Charles Sorley must have been the most brilliant of all the young poets who died in the First World War. Yet ‘brilliant’, with its flashy, brittle connotations, isn’t the right word. He was undeniably clever, and forthright, but also good-humoured and modest, often very funny, shrewd and serious, but never (the young man’s vice) priggish. His intelligence, far from bullying, evinced itself in a throwaway manner, and there was nothing calculated about his charm. His letters, some of which Jean Moorcroft Wilson used to excellent effect in her biography of 1985, are more immediately engaging than those of Wilfred Owen, if less touching. Sorley enjoyed a better start in life, his father being Knightsbridge Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge and his mother a cultivated and unconventional woman, but there was no question of his living on inherited intellectual capital: in that respect he paid his own way or thought it out, no doubt with some help from his teachers at Marlborough College. With Owen there is an impression of effortfulness, and of sadness, at least of lesser youthfulness, as if you can feel his early death coming; Sorley was so full of life and the enjoyment of it that his death – five months after his 20th birthday, compared with Owen’s eight months after his 25th – seems even more incongruous.
Though Sorley disapproved of public schools, their affectations and tin-goddery, and the assumption that school life was the real thing rather than a rehearsal for it, he enjoyed Marlborough, dividing his time between games, the Officers’ Training Corps, walking in the countryside (Richard Jefferies was an enduring hero), and excitedly discovering writers. With Shakespeare, Blake was an early enthusiasm (everything was early in Sorley’s life); Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, he told his parents, was supposed to be the finest drama of modern times, with subtle tragic irony and so forth, ‘but I could only see in it a really exceptionally good farce’; he thought more highly of Masefield, whose material, he noted, wasn’t ‘half as easy’ as Synge’s Irish peasantry. Hardy’s fiction was another enthusiasm (later, reading The Dynasts, he would warn his parents not to be put off ‘by too much about the Immanent Will’). He gave a paper on Housman, and through Georgian Poetry he came to De la Mare and Rupert Brooke, ‘undoubtedly a poet, though a slight and lyrical one’. His verdict on Brooke’s ‘1914’ sonnets would be ‘He has clothed his attitude in fine words: but he has taken the sentimental attitude.’ At Marlborough he was active in starting a College Dramatic Society, though the Master (the headmaster, Dr Wynne Willson) insisted that it should be called the Shakespeare Society ‘as he considers the word “dramatic” is disturbing.’ The Master found his pupil somewhat disturbing, at any rate lacking in docility, but the two formed a deep and egalitarian respect for each other.
Sorley’s description of a party of working-class men ‘from the Mission at Tottenham’ visiting the school in July 1912 opens with a hint of condescension but soon loses it: ‘most were exceptionally lively and interesting,’ he told his parents, ‘and oh! their intelligence!’ In January of the following year he announced his desire – ‘no new idea’ – to take a degree and teach in a Working Men’s College, an aspiration encouraged by the Music Master, George (later Sir George) Dyson. ‘One hates talking (I know it’s only silly shy self-consciousness) about anything one really feels,’ he added, to explain why he hadn’t mentioned it before: ‘These things go much better into ink.’
Having won a scholarship to University College, Oxford, he removed himself to Schwerin, in Mecklenburg, where he stayed with a comfy German family, conceiving a considerable admiration for the lady of the house (‘too fine for her surroundings’), though not for the gentleman, and then to Jena, ostensibly to follow philosophy lectures at the university, but devoting more attention to the poets, including Rilke and Hölderlin: ‘Their language is colossally beautiful and they are egoists to their finger nails – both of which traits I like.’ Germany he liked too; he could not ‘imagine a nicer nation’, and was much impressed by its enthusiasm for Shakespeare. He observed that ‘in Germany Wilde and Byron are appreciated as authors: in England they still go pecking about their love-affairs’: it appears that, where England is concerned, things haven’t changed in that respect. Not that he was uncritical: the student corps, with their drunkenness and duelling, he considered ‘black-rotten’, so he firmly told the Master, who apparently had shown a soft spot for them. And he reported that when he translated bits of Jude the Obscure, his Schwerin family were distressed at first because they thought Jude meant ‘Jew’, ‘and a book – other than the Gospels, of course – whose hero was Jewish couldn’t be a nice aristocratic book.’
Those fated to die young tend to develop fast, spending their brief lives in top gear. Perhaps Wilfred Owen sensed what little time lay ahead for him. Sorley didn’t, or so his ebullience (though far from frivolous) and his forward-looking confidence would suggest. Yet he did mature swiftly, forming and changing and determining opinions in the course of weeks or days rather than years. He was invited to Berlin for Whitsun 1914, and his initial reactions were favourable; whatever there was to be enjoyed decently, he would always enjoy.
