Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, February 3, 2020

Charles Sorley's "When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead"

By David  F. Beer

Lt. Charles Sorley

Charles Hamilton Sorley enjoyed a rather privileged upbringing, being educated at Marlborough and then at University College, Oxford. He was traveling in Germany when war broke out in 1914 and immediately returned to England. He was commissioned in the Suffolk Regiment, sent to France in May 1915, and killed by a sniper at the Battle of Loos on 15 October, age 20.

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.


  1. There is a feeling, when you have seen death, that the person is gone—not gone anywhere, just gone. A dead body is just matter; you feel it and know it, it holds nothing of the person you knew. And part of the devastating blow of grief is that you can't understand how a person can simply be gone—gone where? Gone how? How can someone, a living person with a personality, thoughts, memories, with an eternal soul, be just gone? You don't know where they've gone. You just know that they're not anywhere where you can ever touch, hear, see, or feel them again. And therein lies the impossibility, the uncomprehending denial, followed by waves of shattering realization that what cannot be reality is reality, that is grief. Death is the most unnatural, most incomprehensible reality on the face of the earth, and this poem captures that gaping, incomprehensible sense of "gone" terribly well. If I were not a Christian, if I did not believe that Christ conquered death, was dead and rose again alive, was dead and transformed that death into life, I would say that nothing matters, everything is meaningless, because in the end all is death and death is absence—but I do believe it, and by this I have life and can believe in and love life, because I know that Life is greater and has prevailed, and that one day there will be no more death. Call me fanciful if you please, but I did not invent this comfort in an armchair—I stood on it in my own grief, and every day.

  2. Excellent reading, David.
    That final line, brrrr: "Great death has made all his for evermore."

  3. Here we can feel a sense of absence of senses. And the feeling of uncertainty which poet feels. Actually he realizes us that we should sort out the problems before the catastrophe after distraction there is useless to weep to lament and to regret.