A corner of a foreign field that is for ever England

The less well-known poets of the First World War include Charles Hamilton Sorley.

Born in 1895 in Aberdeen, Scotland, it was his father’s appointment as Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge that took the family to England in 1900. Sorley won a scholarship to Marlborough College in 1908, where running or walking long distances became his favourite sport and the Wiltshire Downs the landscape closest to his heart.

Sorley won a scholarship to University College, Oxford, commencing in the autumn of 1914. Before then, he left Marlborough to spend a few months in Germany, a country scholars and classicists held in high esteem. Plans for a week’s walking in the Moselle Valley were interrupted by the declaration of war, and Sorley and a friend were briefly detained before finding their way safely back to England.

The morning after his arrival home, despite a newfound admiration for the German people, Sorley applied for a commission in the Suffolk Regiment, posted to France in May 1915. By September, Sorley had been promoted to Captain and his battalion sent to fight in the forthcoming Battle of Loos. Taking up position on the front line during the night of 12 October, Sorley was killed in action the next day aged 20. His body was lost in the mud of Loos.

The English poet and novelist Robert Graves considered Sorley one of three important poets killed during the war. The others were Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg. He was even ranked as first among the Great War’s “poetic losses” by John Masefield, the long-serving Poet Laureate before and after the Second World War, who had seen service in 1914-18, including a stint in a military hospital in Northern France around the time of Sorley’s death.

The finest of Sorley’s poems include “To Germany”, “Barbury Camp”, “All the Hills and Vales Along”, and “Such, Such is Death”. For many, the pinnacle is Sonnet XXXIV “When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead” reminiscent of similar angry poems by Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. And then there is the pastoral “Rooks”, with its hint of foreboding.

“There, where the rusty iron lies,
The rooks are cawing all the day.
Perhaps no man, until he dies,
Will understand them, what they say.

The evening makes the sky like clay.
The slow wind waits for night to rise.
The world is half content. But they

Still trouble all the trees with cries,
That know, and cannot put away,
The yearning to the soul that flies
From day to night, from night to day.”

The painting below is “The Rooks’ Parliament” by John S. Raven (1829-77), a self-taught artist who studied the works of John Crome and John Constable. It was exhibited at the Universal Exhibition, Paris, in 1867.


Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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