Monday, May 18, 2015

When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead

 What would Charles Sorley and his last poem make of First World War centenary commemorations?  "We will remember them"?  Impossible.  "Lest we forget"?  The dead do not care if they are forgotten.  This sonnet, written in pencil, was found among the twenty-year-old Sorley's personal effects after he was killed at the Battle of Loos, just one of 59, 247 British casualties in the three-week battle.    

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.
"Paths of Glory" by CRW Nevinson
(Imperial War Museum)

Mouthless, deaf, gashed, and blind – the poem flatly catalogues the dead of war as a mutilated mass of millions, silenced and cut off from all sight and sound.  The pale battalions that march across survivors' dreams recall Dante's words when he descends into the hell of The Inferno: "I had not thought death had undone so many." 

Each young man once full of life and promise has been transformed into a "spook," and "None wears the face you knew."  The men are no longer linked to loved ones; neither are they their own.  They have been given to "Great death" for evermore. 

And what are survivors to do?  The poem counsels, "Say not soft things," and adds two more negative commands:  do not shed tears for the dead – do not attempt to honour their sacrifice.   Instead, "Say only this, 'They are dead."  The poem asks us to gaze upon the consequences of battle, to search the mutilated faces of the "o'ercrowded mass," and to acknowledge the cost of war without sentimentality and without attaching glory to the loss.  There is nothing new or special in personal grief, in this or in any war, for "many a better one has died before." 

Sorley wrote to his mother in April of 1915 to share his sense that Rupert Brooke's poetry was "overpraised," explaining, "He [Brooke] is far too obsessed with his own sacrifice, regarding the going to war of himself (and others) as a highly intense, remarkable, and sacrificial exploit, whereas it is merely the conduct demanded of him (and others) by the turn of circumstances…. He has clothed his attitude in fine words: but he has taken the sentimental attitude."
Charles Hamilton Sorley

Sorley's poetry evidences an unsentimental view of war, and so it is worth considering how he might wish to be remembered, one of the youngest of the poets who failed to survive the First World War.   His poetry speaks eloquently of the unfulfilled promise of the young man who was shot in October of 1915.  In a letter home, Sorley wrote of his own desires if he were to survive:  "Indeed I think that after the war all brave men will renounce their country and confess they are strangers and pilgrims on the earth." 

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