughout, prose narrative as well as poetry. As he translates images from narrative autobiography into poetry, they become more crafted, intensified. If this holds true for the example analysed above, it happens repeatedly enough in Douglas’s writing to be thought of as strategy or artistic process. A similar genesis of Douglas’s tableaux, of his writing becoming more literary or constructed as it moves from the prose autobiographic to the poetical or fictional, can be observed also in the progression of image or “picture” from autobiographical prose narrative into short story. In October 1943, while in Beni Yusef, Douglas writes four short stories which, as his desert journal proves, directly come from his own emotional experience few weeks before. They directly rewrite images which he had recorded previously in his desert journal.

17In a passage in Alamein to Zem Zem Douglas describes another encounter with the desert dead:

I looked down into the face of a man lying hunched up in a pit. His expression of agony seemed so acute and urgent, his stare so wild and despairing, that for a moment I thought him alive. He was like a cleverly posed waxwork, for his position suggested a paroxysm, an orgasm of pain. He seemed to move and writhe. But he was stiff. The dust which powdered his face like an ancestor’s lay on his wide-open eyes, whose stare held my gaze like The Ancient mariner’s. He had tried to cover his wounds with towels against the flies. His haversack lay open, from which he had taken towels and dressings. His water-bottle lay tilted with the cork out. Towels and haversack were dark with dried blood, darker still with a great concourse of flies. This picture, as they say, told a story. It filled me with useless pity. (47)

18Powerful or significant enough to let the speaker forget his “extrospective” stance and “fill him with useless pity”, this picture not only “tells a story” but is turned into story by Douglas. One of the Beni Yusef stories, “The Little Red Mouth”, published in Stand posthumously and as late as 1970, centres around the mirror image of the Alamein to Zem Zem picture,

I was looking down into the pit. It was like carefully posed waxwork. He lay propped against one end of the pit, with his neck stretched back, mouth open, dust on his tongue. Eyes open, dulled with dust; and the face, yellowish with dust, a doll’s or an effigy’s. He had a woollen cap on his head. The blood on his shirt was brown, hardened until the cloth was cardboard: he had opened his haversack and taken out towels to wrap round his legs against the flies. But the blood had soaked through the towels and the flies had defeated him. A crowd of flies covered him: there were black congregations of them wherever the patches of blood were, and they were crawling on his face in ones and twos. His left hand was raised, supported in the air apparently by rigor mortis, the fingers crooked as though taking hold. It was this seeming to be arrested in motion, which made the pose so vivid. The right hand clutched together a corner of the towel, as if he had seized it that moment, when a wave of pain washed over him. Pain, a climax or orgasm of pain, was expressed in his face and attitude as I would not have believed a motionless body and countenance could express it. It is not too much to say his position was a cry of pain.

I looked at him, trembling with horror, stunned into involuntary speech, saying over and over again, in an audible whisper: “et la bouche vermeillette”. (360-61)

19Again, rewriting the image amounts to intensifying and strengthening but also to “extrospectively” shaping it, it crystallises an image that expresses emotional intensity – “la bouche vermeillette” becoming the emotional symbol for the otherwise inexpressible horror of war. And again, the image, as it moves from prose narrative into short story, is about the expression of emotion in life turned art in a way that echoes modernist strategy. At the same time, however, the condensation of horror in this particular image also seems to foreshadow later theory and artwork such as Julia Kristeva’s idea of the abject or Damien Hirst’s fascination with horror and death in his A Thousand Years (1990).

4. Conclusion: modernism, generic transgression, subjectivity

20As I hope to have shown with these two brief examples, much of Douglas’s war writing is about condensing and rewriting emotional experience into abstracted image. In doing so, his war writing always is a progression or series of revisionings from subjective experience into non-fictional prose narrative into art. The autobiographic Alamein to Zem Zem seems to function as the site of recording, albeit in an aesthetically shaped form, personal experience which will be later reworked and condensed into more fictional forms of writing (shorter fiction, poetry) through Douglas’s characteristic aesthetic strategies of simplification and “extrospection”. In this, Douglas’s art of simplification, of turning experience into writing, seems to carry echoes of much modernist thought, most obviously perhaps that of Pound’s famous definition of the poetic image as an “intellectual and emotional complex in an instance of time” (Pound 6, 200), or even of TS Eliot’s emotional correlative (“Hamlet”145). Eliot had been in touch with Keith Douglas during the war, a connection helped by Douglas’s tutor and friend Edmund Blunden. Yet although Eliot had written kindly to Douglas, Douglas had concluded that “I seem to lack the correctly exotic style and don’t really get on very well with the present rulers of poetic society” (Letters 172). In this, we may see Douglas’s double-stance on literary tradition. There is a highly modernist belief to his way of doing art: his war writing is about transforming intense personal emotion into something he calls truth, or art – which lastly remains subjective but in a typically modernist way, subjectively objective, or with a claim to the subjective historical true. At the same time, however, Douglas is seen to constantly question modernism, rewriting his own experience, bent on finding his own “extrospective” voice, all too frequently being frustrated by his own dictum that “I shall never go back to the old forms” (Letters 294).

