Keith Douglas, who would have been 100 years old this year, has been described as “unarguably the finest English ‘war poet’ to come out of the Second World War”. He left behind a significant body of work before his death, aged 24, three days after participating in the Normandy landings.

Many of Douglas’ best known poems describe his experiences of conflict and foreboding of an early death, as the opening line of ‘Canoe’, read here by Clive James in 2014, makes clear:

The Keith Douglas archive in Special Collections is one of two major collections of Douglas’ manuscripts and effects. The majority of his literary manuscripts, letters and the original draft of his memoir Alamein to Zem Zem are at the British Library. Special Collections holds most of the other surviving material including artwork and photographs, books, memorabilia and some letters and manuscripts.

Keith Douglas passport photographs, BC MS 20c Douglas. Reproduced with permission of Douglas Literary Estate.

Douglas had no direct connection to Leeds. The collection is here due to the work of Desmond Graham, his biographer. Graham had studied English Literature at the University of Leeds under G. Wilson Knight and Geoffrey Hill and returned to Leeds to complete a thesis on Douglas in 1969. Working with David Masson, the University Librarian, he organised an exhibition of Douglas’ work in the Brotherton Room of the Library in 1974. The collection was acquired from Keith Douglas’s mother Marie the following year.

The collection is not strictly literary. Although it contains manuscript drafts of several poems and letters written to his friend Hamo Sassoon, the bulk of the collection is formed of Douglas’ artwork, photographs, and juvenilia, as well as magazines and journals owned by the poet.  

The collection also includes all that remains of Douglas’s collection of books: 80 volumes kept virtually intact by his mother in the 30 years between his death and their acquisition by Leeds University Library. They form a fascinating, yet frustratingly partial picture of his taste in reading. Douglas was in the habit of selling books to help finance vacations at Oxford, and his peripatetic military service meant many others would have been lost along the way. Marginalia in the books that remain give unvarnished insight into Douglas’ opinions as a reader: ‘coo’ written beside a description of Louis Aragon’s poetic technique in Les yeux d’Elsa and ‘Dear dear, you old PRIG’ in the margin of Maurice Baring’s Have You Anything to Declare? Keith Bullen’s translations of Baudelaire attracted his particular ire – large capitals in the margin describe the translation as variously ‘RUBBISH’ and ‘BALLS!’.

The Keith Douglas archive is not the expansive collection of an established writer with a long career. Its fragments and its brevity speak to a life brutally cut short, while the marginalia, photographs, sketches, and books of the archive provide fascinating glimpses of a precocious talent.

An expanded version of this article will feature in the December 2020 (18.4) issue of Stand.