Charles Hamilton Sorley was only twenty years old when he died in 1915 during the First World War, and shortly before he died, he managed to write the poem about the war, “When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead.” Like other First World War poets, Sorley also carries in his poetry a great deal of trauma and agony as an obvious consequence of a soldier who participates in such a horrific war. Yet, in spite of the parallels between Sorley’s poem and other First World War poems, Sorley uncovers some very uncommon positions and notions in his poetry – each one by itself, and even more so when they are conjoined under the same poetic roof.
In Sorley’s poem, the dead soldiers are not being regarded with any honor or respect, the war itself is rendered as completely pointless, and there is even a faint anti-patriotic sentiment that encompasses the poem. This essay will offer an analysis of Sorley’s poem, which will emphasize these unconventional ideas and compare them to other notions from poems of the renowned First World War poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.
Sorley’s poem has a basic structure of a Petrarchan (Italian) sonnet, which consists of an octave and a sestet; however, there is a deviation in the typical ABBAABBA rhyme scheme of the traditional Petrarchan sonnet’s octave, as Sorley’s octave has an ABABBABA rhyme scheme. Although the reason for this small modification in the rhyme scheme will, in all likelihood, never be revealed, it might show Sorley’s own desire to deviate from the prevalent perspective and accepted view of his time, as it is embodied in the poem’s content distinctly. The poem is full of enjambments and caesuras, which add a fragmented dimension to the speaker’s trauma-laden soul and, again, complement the chilling effect of the poem’s content. Indeed, as Santanu Das refers to First World War poetry: “poetic form bears most fully the weight of historical trauma” (Das, 2013).
Sorley begins his poem with an apostrophe to the implied reader – “when you see” (emphasis added, line 1) – which promptly induces an intimate connection of the speaker with the reader, who becomes much more involved and active right from the start. The first line continues as the speaker diverts the reader’s attention to a hideous image: “millions of the mouthless dead.” The enumeration of the dead by the millions, an impalpable figure to perceive, underscores the horrible aftermath of the war. The portrayal of the dead as “mouthless” constitutes an intensifier for the calamity and also, more importantly, constitutes a motif of physical impairment of the dead, which will recur in the poem in other forms such as “deaf” (line 5) and “blind” (line 7). These impairments stress one of the main dour ideas in the poem: the dead cannot speak, hear, or see and therefore, they lack any sort of individualism or importance, and hence, should not be celebrated nor glorified since they do not matter.
In the second line, the evocation of the dead turns out to be in the world of “dreams,” which indicates that visions of the dead haunt the speaker himself, and thus, the poem can clearly be interpreted as a self-reflection of Sorley’s own mind. The dismal tone of the poem is enhanced by an implied march of “pale battalions” (line 2), which again underlines the terrible ruination of war by ascribing the paleness of death to a noun such as “battalions” that signifies multitudes in a militaristic semantic field. The first two lines of the poem immediately bring the reader into the dreadful world of war as Sorley gloomily describes it, and from there until essentially the end of the poem, the speaker instructs how to treat these imaginary casualties of war.
In the rest of the octave, the speaker explains how the reader should regard the dead in the form of negation – he specifies what not to do. He tells the reader not to say “soft things as other men have said” (line 3), implying that the customary sayings of consolation, compassion, or even pity are utterly meaningless. The speaker goes on and tells the reader not to say to the dead that he/she will “remember [the dead]. For you need not so” (line 4); here, Sorley truly undermines a rooted, almost sacred, tradition in society – remembering and commemorating dead soldiers – as he plainly deems it totally redundant and unnecessary.
This attitude is completely at variance with Siegfried Sassoon, who believed that soldiers should have received even much more recognition than they had: in his poem “On Passing the New Menin Gate,” Sassoon fumes that the dead soldiers are merely remembered and commemorated by a paltry war memorial to which he refers as “Sepulchre of crime” (line 14).
Back to Sorley’s “When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead,” the speaker continues to trample on another well-established ritual about deceased soldiers when he requests to “[g]ive them not praise” (line 5), and after a disruptive caesura adds a sardonically poignant remark that includes an appalling image, claiming that as “deaf,” the dead would not know “[i]t is not curses heaped on each gashed head” (line 6). This remark also insinuates that while one society glorifies these dead soldiers, a rivaling society on the other side of the war detests and curses these exact same soldiers. The speaker asks the reader to not even cry for the dead, as “[t]heir blind eyes see not your tears flow” (line 7); besides the comments mentioned above about the depiction of the soldiers as “blind,” there also might be here a subversive political censure as well – Sorley may hint that the soldiers were blind before their death, and thus, did not really understand the horrid reality of war, nor even discern the real causes for which they were sent to perish.
Interestingly, both Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon also use the word “blind” in a few of their poems – in Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth” (line 14) and “Dulce et Decorum Est” (line 6), and Sassoon’s “Glory of Women” (line 11) – yet, the word’s functionalities in any of their poems do not seem to convey the same political condemnation as in Sorley’s.
