A song for Sorley
By MICHAEL CAINES
Robert Graves reckoned that there were three poets of importance killed during the First World War: Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and Charles Hamilton Sorley. The last of these was the youngest, yet also the first to die, by sniper's bullet at the Battle of Loos in October 1915. And he was a captain by then, at the age of twenty.
Neil McPherson tells Sorley's tale in his new play It Is Easy To Be Dead – in verse, prose and song – at the Finborough Theatre. It begins with Sorley's parents (movingly played by Jenny Lee and Tom Marshall) receiving the worst possible news, but finding a way to commemorate him: by preparing his poems for publication . . . .
Many grieving parents of literary-minded victims of war had the same sort of response. Publication meant remembrance. "Just privately . . . for friends and family", says Janet Sorley (as McPherson calls Sorley's mother Janetta) to her unconvinced husband William. "Everybody is doing it."
In reality, the Sorleys worked quickly: TLS could review their son's posthumous collection Marlborough, and other poems in February 1916. A third edition in December that year with added "illustrations in prose", that seemed to shed welcome light on the poems and the author's personality, justified a further review. And when Sorley's letters appeared in print three years later (his parents had deliberately delayed publishing them until the war was over), the TLS's anonymous reviewer could point out the most "remarkable quality" of Sorley's personality – his "exuberance" – as well as his promise at public school, his "delightfully amusing" letters from Germany (where he spent several months before and during the outbreak of war) and his astute reservations about Rupert Brooke. He also reservations about his own country. "I hate Britons with a big big B", he once wrote. Not Country in the big C sense but country in the Richard Jefferies sense was more to his taste.
All of these aspects of this attractive figure in It Is Easy To Be Dead. Alexander Knox makes a suitably exuberant, impish Sorley, pattering out the stories of his German travels. He transforms, over the evening's course, from the boy reciting "The Song of the Ungirt Runners" as he runs (and looking like an extra from Chariots of Fire while he's at it) to the charming, camp young fellow observing the Germans (and falling in love with one), to the soldier who names his school friends as their photos – and wartime death dates – flare up on the wall behind him. Even the idolized Brooke is displayed in the same way, as Sorley criticizes him: "He is far too obsessed with his own sacrifice".
Nothing could be further from that spirit of self-obsession than the poem by Sorley from which McPherson takes his title, "When you see millions of the mouthless dead": "None wears the face you knew. / Great death has made all his for evermore". Neil Corcoran, writing in the TLS in 1986, saw this as "Owen-like" verse – and it does, admittedly, seem strange to be watching a play that focuses on Sorley in a Brooke-like, golden-youth manner, given his own firm rejection of the Brooke-like, golden-youth cult.
It's also perhaps worth considering Sorley's poetry in the context of the question William Boyd asked in the TLS earlier this year: "What exactly is Scottish war poetry, as opposed to war poetry in general? . . . it is surely not possible to ring-fence the artistic expression of a response to the various traumas and stresses of war by a national label." Yet there is Sorley, among others, in an nationally themed anthology, reviewed by Boyd, that presumes exactly that.
As directed by Max Key, perhaps the Finborough production's most impressive theatrical characteristic is its smooth dovetailing of song, dialogue and recitation, with the warm lighting by Rob Mills accentuating this small theatre's cosiness. (It's a space McPherson knows how to write for, incidentally, since he is the Finborough's artistic director.) The tenor Hugh Benson and pianist Elizabeth Rossiter provide a splendid recital's worth of the appropriate numbers: George Butterworth's setting of A. E. Housman's "On the Idle Hill of Summer", a jolly "Gaudeamus Igitur" for Sorley's mixing with German students. Overall, the show makes an enjoyable, smaller-scale foil to Iain Bell's recently premiered operatic adaptation of David Jones's In Parenthesis.
It Is Easy To Be Dead does feel slightly too long for the story it has to tell, proceeding as it does in leaps and excerpts. The parents come and go, working through their son's papers; they struggle with grief and, in William's case, a desire to hang on to his son through his literary remains, and not to lose him to the world. Despite such anguishing scenes, however, the play seems to lack the final stroke that would reveal some message beyond the obvious one, about the First World War's futility and the bloody waste of young lives. That much the audience can bring along for themselves.
McPherson's homage did make me wonder, though, if Sorley's letters rather than his poems constitute the more rounded achievement – in that review, Corcoran thinks the letters "excellent", the early poems "an adolescent stew of Meredith and Masefield". Either way, you can see why William Sorley remained so keen to protect his son's literary legacy. After all, he could write to the TLS, in 1930, merely to complain of the meaning-mangling misprints in an anthology edited by Laurence Housman called War Letters of Fallen Englishmen.
There are, incidentally, TLS reviews in the pipeline of some of the latest round of centennial war books; and readers interested in the war and literature should know that Patrick Miles has resumed his excellent blog about a writer and former TLS reviewer killed in the war, George Calderon, whom I have mentioned here once or twice before. I'd like to think Calderon and Sorley, killed within months of one another, on different fronts, could have had a profitable conversation about literary matters, had they ever crossed paths.