21Where Douglas’s idea of “extrospective” use of “pictures” in poetry, then, attests to his own personal modernism, I believe it is equally interesting to read his work in the light of current debates of life writing and fictionality, centrally those of autobiography and poetry. In 1940, Douglas publishes an essay “On the Nature of Poetry” in which he writes, “Nor can prose or poetry be compared any more than pictures and pencils: the one is the instrument and the other the art” (44). Prose is here endowed with immediacy and perhaps even roughness while poetry is what is used as synonymous with art. Further down in the essay, however, Douglas writes that “Poetry may be written in prose or verse, or spoken extempore. For it is anything expressed in words, which appeals to the emotions either in presenting an image or picture to move them; or by the music of words affecting them through the senses; or in stating some truth whose external quality exacts the same reverence as eternity itself” (“On the Nature of Poetry” 44). Poetry here becomes synonymous with art – which is perhaps the explanation for Douglas’s frequent recycling of an image once found (as shown above, this image will then permeate both prose narrative and poetry with very little alteration). Keith Douglas’s art is centrally about the condensation or simplification of emotion into image, and as we can see from these visual progressions from prose narrative to the poetical or fictional it is not about the generic form he employs.

22This also implies, however, that in spite of “extrospection” the poetical or fictional is precisely the site where the autobiographical can be explored. Ted Hughes praised Douglas’s poetry for this generic transgression, stating that Douglas “combines a colloquial prose readiness with poetic breadth, a ritual intensity and music of an outstandingly high order with clear direct feeling, and yet in the end is nothing but casual speech” (48). Perhaps, then, the war writings of Keith Douglas are also an example of how current theories of poetry and autobiography or its expansion into a more heterogeneous and fluid life writing might find common ground. Perhaps, after all, they are indicative that between experience and art, prose and poetry, autobiographical narrative and poetry – or, in Douglas’s terminology, between pictures and pencils – there is merely a very shadowy boundary. And that, as Jo Gill and Melanie Waters have argued in Poetry and Autobiography, these forms lastly are equally “prompting us to think about the relationships between language, subject, poetic text and reader” and that “because of its explicit and (self-)conscious linguistic license, its condensation, its freedom to push and twist and test the language which is our first and only autobiographical tool, poetry may be precisely the place where concerns shared by both genres might best be crystallized and explored” (5).

23Keith Douglas’s last and unfinished project of a multimodal book of war – which, killed in battle in Normandy on 9 June 1944, he was unable to finish – attests best to this generically transgressive idea of subjectivity and text and to the importance he attached to “pictures” or “images” in his art:

I have been thinking over the idea of a book containing prose, verse, photographs and drawings, and I think the best arrangement would be to produce a fairly small volume, called something like Landscape with figures, or Figures on a battlefield, with an oddish jacket. […] Inside the book 10 prose pieces from the diary, dealing with actual scenes. […]. 10 photographs, which need not necessarily be selected from mine – although at least some of mine would do (I can get the dead men negatives). 10 poems, all to do with the battlefields between Alamein and Tunisia, possibly one or two letters from the battlefield to my mother or anyone else, and 10 drawings. […] This may sound very disjointed, but I think my careful arrangement could be more of a unity than simply poems and a straightforward account. […] It would need some preface, which I would write. (Letters 313-4)

24In his final large work on the war, unity, as he tells his publisher Tambimuttu, was to lie in subjectivity and vision, in image, and in textual arrangement. Keith Douglas’s war writings thus unsettle and question the boundaries of the fictional and non-fictional which we think about in this volume and certainly are evidence of how both modes of writing intersect and permeate each other. They suggest that the real difference is not between prose writing or fiction but between “pictures” and “pencils”.

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Bradbury, Malcolm.“What Happened to Writing in the 40s, or Closing Time in the Gardens of the West”. No, Not Bloomsbury. André Deutsch, 1987, pp. 67-84.

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Electronic reference

Andrea RUMMEL, « Life-Writing, Subjectivity, Art: Keith Douglas in Egypt During the Second World War », E-rea [Online], 17.2 | 2020, Online since 15 June 2020, connection on 13 August 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author


Justus-Liebig Universität Giessen, Germany
Dr. Andrea Rummel teaches British Literary and Cultural Studies at Giessen University, Germany. Her publications mainly focus on British modernism and British Romantic literature and culture. Apart from various essays in collections and journals, she is the author of Delusive Beauty: Femmes Fatales in English Romanticism (Bonn U. P., 2008).

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