Charles Hamilton Sorley: When you see millions

June 20, 2018
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. 

A grim Petrarchan sonnet, this one. The alliteration in the open line shocks, with the enormous number, as well as the idea that the dead cannot speak; pale suggests ghostliness, too. Say not soft things: are these the whispered words of condolence, uttered out of embarrassment? Things hints at the speaker lost for what is appropriate to say in the circumstances, rather like the man in Owen’s Disabled who thanks the boy and enquires about his soul… Or is there a hint of the colloquial meaning of soft, as stupid? The poem will carry both. And anyway, the words you utter are for you, not those who are dead, and that is the point the poet is now going to hammer home: it’s too late now for you to do or say anything that will do any good or make any difference: this is the entire force of the octave.

They do not need praise; they are unable to distinguish it from curse; neither do they need tears, or honour – perhaps reminding us of Falstaff’s famous speech about honour in Henry IV Part 2: honour is just a word. Notice too, how Sorley has the dead first mouthless, then deaf and finally blind too; there is a sense of helplessness as well as being beyond help: it is easy to be dead. This was surely very true in the Great War.

Things shift slightly in the sestet: at first they are still a mass, indistinguishable, a crowd, until the hearer spots one that s/he loved heretofore. This is always the way to make the reader think, to narrow down and personalise, and explains why so many of the most memorable poems that came out of that war are focused on the fate of a single individual: look at any of Sassoon‘s or Owen’s most well-known and well-liked poems. It is a spook. Those four monosyllables, with added effect from their place at the start of the line, bring us up short, as perhaps also does the unexpected word spook – a ghost, a spirit, something that shocks or frightens. Though the hearer recognises the dead man, at the same time, it is not the person he knew. And the final line, all monosyllables until the final word, hammers the message home: death is final and forever. Sorley uses the caesura very effectively four times in the poem, too: a pause for thought after a brief sentence at the beginning of a line.

Re-reading this poem as I write this post, I’m struck at how many of the words are monosyllables, emphasising to me the simplicity and the finality of its message.

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