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On Two Poems by Charles Hamilton Sorley

Charles Hamilton Sorely’s poems All the hills and vales along and When you see the millions of the mouthless dead demonstrate his consistent approach to writing about "The Great War." While there are differences in the particulars of each poem, Sorley’s ability to percive and write about the reality of war is evident in both works.

One reason for the differences in the two poems is that they were written at different times. All the hills and vales along (which I will refer to as "vales") was written at the same time that other poets were writing intoxicated sonnets of death and of the glory and honor of battle. The reality in vales is that men are going to die, which is seldom mentioned in pre-war poems as Sorley does. The concept of death as a negative reality sets vales apart from the poems of Rupert Brooke, John McCrae, and others whose verse portrays death as an ecstatic abstraction. While Sorely was certainly writing in a different manner from his contemporaries, he did, nevertheless, mature in his mid-war poem When you see the millions of the mouthless dead (mouthless dead).

Vales’ biting and sarcastic approach is an honest interpretation by Sorely of the pre-war attitude prevalent in England. By using contrasting images and words, he shows the reader the futility of the soldiers’ actions. Some of the devices Sorley uses are subtle, and some more obvious. He sets up vales in a "song-like" manner, with verse and refrain that is appropriate to his style. This technique is subtle, yet effective, and while it continues throughout the poem, the series of contrasting words and images ramps up as the piece goes on. In the opening lines, he sets up his first disparity:

All the hills and vales along
Earth is bursting into song,
And the singers are the chaps
Who are going to die perhaps.
O sing, marching men,
Till the valleys ring again.
Give your gladness to earth’s keeping,
So be glad, when you are sleeping. (Sorley, 87)

The image of "hills and vales" mocks the "pastoral" language of other pre-war poets. The use of the word "die" in this verse foreshadows the word "sleeping" later on. So far, the reader may think little is happening that is new, since Sorley is imitating the "blithe" style of other poets. The singing soldiers going off to die is not in itself sarcastic, but it sets of the mockery of the later stanzas and sets up the more subtle rhyme scheme and meter.

The second verse hardens the phrasing of the first with an allusion to Christ and Barabbas, and the third stanza leaves little doubt that the "introduction" is over:


Earth that never doubts nor fears,
Earth that knows of death, not tears,
Earth that bore with joyful ease
Hemlock for Socrates,
Earth that blossomed and was glad
'Neath the cross that Christ had,
Shall rejoice and blossom too
When the bullet reaches you.
Wherefore, men marching
On the road to death, sing!
Pour gladness on earth’s head,
So be merry, so be dead. (Sorley, 87)

Opening with a continuation of the crescendo of the second stanza, the third alternates rapidly between words like "joy" and "bullet" and "blossoming" and "So be merry so be dead." The sarcasm has been established by use of contrasting images of the joyful songs and certain death. The meter of the poem contrasts with its message, and the reader is nearly forced into a sing-song rhythm that Sorely puts to good effect. The language is harsher with the allusion to Socrates and the ground blossoming from Christ’s blood. Overall, the poem has become quite offensive.

By ridiculing and openly questioning the sound, style and message of other poets of his time, Sorley makes a strong statement that war equals death. His death is not like sleep or a reunion with nature, but it is a heartless and terrible consequence of war. The style of Sorley’s writing in vales is both jarring and sober, two qualities of his realistic outlook on "The Great War." He preserves this in mouthless dead, albeit with heightened style. 

While differences are readily apparent in vales and mouthless dead, the outlook is consistant in that Sorley is writing honestly, if not accurately, about his perception of war in general, and in mouthless dead, a particular war. The most striking difference between vales and mouthless dead is that the sarcasm is gone. The mood of the poem is very somber, almost depressing. Where Sorely used specific details to good effect in vales, he masters them in mouthless dead:

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, 89)

The entire poem is a single image of "mouthless" dead, and a warning to the reader. The details Sorely uses are chilling, as he uses words like "blind" and "deaf" to cultivate the reader’s senses and to make the image clearer and clearer. Not stopping at the reader’s senses, he goes further by using "love" and "honour" which his readers would surely have had heaped on them by now. Instead of the numerous allusions and details of vales, he creates a single conceit that is simultaneously uncluttered and jarring, yet honest, realistic and poignant.

Again, Sorely uses contrasts to expand his point, not for sarcastic effect as in vales, but for a more piercing image. The word "tears" offsets "blind eyes" and "honour" offsets "It is easy to be dead". The contrasts are much more sophisticated and subtle than in vales. This is reasonable, since nobody could have known what horrors they would see, and Sorely actually demonstrates great insight before the war by writing about death as a horrible thing. His contrasting images extend the reader’s perception by allowing a recognition of what the dead can and cannot do. They cannot see, they cannot hear, and in the end, they cannot even live.

Sorely could see clearly what others missed before the war, and he could see even more clearly what everybody would discover after the war. In this, he was a visionary, and his vision allowed him to write consistently and realistically about the war as it happened to him.


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