Swift radiant morning

D.J. Enright

  • The Collected Letters of Charles Hamilton Sorley edited by Jean Moorcroft Wilson
    Cecil Woolf, 310 pp, £25.00, November 1990, ISBN 0 900821 54 X
  • Ivor Gurney: Collected Letters edited by R.K.R Thornton
    Mid-Northumberland Arts Group/Carcanet, 579 pp, £25.00, February 1991, ISBN 0 85635 941 6

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.’

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