Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Charles Hamilton Sorley: 'When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead'

Poison gas at the Battle of Loos, 25 September 1915. Photo taken by a soldier of the London Rifle Brigade


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 upon 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.

In June, July and August, the world's nations have marked anniversaries of the start of World War I. So far, the horror show of 2014 has certainly proved a worthy successor to 1914. In recent months many have invoked the spectres of not just 1914 but also the 1930s. Time will tell exactly how this year will be remembered, but so far it's been both bewildering, and bang on track with the patterns and outworkings of history.

Charles Hamilton Sorley was killed at the age of 20 in 1915, when he was shot by a sniper at the Battle of Loos. It seems that his work was extremely popular after his death but that he is now less known than some other World War I poets such as Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas. It is very obvious, though, that he was extremely talented and that he would have gone on to write even greater poems. During his time at Oxford, Sorley had also studied in Germany before the start of the war, and his striking, moving sonnet 'To Germany' was recently discussed in the Guardian. 

'When you see millions of the mouthless dead' was found in Sorley's kit after his death and it is thought to be his last poem. There is a kind of sotto voce air about it which is hugely powerful. It seems to move like a hushed and ghastly symphony. The many caesuras, or pauses in the lines, are like a muffled drum.

Sorley was plainly a realist, even a brutal one ("It is easy to be dead"), but there is also something in this sonnet that speaks to me of post-traumatic stress. Many of those who survived the wars didn't really survive, not as the healthy and reasonably happy people they were before. More is broken in wars than lives and lands, and the aftermath of so much trauma has been passed down through generations. The bleakness in this poem is extraordinary and chilling. Sadly, it makes me wonder how Sorley would have coped had he survived.

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