Some soldier poets/Sorley

Some soldier poets  (1920) 

When we first admire a person after death we are apt to feel a kind of joy that he is now unalterable, not to be pottered over or finicked with or painted out for some supposed improvement. In spite of reason we cannot really regret Keats' maturity, much less his old age. As we have been prevented by the centuries from sitting on the jury which banished Pheidias, we dote on his maimed and footless Theseus, and doubt whether the marble has not been improved by rough-handed Time; while we neglect or patronise the young sculptor in whom a like creative force struggles against the odds, with our long-established apathy. Only if we have followed its growth with all our hopes, a life seems broken through, snapped off and its promise wasted by early death. Then we wonder whether it is civilisation or barbarism that defends itself at such a cost. And the failure to preserve at least those who were creatively gifted from exposure, seems proof that our foresight was at fault, or our scale of values inadequate.[1] Sorley, the youngest, and it may be the most hope-inspiring of our poet soldiers, has set me musing thus. He is so fine, Death seems to have saved him from misshaping Life.

His language is poor and thin, but it moves powerfully, and constantly suggests organic forms. This is most unlooked for in a tyro. Sensuous images are extraordinarily persisted in, and as strangely few. Rain, wind, running, one particular spot on the downs where four grass tracks separate east, west, south and north, from a tall, weathered sign-post, and the "red-capped town" of Marlborough, where he was at school—these images return and return, ever freshly applied; but there is no hint of the neighbouring Savernake forest, it had too much the character of hostility to free movement. This young mind runs tirelessly, with ever revived pleasure, through an open wet bleak grey land, as once the boy clad only in jersey and shorts raced over the dim downs cloaked in rain.


We swing ungirded hips,
And lightened are our eyes,
The rain is on our lips,
We do not run for prize,
We know not whom we trust
Nor whitherward we fare,
But we run because we must
Through the great wide air.

The waters of the seas
Are troubled as by storm.
The tempest strips the trees
And does not leave them warm.
Does the tearing tempest pause?
Do the tree-tops ask it why?
So we run without a cause
'Neath the big bare sky.

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.
The winds arise and strike it
And scatter it like sand,
And we run because we like it
Through the broad bright land.

The felicity here is of the rarest and finest kind, and shapes the main form and rhythm; their inevitability sweeps us away and convinces, in spite of no matter what predisposition to stickle over details.

The downs have another hold on this poet; not only are they good to course at a long swinging run, they have preserved huge stones, earthworks and chiselled flints that tell of prehistoric lives.


This field is almost white with stones
That cumber all its thirsty crust.
And underneath, I know, are bones
And all around is death and dust.


O, in these bleached and buried bones
Was neither love nor faith nor thought.

But like the wind in this bleak place
Bitter and bleak and sharp they grew,
And bitterly they ran their race,
A brutal bad unkindly crew:

Souls like the dry earth, hearts like stone.
Brains like the barren bramble-tree,
Stern, sterile, senseless, mute, unknown—
But bold, O, bolder far than we!

Against this wet, bleak, strenuous background of his predilection the young man's thought is astonishingly keen, fresh and mature.

"I," he says in the title poem, Marlborough,

"Have had my moments there, when I have been
Unwittingly aware of something more,
Some beautiful aspect, that I had seen
With mute unspeculative eyes before;

Have had my times, when, though the earth did wear
Her self-same trees and grasses, I could see
The revelation that is always there,
But somehow is not always clear to me."

Here he introduces as an image "Jacob's return from exile," and ends it:

"For God had wrestled with him, and was gone.
He looked around, and only God remained.
The dawn, the desert, he and God were one.
—And Esau came to meet him travel-stained.

So, there, when sunset made the downs look new
And earth gave up her colours to the sky,
And far away the little city grew
Half into sight, new-visioned was my eye.

I, who have lived, and trod her lovely earth,
Raced with her winds and listened to her birds,
Have cared but little for their worldly worth
Nor sought to put my passion into words.

But now it's different; and I have no rest
Because my hand must search, dissect and spell
The beauty that is better not expressed,
The thing that all can feel, but none can tell."

