Week 13: Aristocrats, by Keith Douglas

Aristocrats

The noble horse with courage in his eye,
clean in the bone, looks up at a shellburst:
away fly the images of the shires
but he puts the pipe back in his mouth.

Peter was unfortunately killed by an 88:
it took his leg away, he died in the ambulance.
I saw him crawling on the sand, he said
it’s most unfair, they’ve shot my foot off.

How can I live among this gentle
Obsolescent breed of heroes and not weep?
Unicorns, almost,
for they are falling into two legends
in which their stupidity and chivalry
are celebrated. Each, fool and hero, will be an immortal.

The plains were their cricket pitch
and in the mountains the tremendous drop fences
brought down some of the runners. Here then
under the stones and earth they dispose themselves.
I think with their famous unconcern.
It is not gunfire I hear but a hunting horn.

Keith Douglas

In this poem Keith Douglas, who was killed in action in the Second World War, manages to combine the perception of the modern intellectual that the martial virtues are outmoded and even faintly ridiculous with an acknowledgment that they remain nonetheless heroic: the result is a beautifully balanced elegy for the men he fought beside.

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