'Canoe' by Keith Douglas

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December 4th 2019
Published: December 4th 2019
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Occasionally I come across a new poem that takes my breath away. 'Canoe' by Keith Douglas is one such:

Well, I am thinking this may be my last

summer, but cannot lose even a part

of pleasure in the old-fashioned art

of idleness. I cannot stand aghast

at whatever doom hovers in the background:

while grass and buildings and the somnolent river,

who know they are allowed to last forever,

exchange between them the whole subdued sound

of this hot time. What sudden fearful fate

can deter my shade wandering next year

from a return? Whistle and I will hear

and come again another evening, when this boat

travels with you alone toward Iffley:

as you lie looking up for thunder again,

this cool touch does not betoken rain;

it is my spirit that kisses your mouth lightly.

I discovered this poem thanks to Clive James, who discusses and reads it on Youtube (
). The theme is the death of the poet, who will shortly be fighting in World War Two and may never return to his native
River Thames at IffleyRiver Thames at IffleyRiver Thames at Iffley
England. He is sailing down the River Thames at Iffley near Oxford with his girlfriend, determined to enjoy himself while he can. He contrasts his own precarious existence with the immortality of ‘grass and buildings and the somnolent river’ and anticipates his return after death in the form of a shade. The poem closes on a morbidly romantic note as he imagines his spirit kissing the girl as she travels alone in the boat a year later.

The poem was written in 1940, and Keith Douglas did indeed die in WW2 but not until 1944, when he was 24. This eerily prophetic poem captures beautifully a perfect day out coupled with a foreboding of death.

What elevates 'Canoe' from being merely very good to being excellent is the intricate rhyme scheme: ABBA repeated four times. Like all good rhyme schemes, it is barely noticeable. I am old-fashioned in that I prefer rhyming poems to free verse. Rhyming in modern poetry seems to be a lost art. Philip Larkin was an exception, and so is Keith Douglas here. The tight rhyme scheme gives the poem an extra dimension of controlled emotion. The poet is facing the prospect of imminent death with equanimity.


9th December 2019

Thank you for introducing me to this Kevin. It’s beautiful.

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