When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead – Charles Sorley

‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead’

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.

NOTES

This difficult poem describes a dream encounter between the living and those killed in the First World War, attempting to instruct the reader that they should avoid pity or praise when speaking to the dead: they have been transformed by death into ghosts of the people they once were, and there can be no meaningful conversation between the two.

When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead: Again, this title has been applied after the fact. This has become a famous poetic image and quotation related to the First World War: it encompasses the scale of human loss in a nightmare vision of powerlessless (‘mouthless’, of course, suggests their inability to speak— or have their voices heard by others).

STRUCTURE: This is a sonnet. To see previous notes which describe the sonnet’s traditional structure, see Rupert Brooke’s ‘Peace’, ‘The Dead’ and ‘The Soldier’. Sorley’s sonnet has an unusual structure:  ABABBABA CDCDCD. It retains a distinct octet and sextet, but as a sonnet it is nonetheless unconventional, not least in its uncompromising subject matter.

“When you see millions of the mouthless dead… pale battalions go”: The opening lines are immediately both shocking and haunting. The second person address (the use of ‘you’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘I’) immediately personalizes the nightmare vision of the millions dead. It is an interesting question as to whom the implied reader is in this poem: is it those at home who have not witnessed the horrors of the war? Or is the march of the dead soldiers across the dreamworld of the living a universal experience, something unavoidable? Greek myth, which Sorley knew well, sometimes made the gods of sleep (Hypnos), death (Thanatos) and dreams (Morpheus) brothers; in this sense, encountering those who have died in battle in dreams is not necessarily an unexpected meeting.

“Say not soft things as other men have said, / That you’ll remember.”: the speaker warns against polite consoling or pitying words to the dead. The warning seems to address feelings of shame or embarrassment that the implied reader might feel: introducing the submerged question of guilt about the deaths of the men.

“For you need not so. / Give them not praise.”: these short sentences of instruction are written in a peculiarly disjointed way. The souls of soldiers might be expected to draw from the living kind words or praise. Yet the words ‘not’ (and later ‘nor’) interrupt and negate such responses: they’re simply not an option. This sense of interruption of expectations and meaning within the style of writing is known as anastrophe– where the grammar of a sentence seems deliberately disjointed or strangely ordered for effect. Compare the greeting to the dead in Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’— where the speaker begins, “Strange friend” (p.194).

“For, deaf, how should they know it is not curses… gashed head?”: The horrific insensibility of the dead is compounded with the observation that they cannot hear what you have to say to them. The reference to ‘gashed heads’ here is deliberately disturbing: the soldier’s wounds persist after death.

“Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.”: with each line the insensibility of the dead to the living increases. “Tears”— pity— have no use here.

“Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.”: the repeated rejection of what might be thought as humane or proper responses to the dead soldiers in each instruction emphasises the distance and difference between the dead and the living. The idea that it is ‘easy to be dead’ is shocking, even if it does appeal to intuition (that it is harder to stay alive than stay dead).

“…‘They are dead’. Then add thereto. ‘Yet many a better one has died before.”: there is, again, something shocking about the matter-of-factness of these instructions. The instruction to add that better people have died than the dead in war is so unsentimental as to seem chilling. It is interesting to speculate why Sorley uses this objective tone when writing about this encounter with the dead. Why is he alienated by the solecisms (kind words and acts) of the living? Is it because they are useless once a man is dead? Does Sorley blame the naively sentimental, the kind and the patriotic for the war?

“scanning all the o’ercrowded mass,”: “scanning” means looking; “o’ercrowded” means overcrowded. There are, remember, millions of dead soldiers crowding this dream space. “Mass” suggests they have lost individuality: it is an interesting word in early twentieth century discourse. ‘The masses’ were people perceived as a scary and undifferentiated entity, rather than as a large group made up of individuals. It may have a sinister suggestion here.

“…should you / Perceive one face that you loved heretofore, / It is a spook.”: the lines mean ‘if you see someone you loved before, it is a ghost’. The contrast between the hopeful expectation of the bereaved viewer and the unsentimental speaker is again contrasted. The choice of the word ‘spook’ is interesting: it is careless, flippant, almost dismissive, having few of the high-flown religious connotations we might expect when talking about such a moment.

“None wears the face that you knew. Great death has made all his for evermore.”: a chilling tone continues to the end. The common personification of Death, as a ruler or king over all, that we have already found in Grenfell’s ‘Into Battle’ (p.164) makes a reappearance here. Note that, like Grenfell’s poem and the previous by Sorley, this is an unchristian poem. There is no consolation of heaven for the righteous dead, similarly no promise of hell; kind or thoughtful acts affect nothing, and are quite useless— they seem almost to be vanities; while the ‘mass’ of dead are regarded objectively, almost without discrimination. The inspiration for this vision is, similar to Grenfell, the classical idea of death and afterlife found in Greek myth. Hades ruled over the Greek underworld or afterlife; those who led unremarkable lives would wander the fields of Asphodel in Hades, having forgotten their previous identities, leading neutral, ghostly lives. Heroes of battle would live in the Elysian fields; but the afterlife of the ‘mass’ of dead that Sorley describes here fits far closer the fields of Asphodel. The lack of a sense of pity or consolation in the poem marries up with this bleak world of identity lost and disconnection from the world of the living.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem is part of a long tradition of poems that describe the encounter between the living and the ghosts of the dead who have been killed in battle. It can usefully be compared within the anthology to Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’ (p.194) and, outside the anthology, with Hardy’s ‘The Man He Killed’.]