Words halt behind thought and feeling. After vision and inspiration have been aroused by experience, even the best poetry may seem lame. But Sorley was conscious of another reason why "Beauty is better not expressed." He knew that it would not be welcomed. He had reached that stage when the soul reacts against parents, masters and the world that has fostered it. He was a rebel, an unusually clear-eyed and affectionate rebel, who did not only feel that things were wrong, but could point them out with un unerring finger.

"O come and see, it's such a sight,
So many boys all doing right:
To see them underneath the yoke,
Blindfolded by the elder folk,
Move at a most impressive rate
Along the way that is called straight.
O, it is comforting to know
They're in the way they ought to go.
But don't you think it's far more gay
To see them slowly leave the way
And limp and lose themselves and fall?
O, that's the nicest thing of all.
I love to see this sight, for then
I know they are becoming men,
And they are tiring of the shrine
Where things are really not divine.

I do not know if it seems brave
The youthful spirit to enslave,
And hedge about lest it should grow.
I don't know if it's better so
In the long end. I only know
That when I have a son of mine,
He shan't be made to droop and pine,
Bound down and forced by rule and rod
To serve a God who is no God.
But I'll put custom on the shelf
And make him find his God himself.
Perhaps he'll find Him in a tree
Some hollow trunk, where you can see.
Perhaps the daisies in the sod
Will open out and show him God.
Or will he meet him in the roar
Of breakers as they beat the shore?
Or in the spiky stars that shine?
Or in the rain (where I found mine)?
Or in the city's giant moan?
—A God who will be all his own,
To whom he can address a prayer
And love him for he is so fair,
And see with eyes that are not dim
And build a temple meet for him."

Yes, the actual world is more hospitable and more inspiring than the scenery, the panorama that English conventions paint and hang round the young, in part to help and prepare them, but in part also to delude them and disguise our own fears and failures. Truth provides a roomier house than the average Englishman has hired for his boys. Yet Sorley knew and felt that he had been unusually lucky in this respect. After leaving school he went to Germany for some months, and loved the life he saw in Mecklenberg Schwerin. He was reading the Odyssey, no longer one hundred lines at a time, but for his own pleasure, in long draughts, and was struck by the resemblance of the life he found about him, in that foreign place, to that he was reading about. He saw many things in Germany that were wrong, but it seemed to him that, as a nation, they had something to live for, while the English had struck him as lacking an adequate goal for effort. War was declared and he had to hurry across the frontier. In Cologne station he notes the various attitudes of the nationalities: Americans in a bustle for themselves; Germans in a bustle too, but for the Fatherland; "dark uprooted Italians peering from a squeaking truck—like Cassandra from the backmost car looking steadily down on Agamemnon." He was gazetted 2nd Lieutenant before August was out, and by December he writes:


Across my past imaginings
Has dropped a blindness silent and slow.
My eye is bent on other things
Than those it once did see and know.

I may not think on those dear lands
(O far away and long ago!)
Where the old battered signpost stands
And silently the four roads go

East, west, south and north,
And the cold winter winds do blow.
And what the evening will bring forth
Is not for me nor you to know.

Yet outwardly he was not at all "lost" in camp life, but held his own, was popular and successful, and did not know what ill health was. Promoted to a lieutenancy in November, 1914, he crossed to France in the following May, and was gazetted Captain in August, 1915, being killed near Hulloch on October the 13th that same year.

Once he wrote home wondering what kind of life he would take up after the war:

"Sorley is Gaelic for Wanderer. I have had a conventional education; Oxford would have corked it. But this (the war) has freed the spirit, glory be!"

Many, many must have felt freed from the tyranny of England by the mere fact of fighting for her against the tyranny of Germany. The tyranny of peace in half-baked countries like those we know, though less apparent than the tyranny of war, was perhaps more deadly to spiritual freedom; no Government yet established has deserved immunity from attack either from without or from within; that their constitutions should change smoothly and, if it may be, swiftly is the one possible hope for them all.

Much later Sorley writes:

"I am now beginning to think that free-thinkers should give their minds into subjection; for we, who have given our actions and volitions into subjection, gain such marvellous rest thereby. Only of course it is the subjecting of their powers of will and deed to a wrong master, on the part of a great nation, that has led Europe into war. Perhaps afterwards I and my likes will again become indiscriminate rebels. For the present, we find high relief in making ourselves soldiers."

