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?
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.
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.
I found this quote in an essay about Douglas. It helped me understand the poem better. “The poet’s ear for radio talk reveals the richness of “mysterious symbolic language” and introduces us to the regiment’s officers — landed gentry with annual legacy income, who had formerly ridden, hunted, and played cricket on each other’s estates”.
“away fly the images of the shires” – The officers carry the shires with them wherever they go? If the images are shot to pieces by a shellburst, the officers quickly recreate them “with their famous unconcern”?
Yes, the soldiers are sustained by the memories of home – the ‘shires’ suggests, for example, days spent playing cricket or hunting, ideas picked up on and given legendary status in the last stanza. The reality of their present situation, as represented by the shellburst, disrupts those memories, those mental images, temporarily, but the suggestion is that they quickly and indomitably reform.