Thursday, 22 November 2018

Charles Hamilton Sorley: The Forgotten Poet of WWI by Catherine Hokin

 It Is Easy To Be Dead - Aberdeen Performing Arts
November's commemorations of the end of World War One have had a particular poignancy this year. Not only is it the centenary but the hundreds of acts of remembrance have taken place against a backdrop of Brexit and the break-up of Europe, possibly also the break-up of the Union. This isn't the place to get political but, for those of us with strong connections to our wider European community, there were extra reasons to shed tears this month as we watched the nations coming together to lay their wreathes. It seemed fitting therefore that I got a chance to see Neil McPherson's wonderful play It Is Easy To Be Dead, recently in Glasgow. This tells the story of  forgotten war poet Charles Hamilton Sorley who was born in Aberdeen, educated at Marlborough and killed, aged 20, at the Battle of Loos in October 1915. In his very short life he wrote 38 poems, spurred on, in his own words by his mother's "badgering". Although his name is included on the War Poets' memorial in Westminster Abbey, you'll rarely find him mentioned now, or taught, but at his death the Poet Laureate John Masefield called Sorley "potentially the greatest poet lost to us in that war". 

 Charles Hamilton Sorley
That we don't know him as well as we should is a great loss - his poems are unsentimental, compassionate and filled with a concern for humanity that belies his young age. They were first published in 1916, by his parents, together with a collection of his letters written both from the front and during the lengthy period he spent as a student in Germany in 1914. A trip cut short when Britain came into the escalating conflict in the August of that year. It is this experience I think which marks his work out from his better-known contemporaries - it has certainly been cited as the reason why he does not fit well in the war poets' canon. Sorley did not see the war through patriotic eyes and there is none of the jingoistic language in his work that was more commonly found in early WWI poetry. His letters suggest that he identified more strongly with German values than he did with English ones - while this may be no more than the enthusiasm of a young man on his first trip abroad, it certainly gave him a sense of fellow-feeling. He spoke fluent German and was enamoured with the country and its culture - his poem To Germany written on the eve of the war addresses the common bond he shares with the young Germans about to be plunged, like him, into a madness not of their making:

You are blind like us. Your 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.

He was under no illusions about the cost of the coming war in terms of the misery it would bring - the poem's last line reads: "until peace, the storm, the darkness and the thunder and the rain." As his father, a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, said of his son in the preface to the volume of letters and poems: ‘He looked on the world with clear eyes and the surface show did not deceive him.’

The title of the play, It Is Easy To Be Dead, comes from perhaps Sorley's best known poem and his last one: When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead. It was written shortly before his death and found with his kit. It is a beautiful poem; that a twenty-year old had learned to be so aware of the reality of war and the ultimate futility of weeping for the dead makes it a heart-breaking one.

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.

Sorley didn't live to see what came next - as we remember those who died in a frighteningly divided world, let's hope we don't live to regret what's coming next for us.


Michele said...

Thanks Catherine. Sorley is on a long list of WW1 poets, male and female, who still deserve to be better known by the public at large. They deserve to be as well known as the likes of Owen, Graves, and Sassoon.

Susan Price said...

What an amazing poem! -- It sums up something I've often thought but that a 20-year old in the midst of the war could have achieved such detachment is astonishing.