I do like this town ... Natural, bourgeois, unaffected Hedonism seems to be the prevailing note: Hedonism of the very best kind, which depends on universality not on contrast for its fulfilment. When Imagination comes, I should think this will be the best of cities. Granted they see Lazarus and his sores, they can no longer be happy in the contrast, but buy him an overcoat which will hide his sores, and give him a good meal which will ensure his being happy as long as they remember his existence. It is in fact rather like a child’s idea of Heaven, where every one there is very happy but manages to forget about the misery of others in the less respectable part of the next world. But I’m not complaining, and it’s nice that the Germans are so proud of Berlin.
Thus to the Master of Marlborough, as one man of the world to another. However, later in the month he wrote to a friend, his junior by a year at school, that Berlin was merely the capital of Prussia, ‘and every Prussian is a bigot or a braggart – except the Prussian Jews: and they alone have humour and independent minds. I like Germany too much to agree that Berlin is its capital. The town has no characteristics except efficiency and conceit and feeble imitation of French artistic vice, where the vice is doubled and the art dropped.’
Having got half-way through Faust Part One, he reckoned it ‘more a wonderful collection of very good remarks than a dramatic masterpiece’ (to his parents, 27 March 1914). After seeing a ‘magnificent’ production in Schwerin, he demurred at the ‘undue prominence’ given to the story of Margarete, ‘only an episode in Faust’s career’, whereupon his mother promptly put him right: ‘I wonder, was it that to her? Women suffer for you, struggle for you, sin for you – spend themselves utterly – and, in the latter end, are apt to be labelled merely “episodes”.’ (Towards the end of 1914 Sorley drew a parallel between Gretchen and Belgium, presumably with Faust as Germany.) His complaint to the Master was that Faust dried up the creative instincts in other people: ‘There is nothing that I have ever thought or ever read that is not somewhere contained in it, and (what is worse) explained in it,’ and so for recreation he would have to turn to the Odyssey. In early July of 1914, having read a book about Goethe and Schiller and their intellectual relationship, he opined that if Goethe’s last words were really a request for ‘more light’, then it was very silly of him, since what he wanted was more warmth. (The greater part of the warmth went into the writing; Goethe may have had this in mind when he made the otherwise florid and trite declaration that all his works were fragments of a great confession.) When he had at last finished the complete Faust, he wrote (24 July): ‘I think it’s about the best thing ever written. The main idea of the thing – Er, unbefriedigt jeden Augenblick – is entirely to my taste. He is really rather a stimulating person, Goethe.’ Over a period of four months he appears to have reached a more thorough and lively understanding of Goethe than most scholars achieve in a whole lifetime. Worth appending are his mischievous remarks on the twin pillar of Literaturgeschichte: what he had read of Schiller left him quite cold, but he was told that ‘he had such a beautiful character, such bad consumption – and was so good for Goethe.’
War broke out while Sorley was on a walking tour along the Moselle, and after some adventures he reached Antwerp and was repatriated on an ‘old broken-down sad ship’ on which four years earlier Dr Crippen and his mistress (‘Mr and Master Robinson’) had been apprehended. He regarded the war as one between sisters, ‘between Martha and Mary, the efficient and intolerant against the casual and sympathetic’, and hoped that the effect of the outcome, whatever it might be, would be to make efficiency and tolerance no longer incompatible. ‘If this war proves (as I think it will) that you can kill a person and yet remain his greatest friend – or, less preferably, be killed and yet stay friends – it’ll have done a splendid thing’: an idealistic notion, maybe, but not utterly foolish – and a curious prefigurement of Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’. As it was, he said while waiting at Aldershot to be sent to France, ‘what we are doing is casting out Satan by Satan’ (modified in a poem of August 1914 to ‘the blind fight the blind’).
Hitherto the topics and the tone of his correspondence had been much the same whether he was writing to relatives, friends or teachers. In the letters from the Front, he understandably varied the subject-matter, while for the most part preserving his customary cheerful tone. To his sister he joked: ‘By the way, Kitchener wants Pipe Cleaners. Young officers at the front are starving for want of Pipe Cleaners. Read the Daily Mail, the paper that exposed the Pipe Cleaner Tragedy.’ He gave his father a carefully fanciful account of different kinds of gunfire, comparing them to a ‘tremendous-sized’ cow ‘with awful whooping-cough’ or ‘thousands of motor-cycles tearing round and round a track’. But it was to a close friend, an Englishman he had met at Jena University, that he spoke of the wounded lying in no man’s land, and the ‘horrible thankfulness’ when one saw that the man was dead: ‘We won’t have to carry him in under fire, thank God; dragging will do.’ He continued, as if revising Brooke’s high-mindedness: ‘One is hardened by now: purged of all false pity: perhaps more selfish than before. The spiritual and the animal get so much more sharply divided in hours of encounter, taking possession of the body by swift turns.’ Less than two months later he too was dead, shot in the head by a sniper on 13 October 1915. In his best and possibly last poem he had remarked: ‘It is easy to be dead.’
