Monday, October 12, 2015

The ghost of Sorley

Charles Hamilton Sorley
On October 5th, 1915, twenty-year-old Charles Sorley wrote to his father describing his time in the trenches outside Loos: “…rain and dirt and damp cold. O for a bath!”  Sorley was known for his love of stormy weather: as a student at Marlborough College, he exulted in wet and windy runs across the trails of Marlborough Downs.   An excerpt from the last stanza of “Song of the Ungirt Runners,” a poem he wrote in early 1915, expresses that passion:

The rain is on our lips,
We do not run for prize.
But the storm the water whips
And the wave howls to the skies.

Eight days after writing his father, on October 13, 1915, in one of the last attacks of the Battle of Loos, Sorley was shot in the head and died instantly.  In the chaos of the battle, his body was never recovered: he is commemorated on the Loos Memorial, along with 20,609 other British and Commonwealth soldiers who have no known grave.  His poetry was published three months after his death in the slim volume Marlborough and Other Poems. 

In February 1916, Robert Graves, another soldier poet serving in France, wrote to his friend Edward Marsh that he had “just discovered a brilliant young poet called Sorley” and that “It seems ridiculous to fall in love with a dead man as I have found myself doing but he seems to have been one so entirely after my own heart in his loves and hates, besides having been just my own age.”  In 1918 Graves’ published a volume of his own poems, Fairies and Fusiliers: it includes a poem that remembers Charles Sorley and celebrates a life of action.


Sorley's Weather

Shellburst, Zillebeke by Paul Nash
When outside the icy rain
Comes leaping helter-skelter,
Shall I tie my restive brain

Snugly under shelter?
Shall I make a gentle song
Here in my firelit study,
When outside the winds blow strong

And the lanes are muddy?
With old wine and drowsy meats
Am I to fill my belly?
Shall I glutton here with Keats?

Shall I drink with Shelley?
Tobacco's pleasant, firelight's good:
Poetry makes both better.
Clay is wet and so is mud,

Winter rains are wetter.
Yet rest there, Shelley, on the sill,
For though the winds come frorley
I'm away to the rain-blown hill

And the ghost of Sorley.
          Robert Graves (1895-1985)

Tobacco, firelight, and poetry are pleasant and good, but “Sorley’s Weather” urges readers to put down their books and stride out into rough storms on rain-blown hills.  Experiencing the wildness of nature is far better than retreating to the fireside with the Romantics.  Even Percy Shelly’s meditations on nature (“The wilderness has a mysterious tongue/ Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild”) can be left behind on the window sill.  Sorley’s own poem “Rain,” written in 1912, tells readers where to find him:

When the rain is coming down,
And all Court is still and bare,
And the leaves fall wrinkled, brown,
Through the kindly winter air,
….
There is something in the rain
That would bid me to remain:
There is something in the wind
That would whisper, "Leave behind
All this land of time and rules,

Land of bells and early schools.

For those mourning the dead and remembering the thousands of every day tragedies of the Western Front, it was windswept hills, mud, and winter rain that were best able to summon the ghosts of the men and boys who would never return.  At the start of the Battle of Loos, torrential rains flooded the trenches, and Graves’ poem calls to mind the conditions of the war, as well as the weather that Sorley loved so well in life. 

J.R.R. Tolkien, writing about another rover and warrior, wrote, “Not all those who wander are lost.”  Not long after enlisting, Sorley wrote in a letter home, “Indeed I think that after the war all brave men will renounce their country and confess they are strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Powell, A Deep Cry). 

For earlier related posts, see Sorley’s “When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead” and Graves’ “Haunted.”

1 comment:

  1. Sorry Mr. Graves but I found the idea of wine, fire and a warm shelter with a good book much more enticing than your stormy wind swept hills. No thank you!! Your poem gives me chills.

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