One of the earliest and most significant losses amongst the ranks of the Great War soldier-poets, Charles Hamilton Sorley is nowadays known for only a small number of his published poems.
This is unsurprising, given his short life and brief period of active service, with just over four months in France. But what poems those few are: polished, powerful and moving. Although conventional in their focus, technique and structure, they are also often striking in their quality of thinking, feeling, tone and literary skill.
The best-known, and arguably the finest, of these (two kinds of list that do not necessarily always align well) include: ‘To Germany’, ‘Barbury Camp’, ‘All the Hills and Vales Along’, and ‘Such, Such is Death’. For many, though, the pinnacle of achievement in Sorley’s war poems is the sonnet ‘When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead’ – as distinctive and memorable a piece of soldierly reflection and regretful anger as anything from Owen or Sassoon.
Sorley was the Scots-born son of a philosophy don, and was privately-educated at schools in Cambridge and Marlborough. He then began to attend University College, Cambridge, before undertaking a six-month travel and study period in Germany, up to the outbreak of war. On his return to England, he immediately enlisted, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Suffolk Regiment. Service from June 1915 at Ploegsteert led to his promotion to captain a few months later. Sorley was then killed by a sniper in October, in the aftermath of the battle of Loos.
The publication of 38 poems in the collection Marlborough, and Other Poems in early 1916, with many reprints over several years, ensured a wide and appreciative posthumous readership at the time. Sorley is sometimes seen as a link between the more idealistic poets and poetry of the very early part of the war and the darker, more agonised and cynical writers and writing of its final years. Robert Graves considered Sorley one of the three important poets killed during the war, alongside Owen and Rosenberg. He was even ranked as first amongst the Great War’s ‘poetic losses’ by no less a figure than John Masefield, the long-serving Poet Laureate either side of World War Two, who had seen some service in 1914-18, including a stint in a military hospital in Northern France around the time of Sorley’s death.
One key to this evaluation is likely to have been the poise and maturity of Sorley’s vision and voice, which belie his age of nearer 20 than 21 years when he was killed. There is a clear, thoughtful maturity underpinning the poems mentioned above, mixed with a withering scorn for the superficialities of much that was being said and felt by others around him at the start of the war. There is a sophistication which is never patronising, allied to a genuine concern for humanity and the essential values. At times, all of that emerges despite his elevated diction and mastery of classical styles. It is even clear beneath an implacably realistic – even ostensibly cold – attitude, here and there, contrasting sharply with a sensitive tenderness for nature, human nature and social predicaments. “Ambivalent, ironic, and profound” is the description used in the Poetry Foundation’s website.
In the sonnet below, that sharp-eyed realism verges on the savage – a tone instantly reminiscent of the most furious of Sassoon’s poems. There is also a strong pre-figuring of some of the more haunting and macabre scenes to be encountered years later in Owen’s poems (for example, ‘Strange Meeting’), and even Graves’ own very fine ‘Two Fusiliers’. The sequence of apparently cruel advice directly addressed to an apparently civilian and innocent reader – not to remember, not to praise, to admit mere ordinariness, and even to reject recognition – nevertheless carries with it some kind of genuine anaesthetic comfort, a kind of proffered stoic perspective that is aimed at relieving a survivor’s grief and guilt through the absolution of distance.
Here, the blunt presentation of images of unending casualties, maimed and near-anonymous, contrast with the literary formalities of phrasings like ‘Say not soft things…’., ‘Give them not praise…’, ‘see not your tears’ and formal, near-archaic diction such as ‘thereto’, ‘perceive’ and ‘heretofore’. The lasting power, however, resides in more everyday words like ‘soft’, ‘curses’, and ‘spook’ as they stand alongside the simple and chilling sentences ‘It is easy to be dead’ and ‘None wears the face you knew.’ The resonant, almost Biblical, final line – worthy of John Donne at his most majestic and otherworldly in its presentation of the figure of an all-powerful, all-obliterating or even all-healing Death – is one of the greatest single phrases in all war poetry.
When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“Yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.
Some Suggested Further Key Reading
- Marlborough, and Other Poems: Read Books, 2008. ISBN 978-1408619605
- The Letters of Charles Hamilton Sorley – with a chapter of biography: reprinted by Forgotten Books, 2018. ISBN 978-1330308936
- Moorcroft Wilson, Jean (Ed.): Charles Hamilton Sorley: A Biography. Cecil Woolf, 1985. ISBN 978-0900821523
- Brett Rutherford (Ed.): Death and the Downs: the Poetry of Charles Hamilton Sorley. Yogh & Thorn books, 2010. ISBN 978-0922558476
- McPherson, Neil: It Is Easy To Be Dead (a partly-fictionalised biographical play). Oberon Books, 2017. ISBN 978-1786820099
- https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Author:Charles_Hamilton_Sorley (information on some publications)
- https://librivox.org/author/8275?primary_key=8275&search_category=author&search_page=1&search_form=get_results (some audio recordings of American readings of some of Sorley’s most familiar poems, available to download in MP3 format)
- https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portraitLarge/mw05915/Charles-Hamilton-Sorley?LinkID=mp07162&role=art&rNo=0 (a contemporary portrait of Sorley in chalk, at the National Portrait Gallery)
Article written by Mike Cooper, May 2018