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Vergissmeinnicht is one of the most famous works of Keith Douglas, an acclaimed poet of the Second World War. It is a poem that examines the human tragedy of armed combat, and the sadness for those left behind by soldiers going to war. The poem focuses on Douglas’s discovery of a photograph belonging to a dead gunner. It is a picture of the man’s girlfriend, inscribed with the phrase ‘Do not forget me’.
By looking at the early drafts of the poem, we can gain some insight into the creative process that led Douglas to his final draft – and also observe ideas and elements that
were discarded or changed as the poem took shape.
The earliest known version of Vergissmeinnicht is A Dead Gunner, which was found heavily cancelled in the back of Douglas’s own copy of his book Selected Poems. Another version of the poem, The Lover, is very similar to the finished work but has a different emphasis.
This first draft of the poem, A Dead Gunner, sees Douglas attempting to relay his story without fully considering on what aspects he should focus; the inscription on the photograph, which is the entire foundation of the final work, is given no special attention here… and the plight of the dead soldier is somewhat eclipsed by the detailed narrative prologue.
The poem opens with a battle in which the author was involved. He speaks of a friend who was killed during the conflict – ‘Bilby, quite still, dribbling spittle’ – adding a note of personal grievance to the tale.
The enemy gun is knocked out, and the German soldiers escape, to ‘skulk in the mountains’. This choice of words makes them sound shady and mysterious, and hints at the author’s distate for the opposing force.
‘[But] they left one,’
A dead German soldier is discovered three weeks later. The author reflects that he may have been the boy ‘to whom Steffi had written Vergissmeinnicht’- the owner of the inscribed photograph lying in the ditch. The dead soldier is not specifically cited as the owner of the picture, presumably because this is a very literal interpretation of the real-life story. The author also surmises that it was this soldier who ‘gave Evans and Bilby their last gift’ – that it was this soldier who assassinated the author’s comrades.
There is reflection on the state of the fallen enemy:
‘For we see you with a sort of content
Abased, seeming to have paid
mocked by your own durable equipment
the metal beneath your decaying head undecayed.’
The details of the soldier’s decomposition are related, ‘dust gathering’ in his ‘paper eye’, and his stomach ‘open like a stinking cave’. The poem is here addressed directly to the corpse, almost admonishing the cadaver for its decay. The effects of rigor mortis are here pored over and detailed with flesh-crawling adjectives.
The final stanza introduces the reflection that the man was a soldier, but also a lover, and that his death as a soldier also saw his death as a human being.
‘And death who had the cruel soldier singled,
has done the lover mortal hurt’.
A soldier must divorce an enemy from their humanity, if he is able to kill them without remorse or mental trauma; he must make his oppressor faceless if he is to end their life. Here the author finds his indoctrinated view of the enemy challenged.
It is clear that the conclusion of this first draft provides the basis of the next: The Lover. The title itself is lifted from the end of the last stanza, which ruminates on the conflict of ‘killer’ and ‘lover’ within a soldier. By retitling his poem in this way, Douglas intends to focus the reader on the tragic loss of the person behind the soldier – an intention that he also demonstrates through a new emphasis on the inscribed photograph.
The opening narrative, originally resplendant with detail of the chaos inside the author’s tank and the death of his comrade, is here muted and simplified, although not condensed.
All the important information contained within the original opening – the timeframe of the poem, the flight of the enemy, the investigation of the enemy camp and the discovery of the dead soldier – is summed up in the first stanza:
‘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.’
Very little has actually been discarded here, but the author has made the enemy soldier central to the poem, and rewritten the narrative to make his involvement more prominent. This is made clearer in the second stanza, which describes the battle that resulted in the death of the author’s friends and the damage to his tank. The sequence loses it’s original horror by taking the form of a recollection –
‘The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadows him – as we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one,
it was like the entry of a demon.’
This sums up the devestation in a powerful metaphor, whilst continuing to make note of the dead soldier’s significance: he is directly implied as firing the gun. This does not serve to engender negative feeling towards him, however, as in the misplaced ‘last gift’ line in A Dead Gunner; here the artillery is made to seem menacing instead, personified and described as ‘frowning’. The soldier is ‘overshadow[ed]’ by the gun, and therefore appears at its mercy, defenceless.
In the next stanza, the author seeks to accentuate the importance of the photograph, which was mentioned in passing in A Dead Gunner. The picture is here personified, described as ‘smiling’, a romantic image which contrasts sharply with the preceding line which dealth with the nightmare of war. Here more detail has been employed, rather than less; the picture is ‘soiled’, and the inscription is written in ‘copybook gothic script’. This allows the reader to form a more precise mental image of the photograph, and put themselves in the place of someone discovering it – this is intended to provoke an emotional reaction.
The fourth stanza remains largely unchanged, although the perspective is altered so that the reader is put in the place of an observer rather than the dead soldier. This allows a sympathetic response. The most obvious change is the line that compares the rotting soldier to his equipment:
‘…mocked at by his own equipment,
that’s durable when he’s decayed’.
The word ‘durable’ rather than ‘undecayed’ suggests something more than a physical difference; that the soldier is no longer durable and useful like the equipment, and perhaps that the soldier himself is little more than a piece of equipment to those who command him.
Also different are the descriptions of the soldier’s physical state: the gory words used in A Dead Gunner have been removed, to create a feeling of sadness rather than revulsion. Here, dust gathers ‘upon the paper eye’ rather than within it, and the burst stomach is like a ‘cave’ rather than a ‘stinking cave’. The tone is far more consistent and appropriate.
The concluding quatrain remains intact, although ‘death’ is changed to ‘Death’, an attempt to personify the soldier’s fate and reinforce the reader’s sympathies.
A final, sentimental touch is the addition of the full inscription of the photograph:
‘My mouth is silent, but my eyes speak
And what they say is this – Do not forget me’.
Perhaps the author reasoned that the reader would be most affected by the genuine message on the real photograph. However, it remains an unnecessary endnote that adds nothing to the effect of the poem.
Vergissmeinnicht, the final draft of the poem, communicates the tragedy of the events it describes in the coldest, most direct and concise way possible – changing phrases such as ‘overshadows him’ to ‘overshadowing’, and eliminating punctuative commas, in order to command the reader’s attention and avoid sanitising the raw power of the elegy.
To this end, the full inscription of the photograph is also removed, and the brief summary in the poem itself is rendered in italics, to give it a realistic personal touch and make it stand out prominently from the surrounding text.
The most important change to the final poem was the title. A Dead Gunner was specific, The Lover was isolative, but Vergissmeinnicht speaks for both the lover and the killer –
the poem had, by the final draft, shifted from muddled personal ode to universal comment on the casualties of war: this could be anyone’s girlfriend, anyone’s picture, and with it’s shift to titular status the phrase ‘do not forget me’ grows in significance – it applies equally to the fallen soldiers. The author suggests that we must not forget them.
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