Poetry By Heart Blog

Voices From The First World War

3rd March 2016

3.48pm Orgreave by  BsOu10Eo Creative Commons

3.48pm Orgreave by BsOu10Eo Creative Commons

On March 19th 2016 at Homerton College 41 young people will recite poems chosen from the Poetry By Heart World War One showcase. In the run up to this moving event we are delighted to publish an article by Connie Ruzich first seen on her Blog http://behindtheirlines.blogspot.com/  that features two of the poets in our anthology: Robert Graves and Charles Sorley.

On October 5th, 1915, twenty-year-old Charles Sorley wrote to his father describing his time in the trenches outside Loos: “…rain and dirt and damp cold. O for a bath!”  Sorley was known for his love of stormy weather: as a student at Marlborough College, he exulted in wet and windy runs across the trails of Marlborough Downs.   An excerpt from the last stanza of “Song of the Ungirt Runners,” a poem he wrote in early 1915, expresses that passion:

The rain is on our lips,

We do not run for prize.

But the storm the water whips

And the wave howls to the skies.

Eight days after writing to his father, on October 13, 1915, in one of the last attacks of the Battle of Loos, Sorley was shot in the head and died instantly.  In the chaos of the battle, his body was never recovered: he is commemorated on the Loos Memorial, along with 20,609 other British and Commonwealth soldiers who have no known grave.  His poetry was published three months after his death in the slim volume Marlborough and Other Poems. 

In February 1916, Robert Graves, another soldier poet serving in France, wrote to his friend Edward Marsh that he had “just discovered a brilliant young poet called Sorley” and that “It seems ridiculous to fall in love with a dead man as I have found myself doing but he seems to have been one so entirely after my own heart in his loves and hates, besides having been just my own age.”  In 1918 Graves’ published a volume of his own poems, Fairies and Fusiliers: it includes a poem that remembers Charles Sorley and celebrates a life of action.

Sorley’s Weather

WHEN outside the icy rain
  Comes leaping helter-skelter,
Shall I tie my restive brain
  Snugly under shelter?
Shall I make a gentle song         5
  Here in my firelit study,
When outside the winds blow strong
  And the lanes are muddy?
With old wine and drowsy meats
  Am I to fill my belly?         10
Shall I glutton here with Keats?
  Shall I drink with Shelley?
Tobacco’s pleasant, firelight’s good:
  Poetry makes both better.
Clay is wet and so is mud,         15
  Winter rains are wetter.
Yet rest there, Shelley, on the sill,
  For though the winds come frorely,
I’m away to the rain-blown hill
  And the ghost of Sorley.

 

(Robert Graves 1895 – 1985)

 

Tobacco, firelight, and poetry are pleasant and good, but “Sorley’s Weather” urges readers to put down their books and stride out into rough storms on rain-blown hills.  Experiencing the wildness of nature is far better than retreating to the fireside with the Romantics.  Even Percy Shelly’s meditations on nature (“The wilderness has a mysterious tongue/ Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild”) can be left behind on the window sill.  Sorley’s own poem “Rain,” written in 1912, tells readers where to find him:

 

When the rain is coming down,
And all Court is still and bare,
And the leaves fall wrinkled, brown,
Through the kindly winter air,
….
There is something in the rain
That would bid me to remain:
There is something in the wind
That would whisper, “Leave behind
All this land of time and rules,
Land of bells and early schools.

 

For those mourning the dead and remembering the thousands of every day tragedies of the Western Front, it was windswept hills, mud, and winter rain that were best able to summon the ghosts of the men and boys who would never return.  At the start of the Battle of Loos, torrential rains flooded the trenches, and Graves’ poem calls to mind the conditions of the war, as well as the weather that Sorley loved so well in life.

J.R.R. Tolkien, writing about another rover and warrior, wrote, “Not all those who wander are lost.”  Not long after enlisting, Sorley wrote in a letter home, “Indeed I think that after the war all brave men will renounce their country and confess they are strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Powell, A Deep Cry).

Connie Ruzich About the AuthorDr. Connie Ruzich is a University Professor of English at Robert Morris University near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 2014, she was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Exeter, where she researched the ways in which the poetry of the First World War has been used to frame, commemorate, and discuss the war.  She has been teaching language and literature for twenty-two years, and her research examines how language use and practices shape identity.  In her spare time, she enjoys hiking in the woods, listening to obscure bands from the 1980s, and watching goat videos on YouTube. She writes a blog that shares and discusses poetry of World War I, focusing on the lost voices of the war: Behind Their Lines

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