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Poem of the week: To Germany by Charles Hamilton Sorley


A moving, mature sonnet from a young soldier who had studied in the Fatherland but was destined to die by a German bullet

Charles Hamilton Sorley died in 1915 at the age of 20, killed by a sniper in the Battle of Loos. He left a small, uneven but often impressive body of poems, first published as a collection, Marlborough and Other Poems, in 1916. He had been travelling and studying in Germany prior to entering Oxford, when war was declared. This week's poem, a sonnet called To Germany, reflects his feelings for a country which has nurtured him and is now designated the enemy. The breadth of perspective is astonishingly mature.

Sorley consistently opposed conventional war-inspired sentimentality and jingoism, but his poems cannot conveniently be packaged together and labelled anti-war. In Barbury Camp, a monologue written from the point of view of a dead Roman soldier, for example, the speaker exults in the physical challenge of combat: "And here we strove, and here we felt each vein / Ice-bound, each limb fast-frozen, all night long. / And here we held communion with the rain / That lashed us into manhood with its thong, / Cleansing through pain. / And the wind visited us and made us strong." That desire for "cleansing through pain" seems to have been a strong component of Sorley's moral character, instilled by his public-school education, perhaps.

But there are no schoolboy heroics in To Germany. The mood is sombre and analytical, particularly in the octet. "You are blind like us" is a powerful refusal to allocate blame, and in the emotional climate of the time unquestionably demonstrates Sorley's boldness. The young of both countries grope and stumble through "fields of thought" just as they grope and stumble over fields of battle. Sorley contrasts Germany's political ambition ("… your future bigly planned") with the British establishment's narrow self-interest ( "the tapering paths of our own mind") but implies the effects of both are the same: intellectual incapacity. That unusual and rather awkward adverb "bigly" suggests the deliberate avoidance of irony and its easy laugh at imperial ambition. And it denotes straightforwardness. While still a pupil at Marlborough College, Sorley had presented a paper in which he castigated modern literature for refusing "to call a spade a spade". That bracingly prosaic ideal finds the clarity and forcefulness of poetry in the octet's magnificent concluding lines: "And in each other's dearest ways we stand, / And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind."

The sestet begins by envisioning the time "When it is peace". The "truer form" in which the countries and individuals will then see each other "with new-won eyes" has faintly biblical overtones. Such redemption is associated with the afterlife. The adjective "loving-kind" (like "bigly", an unusual grammatical construction) and the imagery of the handshake hint at an evangelical quality in Sorley's imagination.

The modifier "When it is peace" recurs at the end of the second sentence, heightening the sense of longing, with the "if" haunting the "when". Steering away from consolation, and bowing to the inevitability of continuing bloodshed, Sorley concludes with his favourite metaphor of the scourging elements: "… the storm, / The darkness and the thunder and the rain".

To Germany is a tightly constructed sonnet. Sharp, nerve-jangling sounds (blind, designed, pain, rain) contrast with the broader, gentler chords of land, stand, warm, firm, form. If "blind", as both adjective and noun, rules the octet, then "peace", also repeated three times, is the dominant noun of the sestet. Yet the hope Sorley expresses in this repetition remains measured and unassertive. It is subsequent history that ironises the vision – and continues to do so while so little of the world is at peace.

To Germany

You are blind like us. Your hurt no man designed,
And no man claimed the conquest of your land.
But gropers both through fields of thought confined
We stumble and we do not understand.
You only saw your future bigly planned,
And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,
And in each other's dearest ways we stand,
And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.

When it is peace, then we may view again
With new-won eyes each other's truer form
And wonder. Grown more loving-kind and warm
We'll grasp firm hands and laugh at the old pain,
When it is peace. But until peace, the storm,
The darkness and the thunder and the rain.

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