No subjection can be wholesome and no master right for long. We must be freed in order to subject ourselves to better rules. No adequate rule has yet been conceived, even by the finest conscience. From prison to prison, or rather from enlargement to enlargement, men must advance or stagnate and die.

There was no black and white brutally juxtaposed in his vision of the European War; he was shocked to find so many, like Vernède, imbued with this childishly simple sense of utter contrast between the Allies and the Germans, and he seeks refuge with one correspondent, to whom he can safely put in a plea for a more rational view of the enemy.

"So it seems to me that Germany's only fault—is a lack of real insight and sympathy with those who differ from her. We are not fighting a bully, but a bigot. They are a young nation, and don't see that what they consider is being done for the good of the world may be really being done for self-gratification—like X, who, under pretence of informing the form, dropped into the habit of parading his own knowledge. X incidentally did the form a service by creating great amusement for it; and so is Germany incidentally doing the world a service (though not in the way it meant) by giving them something to live and die for, which no country but Germany had before. If the bigot conquers, he will learn in time his mistaken methods (for it is only of the methods and not of the goal of Germany that one can disapprove)—just as the early Christian bigots conquered by bigotry and grew larger in sympathy and tolerance, after conquest I regard the war as one between sisters, between Martha and Mary, the efficient and intolerant against the casual and sympathetic. Each side has a virtue for which it is fighting, and each that virtue's supplementary vice. I hope that whatever the material result of the conflict, it will purge these two virtues of their vices, and efficiency and tolerance will no longer be incompatible. But I think that tolerance is the larger virtue of the two, and efficiency must be her servant. So I am quite glad to fight against this rebellious servant. In fact I look at it this way. Suppose my platoon were the world. Then my platoon sergeant would represent efficiency and I would represent tolerance. And I always take the sternest measures to keep my platoon sergeant in check! I fully appreciate the wisdom of the War Office when they put inefficient officers to rule sergeants. . . . But I've seen the Fatherland (I like to call it the Fatherland, for in many families papa represents efficiency and mama tolerance—but don't think I'm W.S.P.U.) so horribly misrepresented that I've been burning to put in my case for them to a sympathetic ear."

And he strikes the same note, in some ways more profoundly, in verse:


You are blind like us. Your hurt no man designed,
And no man claimed the conquest of your land.
But gropers both, through fields of thought confined,
We stumble and we do not understand.
You only saw your future bigly planned,
And we the tapering paths of our own mind,
And in each other's dearest ways we stand,
And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.
When it is peace, then we may view again
With new-won eyes each other's truer form
And wonder. Grown more loving-kind and warm
We'll grasp firm hands and laugh at the old pain,
When it is peace. But until peace, the storm
The darkness and the thunder and the rain.

This, like the other poems I have quoted, has a fine movement; and though at the outset the phrasing is not felicitous, it improves till it becomes worthy of the meaning in the last three lines. Then, too, what wise, kindly eyes this young fellow sees with; how many of us can be put to shame by such a gentle sanity! His discoveries about his own countrymen are no less persuasively illuminating.

"One has fairly good chances of observing the life of the barrack-room, and what a contrast to the life of a house in a public school! The system is roughly the same; the house-master or platoon commander entrusts the discipline of his charge to prefects or corporals, as the case may be. They never open their mouths in the barrack-room without the introduction of the unprintable swear-words and epithets; they have absolutely no 'morality' (in the narrower, generally accepted sense); yet the Public School boy should live among them to learn a little Christianity; for they are so extraordinarily nice to one another. They live in and for the present: we in and for the future. So they are cheerful and charitable always: and we often niggardly and unkind and spiteful. In the gymnasium at Marlborough, how the few clumsy specimens are ragged and despised and jeered at by the rest of the squad; in the gymnasium here you should hear the sounding cheer given to a man who has tried for eight weeks to make a long jump of eight feet, and at last, by the advice and assistance of others, has succeeded. They seem instinctively to regard a man singly, at his own rate, by his own standards and possibilities, not in comparison with themselves or others; that is why they are so far ahead of us in their treatment and sizing up of others."

Because they need servants, and because fine houses and rapid locomotion imply labour, the well-to-do tend to regard other kinds of people as existing for their convenience. In this notion they resemble the enemy, who thought other nations were there that Germany might be "über alles."