This Collected Letters replaces and supplements the long out-of-print selection made by Sorley’s parents and published in 1919. Though he left several poems which rank among the finest of that tragic wartime crop, his letters, with their vivacity, fluency and acute yet affectionate discernment, bear out Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s suggestion in her biography that his literary future might have lain in prose – and not only, I would say, because of his social concerns. The annotation here is on the over-generous side, but often illuminating and sometimes needful, relating to a time that must seem remote from the present. Nothing testifies more strikingly to the truth in Philip Larkin’s poem ‘MCMXIV’ – though its terms are rather different, except perhaps for the reference to ‘dark-clothed children at play/Called after kings and queens’ – than Sorley’s letters. ‘Never such innocence again,’ indeed, so long as that noun carries no irony but only the acknowledgment of a fall from grace. Sorley’s was the generation, the truly lost one, that might have kept the best of the old world and changed the rest of it, or some of it.
Ivor Gurney’s fate was worse and also better. ‘May 1925 see us both happy and revered by the few who count and know the good when they see it,’ he wrote to F.W. Harvey in February 1915. ‘Meanwhile there is a most bloody and damnable war to go through. Let’s hope it’ll do the trick for both of us, and make us so strong, so happy, so sure of ourselves, so crowded with fruitful memories of joy that we may be able to live in towns or earn our living at some drudgery and yet create whole and pure joy for others.’ He survived the war, living or partly living until the end of 1937, only to be cheated by madness. But not wholly cheated, since he left an impressive body of poetry, surpassing Sorley’s.
In his letters Gurney displays an intelligence and liveliness, a humour and affectionateness, comparable to Sorley’s (Sorley was his junior by five years), a greater or wider knowledgeability, and both more earnestness and more playfulness. Not surprisingly, there are various points of similarity in their letters from the Front; for Gurney, musician as well as poet, the machine-guns sound ‘like an awful pack of hell hounds at one’s back’, and rifle grenades ‘make a horrid feminine scream after bursting’. Both of them were careful to spare the susceptibilities of their correspondents back at home.
Michael Hurd (The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney) may well be right in contending that Gurney’s madness cannot simply be traced to his experiences in the trenches, horrible though they were. At the Front he seems to have been stoical, cheerful, relaxed, detached: as if the war were a kind of interregnum, and real life would pick up later, with its opportunities to ‘create whole and pure joy for others’. ‘Illness would have declared itself, war or no war,’ Hurd writes. ‘Gurney, it would seem, was marked out from birth for mental problems.’
Possibly there are warning signs in the letters: joky, jaunty, multifariously interested, mixing facetiousness with perceptiveness. His well-stocked mind can dart off vigorously and weirdly in all directions, as in his Christmas ‘Epic’ of 1915:
Do ping their pongs.
Get stomach achers.
Here he conflates a skit on the hymn ‘Conquering kings their titles take/From the foes they captive make’ with references to the absence of ping-pong (a game he used to play with his correspondent) and either poor army food or memories of seasonal over-eating. Similar is his comical cannibalising lamentation: ‘I am as a bottle in the smoke, a mouldy pelican in a howling wilderness of monkeys.’ Yet to find signs of mental instability in high spirits (albeit in the trenches) or, say, in his whimsical use of French expressions (he was, after all, in France) seems absurdly impertinent, suspiciously like the unwisdom of hindsight.
In his fine edition R.K.R. Thornton excludes letters dated later than the end of 1922, when Gurney was transferred to the City of London Mental Hospital in Dartford, on the grounds that they would require a second volume and he does not wish to reinforce the idea of Gurney as the ‘mad poet’. Probably this is wise of him. The Barnwood asylum letters of 1922 are sufficiently lacerating, with their pitiful flashes of sanity, of lucid anguish. To Vaughan Williams Gurney writes:
Sir, I would pray you believe words, and to get me term of imprisonment, dangerous public service, work, freedom to go on tramp, but chance of death always – rather than to be left here, where conditions are not such as one can get well in, and one may be never well enough to go. Have mercy; believe words. A living thing desires not to be cooped up; often under influence; will do almost anything for freedom and usefulness, but not to be left here to rust into disuse, after so much desperate trying.
To Marion Scott, most faithful and sustaining of his friends:
I wish to work or die ... After the War, what hopes there were! To earn a living and to write praise of England! Surely the ordinary desirings of a mind seeking fulfilment, after the manner of seekers after Truth, lovers of mankind and the pleasures and joys God-sent. But not much pleasure have I taken.
I have to sit still. Will not the General Election make a difference? Will not electricity be used to clean ends. My Mother thinks there is something the matter with me and that I had better be left – to what? ...
Have mercy and rescue I pray
If one does have doubts about the omission of later letters, a masochistic desire for more, it is because, though Gurney may have been an irredeemable paranoiac, believing he was being tortured by ‘electrical influences’ before ECT had come into existence, he was not an imbecile. A poem of 1926 begins, ‘I would not rest till work came from my hand,’ and ends:
Madness my enemy, cunning extreme my friend,
Prayer my safeguard. (Ashes my reward at end.)
Secrecy fervid my honour, soldier-courage my aid.
(Promise and evil threatening my soul ever-afraid.)
Now, with the work long done, to the witchcraft I bend
And crouch – that knows nothing good, Hell uncaring