Keith Douglas's "Egypt"
Aniseed has a sinful taste;
at your elbow a woman’s voice
like I imagine the voice of ghosts,
demanding food. She has no grace
but, diseased and blind of an eye
and heavy with habitual dolour
listlessly finds you and I
and the table, are the same colour.
The music, the harsh talk, the fine
clash of the drinkseller’s tray
are the same to her as her own whine,
she knows no variety.
And in fifteen years of living
found nothing different from death
but the difference of moving
and the nuisance of breath.
A disguise of ordure can’t hide
her beauty, succumbing in a cloud
of disease, disease, apathy. My God,
the king of this country must be proud.
Surely every soldier serving abroad in a poor country, especially one disordered by war, is startled by the new. Modern soldiers living in isolation in walled enclaves might be an exception. Culture clashes are not the most dramatic clashes in wars, but many soldiers are moved and enlightened by them, and few experiences are more likely to generate poetry than startled recognitions.
We expect the startled recognition to be experienced first by the poet and then created in us by the poem, but some poems function rather more like dramatic works, in that we stand significantly apart from the speaker or character, observing and judging that person’s observations, rather than utterly sharing the observation, as so much lyric poetry invites us to do.
While every reader stands apart from the speakers of Robert Browning’s monologues, only a churl would resist experiencing a lyric poem as one’s own utterance, at least for a first reading.
The great achievement of “Egypt” is Keith Douglas’s complete implication of the unsuspecting reader as an aloof and uncharitable hypocrite. He seats us with him at some Egyptian sidewalk cafe, where we can enjoy the drinks and the music at our leisure, until a repulsive beggar dares to ask for food.
The fourth stanza is the great turning point. Following the speaker’s cold-eyed description of the beggar’s wretchedness, and his contemptuous dismissal of her desperate plea as a whine, we discover that the beggar is a 15 year old girl.
That fourth stanza has the universality and completeness of a classic Greek epigram, as Douglas surely knew. Like most classic funereal epigrams, the stanza is an emotionless declaration that masks the composer’s attitude. The reader can decide for herself whether the observation is wry or despairing, elegiac or smug.
Most fine poems have a killer line somewhere, often at the end. I think the killer line here is “the nuisance of breath,” an expression suggesting that the speaker has some weary experience with nuisances in life of the sort that afflicted the English upper classes.
In the last stanza the speaker shows some feeling, but it is not empathy, sympathy, or indignation. It is a vague and transient sadness over the loss of Beauty, a quaint vestige of Romanticism not quite destroyed by the bitter fighting of the North Africa campaign.
The speaker says “My God” simply as an expletive expression of disgust, at the precise moment in the poem when a poet of an earlier century would have more literally called up to the heavens. The final sarcasm directed at the king of Egypt shocks us, as the speaker ignores his own apathy, his own culpability, and his own pride.
While we are exhorted these days to be proud of nearly everything about ourselves, Douglas grew up in a time when pride was still considered by many to be a bit of a sin. The speaker’s ironic reference to pride, which we might read as a self-reference, is a neat book-end moral note that brings us back to “sinful” in the first line.
Like the reader of one of those Browning monologs, we readers probably find ourselves appalled at the company we keep, at the casual thoughts people sometimes share with us.
This note first appeared on poetsandwar.com in 2014.