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14 thoughts on “When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead – Charles Sorley”

  1. I do not really like this poem as much as it manipulates the reader in to believing Sorleys’s perspective towards war. Sorley believes that the dead soldiers should not be praised or pitied as they have become something completely different to what they were. However, I think this is quite heartbreaking as the soldiers have been affected due to the experience of fighting in war and have given upon there life for the well being of there country. By Sorley stating “Nor honour. It is easy to be dead”, this clearly shows that Sorley has a barrier towards understanding the nature of war. War was a living hell for most of the soldiers. The fact that these soldiers fought till the end means they should recieve respect and should not be portrayed as cowards- by implying death was easier than War as it clearly was not.

    1. This is a masterpiece, but a sad masterpiece nonetheless. Just before the war broke out, Sorley was in Germany studying the language and culture. Doubtless he had German friends. And then he had to return and join the army to fight Germany. Is it any wonder, then, that his poetry expresses this harshness and bleak despair? And who better to write about war than one who has first-hand experience of it? I find it a sad poem, but I can fully understand where his sentiments were coming from.

  2. Hi, I think the poem is superb. I do not feel it is an attack upon the dead but more really on the living, the members of the society that propagated such mis-guided zeal in sending millions to their death.

  3. I like the poem and I think the analysis is excellent. I think it contrasts to Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Dead’ as Brooke says “dying has made us rarer gifts than gold” whereas in this poem the dead soldiers are perceived in a completely different way.

  4. Very good poem.
    Aakanksha your views are interesting, although I don’t think the poem is an attempt at manipulation. True, Sorley dictates his views, however manipulation is persuasion – and there is no attempt to persuade. Readers clearly see what Sorley is doing and so can make up their own minds. I like the poem and agree with Sorley; dying takes no courage and so should receive no honour. The army dudes in the WW1/2 didn’t have a choice – compare societal expectations, and pressures, of then (world war period) and now (Iraq War etc) and you’ll find that the braver soldiers are the ones fighting now simply because they don’t have to but they do.

  5. This is a harsh and disturbing poem confronting us the living with the destructive power of war. It suggests there is no heroism in death as the dead are unable to appreciate such concepts as praise, honour or pity. These belong to the living not the dead. That the poet himself became one of the senseless dead makes it even more chilling.

  6. Significant typo alert! Last line should read ‘Great death has made all his for evermore.’ (not ‘all this’) WR Sorley’s 1919 anthology of his son’s poetry ‘Marlborough and Other Poems’ also has ‘o’ercrowded mass’ (not the less sonorous ‘overcrowded’ you see here. It’s a short enough poem – let’s get it right.

  7. The last line of the poem should read, “Great death has made all HIS for evermore”.

    The poem always makes me feel uneasy and although he admonishes us, “Give them not praise… Nor tears… Nor honour”. One should not forget he was only twenty when he fell. So gifted. On this the 99th anniversary of his death, as one of the many thousands of his admirers over these many years, I speak for all when I say, “We give him all the praise and all the honour”.

  8. To fully understand the language of the war poets you have to understand how they were educated. The classical languages, histories and literature were their backbone. The poem is a ‘katabasis’ (journey of the living into the underworld) and echoes the journey of Odysseus into the underworld. (He see the faces of those he knew, including his mother who cannot hear him nor recognise him to begin with). Sorley’s ghosts echo this whilst also bringing forth images of both physical mutilation and the mutism that is associated with shell shock.

    “Say not soft things” is believed to be a response to Brooke’s poetry, but the lines also echo the sentiment of the conversation between Odysseus and the dead Achilles in book XI of the Odyssey. Achilles responded to the praise and honour Odysseus was lavishing on him with “Urge not my death to me, not rub that wound”. Sorley wasn’t suggesting that his fellow soldiers didn’t deserve our respect, but that being dead, what need did they have of it. It’s about the futility of so many deaths, the numbness that comes from not one death but millions of them.

    Sorley’s harsh reality where ‘it is easy to be dead’ marks the transition of poetry from Brooke’s gentle ‘If I should die’ to Owen’s ‘die like cattle’.

    It’s a bleak poem, but one of my favourites. I urge anyone studying the war poets to engage also with the classics, it will help you read the poetry with a much wider understanding.

    1. I forgot to also mention that the lines ‘Say only this “…‘They are dead’. Then add thereto. ‘Yet many a better one has died before.”’ is another classical reference.

      Achilles’ words to a man begging him for mercy were

      “Come, friend, you too must die. Why moan about it so?
      Even Patroclus died, a far, far better man than you.
      And look, you see how handsome and powerful I am?
      The son of a great man, the mother who gave me life
      a deathless goddess. But even for me, I tell you,
      death and the strong force of fate are waiting.”

      Sorley felt that “no saner and splendider comment on death has been made”. Men died, great men died before them and great men would continue to die, such is the nature and futility of war.

    2. I approve of this message. I wish I had read more classical texts at school (and Old Norse texts too, but that’s another matter). What is undoubtedly true is that the public school educated officer class were steeped in classical literature. Here’s a shocking fact: “At Eton, admittedly one of the more conservative institutions, 26 masters out of a total of 31 were wholly devoted to the teaching of classics in the 1860s; half of those on the teaching staff were still classicists in 1905” (Waquet, ‘Latin or the Empire of a Sign’, 27). The classics were over-taught in Victorian public schools. Pressure mounted towards the end of the Victorian period to change this classicist focus to a more balanced curriculum that involved (shock!) scientific instruction and experiment, and the study of English Literature. Public figures like HG Wells lamented the imbalance given by this traditional and conservative education system in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.

      There’s an interesting BA dissertation thesis on Victorian public schools here.

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