Sorley was very sensitive to the falseness and unfairness of this seductive outlook, and perceived how detrimental it is to the finer powers of those who indulge in it. He felt that even poets were too content to think of others as mere readers and admirers, and addresses to them a protest on behalf of less articulate souls:


We are the homeless, even as you,
Who hope and never can begin.
Our hearts are wounded through and through
Like yours, but our hearts bleed within.
We too make music, but our tones
'Scape not the barrier of our bones.

We have no comeliness like you.
We toil, unlovely, and we spin,
We start, return: we wind, undo:
We hope, we err, we strive, we sin.
We love: your love's not greater, but
The lips of our love's might stay shut.
We have the evil spirits too
That shake our soul with battle-din,
But we have an eviller spirit than you,
We have a dumb spirit within:
The exceeding bitter agony
But not the exceeding bitter cry.

Here are shapeliness and vigour once more and, though finish and colour are to seek, there is still a marked improvement as the end comes in view.

Like other soldier poets, Sorley is anxious to think well of Death, whom he addresses:


Saints have adored the lofty soul of you.
Poets have whitened at your high renown.
We stand among the many millions who
Do hourly wait to pass your pathway down.
You, so familiar, once were strange: we tried
To live as of your presence unaware.
But now in every road, on every side,
We see your straight and steadfast signpost here.
I think it like that signpost in my land,
Hoary and tall, which pointed me to go
Upward, into the Hills, on the right hand,
Where the mists swim and the winds shriek and blow,
A homeless land and friendless. but a land
I did not know and that I wished to know.


Such, such is Death: no triumph: no defeat:
Only an empty pail, a slate rubbed clean,
A merciful putting away of what has been.

And this we know: Death is not Life effete,
Life crushed, the broken pail. We who have seen
So marvellous things know well the end not yet.
Victor and vanquished are a-one in death:
Coward and brave: friend, foe. Ghosts do not say
"Come, what was your record when you drew your breath?"
But a big blot has hid each yesterday
So poor, so manifestly incomplete.
And your bright Promise withered long and sped,
Is touched, stirs, rises, opens and grows sweet
And blossoms and is you, when you are dead.

These sonnets cannot compare for beauty and adequacy with Brooke's best, but the thought in them is perhaps even less expected, if not so certainly true. For us at least his promise is Sorley, now that he is dead. Death tempts us, nay forces us to overrate his actual production, and Reason in vain points out that the strait limits of his sensuous joys in image and language suggest that his poetical vein might have soon run dry. Yet not before he had enriched us, like another Matthew Arnold, with some equivalent for Empedocles, Sohrab and Rustum and The Scholar Gipsy, we retort. The power which shapes a masterpiece includes that which matures the man of the world, and that which renders the critic accomplished. Youth binds these and the other tacts and aptitudes in a solid faggot, but after a time there is possibly more gain than loss, should life cut the cord and use the sticks singly. Then, perhaps, engrossed by political reform, the poet's soul may be felt as an agent and no longer by its cohesion provoke the echo, beauty from stony world. Death has settled that, and for many minds, when Wordsworth's hare is watched, racing on the moors while that mist raised by her feet from the wet turf runs with her, a boy will soon appear accompanied with a sweeping veil of rain coursing the same uplands. And when the elder poet has listened to the old leech-gatherer standing in the pool, he will turn to welcome wisdom from young rain-brightened lips as Sorley draws to a halt at his side, to wonder over prehistoric men or speak generously of those of to-day and to morrow. His is but a continuation of Wordsworth's theme; for as the dignity of individuals depends on their resolute independence, so that dignity alone renders a social amalgam feasible. A nation is not fused by these sacrificing and exploiting those, but by all devoting and employing themselves, and no man has a chance of doing this till he is a free agent. Nations, too, can only build a civilised world by respecting each other's independence, and the downfall of Germany shows how little efficiency can atone for the wish to domineer. Efficiency is fine, but kindness is beautiful, and beauty is as strong as light, far stronger than any palpable thing; and in the long run it will prove to be the only rightful ruler. All other principles need to resort to force, but for beauty vision will win allegiance, so soon as the smoke of strife and commerce is out of men's eyes.

  1. Marlborough and Other Verses, etc. C. H. Sorley. Cambridge University Press. Quotations by permission of Professor W. R. Sorley.