Charles Hamilton Sorley’s haunting poem of WWI: an analysis
The Scottish war poet Charles Hamilton Sorley was just 20 years old when he died in 1915 at the Battle of Loos. He was the youngest of the major war poets, having been born in 1895. He left this poem, probably his most famous, untitled at his death. For Robert Graves, in his war memoir Goodbye to All That, Sorley was, along with Isaac Rosenberg and Wilfred Owen, ‘one of the three poets of importance killed during the war.’ Sorley’s poems would be published posthumously as a book, Marlborough and Other Poems, in 1916. ‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead’ is the most popular poem by this still underappreciated and unpopular poet.
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.
The poem is notable for its spare and unsentimental style, placing it closer to Wilfred Owen than to Rupert Brooke. It might be viewed as the war poet’s version of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Song’, in which she entreats her beloved not to sing sad songs for her or plant roses in her memory. In this poem, Sorley tells those mourning soldiers who have died not to praise the dead men or cry for them, if the faces of dead soldiers appear to them in dreams. The dead men cannot hear or see them.
But whereas Rossetti’s poem is about conciliation and reassurance, Sorley’s poem is stark and uncompromising. Sorley is not seeking to console us: his reason for telling us not to bother praising or weeping for the fallen soldiers is because these ghosts are mere shadows of the men they were, and our tears or words now mean nothing to them.
The poem appears to reject the Christian hope in the afterlife that is behind both Christina Rossetti’s poem and other Victorian poems (such as Tennyson’s In Memoriam) that talk about death and mourning. Once the dead are gone, that’s it: no hope of a reunion or reaching across the void.
The poem is about an absence of senses: the dead soldiers are deaf to kind words, blind to tears, unable to speak (‘mouthless dead’). In terms of its form, Sorley’s poem is a Petrarchan sonnet, but with a slight twist. The two quatrains (four-line units) do not rhyme abba abba but rather abab abab, following the English pattern of rhyming alternate lines.
Sorley’s ‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead’ is among the finest poems of the First World War. It is also one of the least-known great poems. This analysis has tried to point up some of the reasons why Sorley is worth reading.
The finest affordable anthology of war poetry is Poetry of the First World War An Anthology (Oxford World’s Classics). It’s well worth investing in, especially as it costs no more than lunch usually does.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Portrait of British soldier poet Charles Hamilton Sorley (1895-1915), in 1914/15, author unknown; Wikimedia Commons.