Keith Douglas was arguably the most important poet of the Second World War, although over three-quarters of the poems in his Collected Poems were written before he had any direct experience of war.
Douglas had a short but eventful life. Born in 1920 in Kent he attended Edgeborough School and Christ’s Hospital. He was already writing accomplished poetry at Christ’s Hospital and had much of his writing published in the school magazine, The Blue. Dpuglas was awarded an Open Exhibition to Merton College, Oxford, where his tutor was the First World War poet, Edmund Blunden. At Oxford he became the editor of the student newspaper, Cherwell, and had a complicated love life. As an undergraduate he was published in Cherwell and was one of the poets featured in the anthology Eight Oxford Poets. He joined up when the war started but wasn’t called for training until the summer of 1940. He trained in Scotland and Gloucestershire and attended Sandhurst. The following summer he was posted to the Middle East, spending most of the rest of the war as a tank commander in the desert campaign the Allies fought against Rommel. He wrote a colourful memoir of this part of the war, Alamein to Zem Zem, which was published after his death in action in Normandy. He wrote some of his most famous and anthologized poetry in Africa.
Douglas returned from North Africa to England in December 1943 as a Captain and took part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944. He was killed by enemy mortar fire on 9 June. The regimental chaplain Captain Leslie Skinner buried him by a hedge, close to where he had died; he reported that there was no sign of injury on Douglas’s body.
Burton’s life of Keith Douglas is the first for fifty years. It makes use of recent scholarship as well as facts of Douglas’s life that have recently emerged.