Sunday 25 September 2016

The Sunday Poem: Anthony Cronin's personal anthology

When There Are Millions... Charles Sorley

Anthony Cronin

Published 27/04/2015 | 02:30

Charles Sorley
Charles Sorley

Charles Hamilton Sorley was only twenty years old when he was killed as he led his men into battle at Loos in 1915. He left seventeen completed poems. Both Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves believed he was, as Tim Kendal has put it, 'the first poet capable of writing the truth of war unembellished by patriotism'.

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Graves said later that he was one of the three poets of importance killed during the war. (The other two were Isaac Rosenberg and Wilfred Owen.) This poem was found in his kit-bag when it was returned to his father. It is thoroughly uncompromising, with no indulgence in any kind of sentimentality. The word 'sacrifice' does not appear in it and should be forbidden to all of us who speak about war. The line about 'better men having died before'  is from Homer and is about the death of  Achilles' friend Patroclus. Sorley said that 'no saner and splendider comment on death has been made'. 

When There Are Millions...

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.

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