Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Noblesse Oblige

James A. Winn

The idea of chivalry has always been a fraud…

…a system of polite and honorable ideals masking shameful and violent acts. Medieval poets played a crucial part in creating the myth of chivalry, and poets from many later periods were responsible for sustaining it. The persistence of chivalric myth is a sobering instance of poetry’s capacity to make fantasy seem real, and thus to efface the bloody truths of war.

Among the ideas sustained by chivalric poetry was noblesse oblige, the belief that the upper classes had a special obligation to lead the way in warfare. That sense of obligation applied to kings as late as 1743, when George II led his troops into battle at Dettingen, though he was the last English monarch to do so. It continued to apply to titled aristocrats for two more centuries.

As late as World War II, it was possible for a soldier-poet from the middle class to admire the courageous, disinterested stance of a comrade who was an aristocrat by birth. In a poem entitled “Aristocrats,” the British tank commander Keith Douglas recorded the death of one such man, deftly deploying some traditional chivalric metaphors:

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.

Fighting on horseback was the original marker of knightly nobility, so Douglas, with comic affection, turns his comrade into a noble centaur—part horse, part man—who absurdly displays his courage by smoking his pipe as shells fall nearby. When one of them strikes him, the dying man describes his mortal wound as “most unfair,” echoing the cherished notion that noblemen fight by fixed and generous rules, playing the game as if it were cricket or polo. Douglas recognizes the folly of such attitudes, but is man enough to admit being moved to tears by “this gentle obsolescent breed of heroes.”

The horn he hears is the one associated with the medieval epic hero Roland, and the unicorn is a potent medieval icon. By achieving a delicate, risky balance between the motifs of chivalry and the realities of the North African tank campaign, Douglas found a way to praise the dead man’s heroism and unconcern while honestly recognizing his outdated stance as a form of stupidity. Douglas’s own death in the Normandy invasion, at the age of twenty-four, was a great loss for poetry.


Source: Keith Douglas, “Aristocrats,” in The Collected Poems of Keith Douglas, ed. John Waller and G. S. Fraser (London: Editions Poetry, 1951), 38.

An earlier draft, titled “Sportsmen,” has often been reprinted, but it is clear that “Aristocrats” represents the author’s final preferences.

About The Author

James A. Winn

James Winn is Professor of Literature and Music at Boston University and is the author of The Poetry of War (2008)....

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