Keith Douglas: World War Two Poet (1920-44)

I love the war poetry of Keith Douglas and regret he is not better known. He was killed during the Normandy invasion at the age of 24. See


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 fading into two legends
in which their stupidity and chivalry
are celebrated. Each, fool and hero, will be an immortal.

These 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.

Tunisia 1943

This is Keith in the North African desert campaign where he wrote the poem above:


About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
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4 Responses to Keith Douglas: World War Two Poet (1920-44)

  1. I really love these poems – they are so evocative and sort of cut to the chase – all extraneous matter falls away and the heart of the matter is really exposed. Fantastic idea. Thanks.

    • Trisha, we’ll have to see if we can start a Keith Douglas revival. My late father in law was in the desert war and this poem reminds me of his sense of both humanity and honour – doing the right thing….I guess poetry is what is left when you strip away the extraneous….I wish Keith had survived: the world needed his keen eye for what has happened since….

      • Brian says:

        I have taught poetry for years – literally, YEARS – but your statement that “poetry is what is left when you strip away the extraneous” encapsulates an idea I have been (unsuccessfully) trying to express – may I quote you (repeatedly)? 😀

      • @Brian. Absolutely. Feel free. I don’t know if you know the work of David Whyte and his ‘The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul at Work’ but you might find other interesting takes on this idea. And his book and poetry preserved my soul in really hard jobs. I also like the surprising and the marvelous ‘Teaching Literature through War and Peace at West Point’ by Elizabeth Samet. Both books advocate what I believe to be the case (and I have have worked in large corporations and the US military) that poetry is one of the central cores of education, and critical to developing the self of young people. Poetry has been mandatory at the US Military Academy at West Point for over a hundred years, and Samet makes the case that if you are going off to die in a war (not that she thinks that is a great idea), poetry is one way to make some sense of that craziness, and I think Keith Douglas would agree. All power to you teaching poetry, which is essential to learning how to really think. Do not let the vocational fanatics grind you down. And thanks for your kind comment.

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