On October 13, 1915, during the Battle of Loos, Captain Charles Hamilton Sorley was shot through the head by a sniper. He was 20 years old. He had enlisted out of Oxford for whatever reasons young men of his generation enlisted. Also, like many of these young men, he was well-read, well-educated, and wrote poetry.
Sorley is largely forgotten today, and this is unfortunate. Robert Graves called him, with Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg, “one of the three poets of importance killed during the war.” His juvenile work, found in his collected poems Death and the Downs, address classical themes and bucolic description. They show a serious writer learning his craft but are otherwise workmanlike and mundane. His war poems, however, are something else again. Stark and deeply moving, they show the same poet annealed by terrible experience into maturity and power.
From August 1914, the beginning of the war, we have this. Sorley had not yet experienced any fighting, but it is clear that he feels caught in the grinding mindlessness of the great war machine. Although he slips a couple of times into overly poetic diction (“bigly,” “dearest”), the austere, ominous last lines are breathtaking in their prescience. And remember, Sorley was only 19 when he wrote this.
You are blind like us. You hurt no man designed.
And no man claimed the conquest of your land.
But gropers both through fields of thought confined
We stumble and we do not understand.
You saw only your future bigly planned,
And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,
And in each other’s dearest ways we stand,
And hiss and hate. And the blind lead the blind.
When it is peace, then we may view again
With new-won eyes each other’s truer form
And wonder. Grown more loving-kind and warm
We’ll grasp firm hands and laugh at the old pain,
When it is peace. But until peace, the storm
The darkness and the thunder and the rain.
One of his last poems, part of a sonnet sequence written in the fall of 1915 (possibly in response to some of Rupert Brooke’s goo-ily patriotic poems), uses high-flown diction as subversion:
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. No one wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his forevermore.
So much for Flanders Field.
Sorley was one of 23,000,000 soldiers and 2,400,000 civilians who died in the Great War. It is well-nigh impossible to wrap your brain around figures that high. But to think of one young man and to read his poems perhaps gives us some kind of entre’ into the horror. A glimpse only, but a glimpse nonetheless. So yes, in answer to the endless question, poetry does matter. Otherwise, how could we see at all?
Death and the Downs: The Poetry of Charles Hamilton Sorley (Yogh and Thorn Books, 2010)