The pale battalions

I have been posting sonnets recently; the short controlled form of verse appeals to me, and the cleverness of the condensed words and the discipline of the form intrigues me. It is a form that can carry many different emotions, and narratives, and the tone can vary from the conversational to the elagiac.

Visiting the battlefields of the first World War recently, brought to mind the many poems written by men serving there, some of whom survived, some did not. Charles Sorley was only twenty when he died, and on his gravestone was inscribed these lines from another war poet, Wilfred Owen; My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity’

After his death, in Sorrel’s kit, this poem was found:

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.

Charles Sorley

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