By David F. Beer
|Lt. Charles Sorley|
This was his last poem, written in pencil and found in his pack after he was killed. Technically, it’s a perfect sonnet. It was composed after the war had shredded the last of the Christian sensibilities Sorley had absorbed during his younger years.
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 had always been suspicious of Rupert Brooke’s patriotic poetry and disliked the sentimentality he found in Brooke’s work. It’s thought Sorley wrote this poem as a rebuttal to “If I should die, think only this of me…” Certainly the millions of mouthless dead are a long way from a corner of a foreign field that is forever England. Sorley’s dead are utterly dead, and they are impervious to communication and commemoration.
The "you" in the poems is, of course, us—the reader, whether in 1915 or now. Sorley gives us a list of negatives regarding the dead: don’t bother to say nice things; don’t give them praise; don’t weep for them or honor them; don’t try to recognize them even in your dreams. They are simply dead, gone, or imaginary ghosts—"spooks." War has made Sorely brutally realize this.
One of the most striking sonnets to come out of the Great War, it was admired by other leading poets who survived. It embodies sadness, cynicism, anger, and an atheism that some might find hard to accept. According to one critic, however, it is the kind of poem Rupert Brooke may well have written had he seen much more of the war himself.