Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Charles Sorley: '"When you see millions of the mouthless dead"'

Tomorrow sees the anniversary of Charles Sorley's death. He was killed on 13 October 1915 while leading his men at the Battle of Loos. He was twenty years old.

Many memorial volumes of verse appeared during the War, assembled by grieving parents or friends. Whatever their value as commemorative documents, most have no aesthetic merit. Sorley's is the greatest exception. His father, the eminent philosopher William Ritchie Sorley, arranged for the publication of Marlborough, and other poems soon after his son's death, and it appeared early in 1916. The book sold well, going through several editions. (The fourth, to which I have linked, is the most valuable because it contains some of Sorley's prose and his father's annotations.) Among its admirers was Robert Graves, who told Eddie Marsh that Sorley 'seems to have been one so entirely after my own heart in his loves and hates, besides having been just my own age and having spent the same years at Marlboro' as I spent at Ch'house.' Graves would later write that Sorley was one of the three significant poets to have been killed in the War, the others being Rosenberg and Owen.

As its title suggests, Marlborough, and other poems consists mostly of schoolboy verse. Usually, there would be little need to dwell on the juvenilia, but in Sorley's case it is extraordinarily accomplished. A poem like 'The Song of the Ungirt Runners' may take an unpromising subject---it is a celebration of cross-country running at school---but the sure-footed war poet of 'All the Hills and Vales Along' is already audible in the rhythms.

One consequence of the volume's success was that it created a market for a collection of Sorley's correspondence. This appeared in 1919, and can be read in its entirety here. Sorley was as gifted a letter-writter as he was a poet. His correspondence tells how, on a walking tour in Germany at the outbreak of War, he had been arrested and briefly incarcerated. On his return, he enlisted in the Suffolk Regiment, believing the War to be a tragic but necessary evil. As a lover of German culture and people, he justified his involvement by arguing that Germany needed to be defeated for its own good:

But isn't all this bloody? I am full of mute and burning rage and annoyance and sulkiness about it. I could wager that out of twelve million eventual combatants there aren't twelve who really want it. And 'serving one's country' is so unpicturesque and unheroic when it comes to the point. Spending a year in a beastly Territorial camp guarding telegraph wires has nothing poetical about it: nor very useful as far as I can see. Besides the Germans are so nice; but I suppose the best thing that could happen to them would be their defeat.

Found among Sorley's possessions after his death was a pencil manuscript of what has become his most famous poem, '"When you see millions of the mouthless dead"'. Line 10, 'Yet many a better one has died before', is an allusion to Achilles’ response in Iliad 21.107 when the Trojan prince Lycaon begs him for mercy: ‘Even Patroclus died, a far, far better man than you’ [Fagles’ translation]. In a letter of 28 November 1914, Sorley proposed that the line 'should be read at the grave of every corpse in addition to the burial service', and went on to argue that that 'no saner and splendider comment on death has been made, especially, as here, where it seemed a cruel waste'.

'When you see millions of the mouthless dead'

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.


  1. That word "spook" quite surprised me. To our ears it sounds Halloweenish, even Disneyish; I wonder how it was used in his day.

  2. You're absolutely right, Sheenagh. 'Spook' is the word which stands out (along with those straight out of Hardy like 'heretofore' and 'thereto'). I think that it would stand out just as much in 1915, Sorley's points being that this is no 'ghost' or 'spirit' but something absurd, outlandish, not entirely serious.

  3. if I might, I imagine 'spook' as a taunt to the soldier who survives-the ultimate guilt/shame of any soldier who has lost comrades or worse, one's men.

    'It is easy to be dead.' I know many, many who believed this at some point in their war. I know someone who signed for every patrol he could, hoping to be killed. I know others who having lost men wished they had been killed instead.

    then too there is the soldier hierarchy (my words) expressed perhaps ironically, perhaps not, in his lines from 'All the Hills and Vales Along'

    'Earth.../Shall rejoice and blossom too/ When the bullet reaches you.'

    something of this all rings through in Brian Turner's 'Here Bullet' btw.

    plus ├ža change...

  4. Just found your blog, and I'm blown away! This is great stuff, and I look forward to browsing about and seeing what I can find. As soon as I read the lines from Sorley's poem that you've quoted above, I could feel the influence of Homer upon the young fellow. Sorley is graphic and visceral, and absolutely carves out the primacy of Death on the battlefield.

    I need to look around, but have you looked at Christopher Logue's interpretations of significant portions of The Iliad. That man writes some of the most intense war poetry I've ever read, and I even think Homer would have approved. I'm glad to have found you! Cheers! Chris

  5. I agree about the point that "spook" suggests something less dignified than "ghost" or "spirit" - but we might also remember that Sorley's family were Scots, where I fancy that the word "spook" is much more commonly used than in Standard English. (Compare, also, the passage in Kidnapped where Alan Breck asks Davy whether he is afraid of "bogles".) How resonant "spooks" and "bogles" are compared to mere "phantoms" or "spirits"!