Charles Hamilton Sorely (19 May 1895 – 13 October 1915) is named by Robert Graves in his autobiographical novel ‘Goodbye To All That’ as one of the three (British) poets of importance to be killed in the war, [the other two being Isaac Rosenberg (the subject of the next post in this series) and, of course, Wilfred Owen].
The son of the professor of moral philosophy at Aberdeen University, Sorley was extremely intelligent and won a scholarship to Marlborough College, the same school as Siegfried Sassoon.
Sorely was in Germany when war was declared, having accepted a place at Cambridge for the following year, but he immediately returned to England and enlisted in the British Army. He joined the Suffolk Regiment as a First Lieutenant, and was sent to the front in May 1915.Sorely was shot in the head at the Battle of Loos on 13th October, 1915, soon after his promotion to Captain. 37 complete poems were found in his kit when returned to his family. His style is often contrasted with Brooke’s sentimental depiction of war, and in many ways he might be seen as a forerunner to Sassoon and Owen.
The poem below, which Sorely wrote just before his death, entirely does away with the idea that war might have something to do with pride, honour and duty, handed down from the age of Antiquity, and paints a stark and matter of fact picture instead.
When you see millions of the mouthless deadWhen 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.