The last line of the octave perhaps best exhibits Sorley’s somber sentiments when the speaker beseeches the reader not to give the dead “honour,” and follows with the disturbing statement, “It is easy to be dead” (line 8). Honoring soldiers who sacrificed their lives on the battlefield for their country is an old solemn patriotic tradition in almost all cultures, obviously including Sorley’s own English/Western culture; certainly, many zealous patriots could interpret the undermining of such entrenched practice as no less than treasonous. Equally rattling is the ensuing assertion: whereas conventionally, soldiers who died in battle are bestowed upon the utmost esteem and fame, Sorley entirely dismisses their sacrifice by reasoning that dying in a war “is easy” – a statement that, by itself, is true – yet, carries a very anti-patriotic fraught that spurns the national interest. In the octave, therefore, Sorley harshly negates and repudiates accepted social conventions by invalidating the customary regard for casualties of war.
In the sestet, the speaker continues to instruct the reader in the dreary fanciful encounter; however, rather than the passive directions of the octave, here the speaker supposedly bids to take a more active role, which commences with the clear directive, “Say only this” (line 9). Yet, in spite of the alleged call-to-action command of the speaker, it is actually a requisition for the reader’s own self-persuasion – to “say only this” to his/her own self. Consequently, the reader should first fully grasp that “[t]hey are dead” (line 9) and nothing more – a joltingly dry statement that ends with a strong caesura in the middle of the line and conveys the sense that it is meaningless to mourn or eulogize soldiers as it is accustomed. Second, the reader should fathom that “[y]et many a better one has died before” (line 10); this is an allusion (Das, 2013) to Homer’s Iliad (Book 21, lines 105-110) in which Achilles tells Lycaon before he kills him that even his own beloved friend Patroclus died although he was much better than him. This allusion again stresses, in a shockingly apathetic manner, Sorley’s perception of how insignificant the soldiers who died on the battlefield are.
It is a very different perception from other First World War poets who are much more empathetic toward the sacrifice of the soldiers: for instance, in “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” Owen encourages the dead’s loved ones to lament and cry as he concludes that “in their eyes / Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes” (lines 10-11), and in the emotional poem “Everyone Sang” Siegfried Sassoon lovingly likens Everyone (the uplifting soldiers) to “a bird” (line 10).
Sorley thereafter pushes the reader to the imaginative act of “scanning all the o’ercrowded mass” (line 11), which associates the reader personally with military action – as the word “scanning” has a military connotation – and to witness the multitudinous fatalities of war. The term “o’ercrowded mass” is also charged with criticism: “overcrowded” means too crowded, which insinuates that more soldiers than should were sent to their death, and “mass” suggests that the soldiers are now bereft of any identity and individuality.
The last few lines of the poem prompt the reader to zoom in from the general images of war enormities into a much more personal encounter: the speaker bleakly relays to the reader that if he/she would “[p]erceive one face that you loved heretofore / It is a spook” (lines 12-13). Besides meter considerations, Sorley uses the verb “perceive” that indicates cognitive comprehension rather than a verb that indicates actual sight, such as “see” or “behold,” because this image is still evoked in the imagination of the reader, who may reflect on his/her loved one at war whilst reading the poem, and does not actually see him. The cold determination that the reader’s loved one is now a “spook” – passed away and is now a ghost – is caustic in its sheer callousness.
In Owen’s “Strange Meeting,” there is also a ghastly description of an encounter with a dead soldier; yet, unlike Sorley, Owen elicits some sympathies to the soldiers themselves, who communicate and refer to each other as friends (lines 14, 40). Loyal to his own prior proclamations, Sorley offers no consolations nor sympathies; he even relentlessly elaborates to the reader on the dead that “[n]one wears the face you knew” (line 13) – a truly grisly invitation to envisage the appearance of those who were killed in battle. The bitterly frigid tone of the poem reaches its climax in the final line in which the speaker determines, “Great death has made all his for evermore” (line 14); a somber and daunting declaration that personifies death as a sort of dictator who holds absolute power over all soldiers in the war. Thus, the poem ends with the same desolate and dejected ambiance, which inconsolably enfolds its entirety.
Sorley’s poem represents the indescribable trauma and the growing distrust toward the conventional beliefs that many soldiers who fought in the First World War had felt. Through his poignant words, the woeful feelings of pessimism and despair are almost palpable as he disowns the most ingrained social dogmas in society. Sorley refuses to regard the dead soldiers of the war with any touch of compassion, pity or sorrow and thus differentiating himself from other First World War poets who also expressed their aversion to different aspects of the war.
In spite of his deliberate lack of empathy, Sorley’s poem “When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead” remains crucial and relevant for understanding the horrendous consequences and grave repercussions of armed conflicts that inevitably come with severe individual and also national costs.
Das, Santanu, ed. 2013. The Cambridge Companion to the Poetry of the First World War. Cambridge University Press.