11/11: Poetry of the Great War

Perhaps no other conflict has given rise to such rich and sorrowful poetry as the “war to end all wars”—the First World War, which in the first word of its name gives the lie to the optimism of its nickname.  I reflect on poets from this war every year on Veterans Day.  Thanks to you veterans who happen by here today—and never let any of us forget that war is hell, and that sending men and women into harm’s way should be our country’s last resort.  Other countries are more somber today than we are.  They still remember the millions dead at Verdun and Ypres, the generation lost to death and hollow living.  I think we would do well to understand better what they do.  But rather than listen to me any longer, here are the voices of men who saw it face-to-face:

Edward Shillito’s “Hardness of Heart”

In the first watch no death but made us mourn;
Now tearless eyes run down the daily roll,
Whose names are written in the book of death;
For sealed are now the springs of tears, as when
The tropic sun makes dry the torrent’s course
After the rains. They are too many now
For mortal eyes to weep, and none can see
But God alone the Thing itself and live.
We look to seaward, and behold a cry!
To skyward, and they fall as stricken birds
On autumn fields; and earth cries out its toll,
From the Great River to the world’s end—toll
Of dead, and maimed and lost; we dare not stay;
Tears are not endless and we have no more.


Charles Sorley, an unnamed sonnet

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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4 comments on “11/11: Poetry of the Great War

  1. Paul Hamann says:

    Sorley. Wow. I must pursue more.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I completely agree—I don’t know anything about him other than having found this sonnet in a collection of them, but I’m very curious to see what else he wrote.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      This is years later, I know, but I stumbled into this post again, was reminded of our enthusiasm for Sorley, and went hunting. As it turns out, there’s a reason we did not know his work—Charles was one of the millions who died in a trench in the Great War. He had studied in Germany before the war, and maybe that along with his obvious intelligence made him less sentimental and patriotic than other writers of the war, I don’t know. Anyway, in 1915 Charles Sorley fell at the age of 20, shot in the head by a German sniper. In his kit they found the sonnet I shared in this post. Robert Graves (he of “Good-bye to All That”) later called him one of the three truly talented poets to die in the war. The year after he was killed, a slim volume of his poetry was published in his honor—a number of promising pieces, but clearly the war and the experience of growing up were just beginning to refine his talents when he fell. Another tragic consequence of the war. I don’t know if you’ll ever find your way back to this post, Paul, but I thought you or another somebody might be back here some day, and think “I should read more Sorley”. The fact that we can’t do that is one of poetry’s simpler arguments against war, and its most convicting.

  2. […] the glory of war than it is about the day’s true meaning.  You can read them, if you like: 2010 is here, and 2011 is here, and last year’s entry here.  This year, all I can add is that the birth […]

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