The poem deals with the sudden death experienced in battle - men here one minute and gone the next.
MacLean describes the situation, as if remembering himself in the aftermath of the shell explosion. He mixes the specific -
that slope - with the more uncertain -
an autumn day. He sounds definite of the setting and his visual memory but time and exactly when events took place are hazy, possibly even unimportant.
While the poet lies beside his dead comrades, battle continues around him:
the shells soughing about my ears
After that the poet tells us that the men lay where they fell:
as if they were waiting for a message.
Perhaps MacLean indicates here that the men needed an explanation for their sudden death. But there seems no answer for them - their deaths are pointless and random.
As if in flashback, MacLean describes the actual moment of impact. It seems sudden and unpredicted, coming:
out of the sun/ out of an invisible throbbing
The impact is devastating:
blinding of eyes, splitting of hearing
This could describe MacLean being temporarily blinded and deafened. Equally it could refer the dead soldiers, robbed of their senses, never able to see or hear again.
Maclean returns to his repeating phrase
six men dead. He describes the battle going on around their bodies.
among the shells snoring suggests both the noise of battle and the men lying still among it, as if soundly asleep.
He also describes the day passing by
in the morning,/ and again at midday/ and in the evening.
Repetition makes the day sound longer and we can imagine the injured MacLean lying helpless in the sand surrounded by death and war for what must have seemed like an age.
Here the poet reflects on the wider world around him, which is
indifferent and unaffected by the battle.
He evokes different senses. We can imagine the blinding light and searing heat of the sun -
so white and painful; the feel of of soft sand -
so comfortable, easy and kindly, the dazzling appearance of the stars -
jewelled and beautiful.
The poet here creates a contrast between the impatient aggression of mankind and the beautiful planet on which he lives and dies. There is an irony here, the sand is personified as
easy and kindly, traits that are missing from the human action portrayed. Does MacLean wish that man could be
easy and kindly?
MacLean effectively describes his surroundings, as if to suggest that war and human action goes on in a landscape, a universe which is oblivious.
He then goes on to suggest survivor’s guilt- why them and not me?:
One Election took them/ and did not take me/ without asking us/ which was better or worse
Election could refer to the elect, those chosen by God.
MacLean was raised in the Free Presbyterian Church, which teaches ‘unconditional election’ - the idea that it has already been decided who will join God in eternal salvation, and who will suffer in hell. Is MacLean suggesting that the six men have achieved some peace in death while others still suffer on the battlefield?
An alternative interpretation might be 'chance' or ‘fate’ - it is random who lives or dies and when death comes.
The shells are
devilishly indifferent. This could indicate that they are indifferent, like the sun, but with evil at their root. The shells are intended to be destructive but just hit anyone in their path with no regard as to who their target is.
The shells were created by man. So is the poet asking if humankind is inherently evil? He does appear to be telling us that war is evil.
Regardless MacLean, or anyone else’s opinion on war, he ends by repeating the stark facts of its outcome:
Six men dead at my shoulder/ on an Autumn day.