Only the first five years of Charles Hamilton Sorley’s brief life were spent in his native Scotland. Though both parents were Lowlanders, he was born in Aberdeen where his father was then professor of moral philosophy at the University, and it was his father’s appointment as Knightbridge Professor at Cambridge that took the family south in 1900. Sorley, his twin brother and their sister were educated at home by their mother, a large part of the education consisting of learning poetry and reading the ballads. From his first school Sorley won a scholarship to Marlborough College, where he started in 1908, when he was thirteen. School and its friendships and activities were congenial to him, but solitary running or walking long distances were his favoured activity, and the Wiltshire Downs became the landscape closest to his heart.
Sorley was due to take up a scholarship at University College, Oxford, in the autumn of 1914, so with the agreement of parents and schoolmasters, he left Marlborough in December 1913 to spend a few months abroad, in Germany, which proved to be a happy time. Plans for a last walking week in the Moselle were interrupted by declaration of war, and he and a friend were briefly arrested before making their way safely back to England. The morning after his arrival home, notwithstanding his new admiration for the German people, he applied for a commission, which was forthcoming in the Suffolk Regiment. The regiment went to France the following year, in May 1915, and by September Sorley had been made a Captain. His battalion was moved to take part in the Battle of Loos, taking position at the front line on the night of the 12th October. Sorley was killed in action the next day.
In her biographical chapter in The Letters of Charles Hamilton Sorley (Cambridge University Press, 1919), his mother talks of her son growing reserved about his writing when at school, but how he eventually gave in to her ‘badgering’ and sent her a batch of verses. He continued to do so regularly until the last batch was sent from France in June 1915. He was, though, averse to the suggestion of publication at the time, thinking it premature. When death put an end to the possibility of development or further poems, Sorley’s parents had them published in January 1916. By 1919 Marlborough and Other Poems had reached its fourth edition and the interest in its author was such that his parents grouped together his letters for publication, and provided biographical notes in order to round out the picture of their son the literary world was keen to have. His letters are vivid and immediate, and capture pre-war Germany with enthusiasm, and the early months of conflict with detachment and lucidity. As his father said in the preface, ‘He looked on the world with clear eyes and the surface show did not deceive him.’
The handful of Sorley’s poems directly concerned with the war have intrigued many readers and critics; others have struggled to fit him into the canon of war poets. What can hardly be questioned is the promise of his work. In his section on Sorley in Heroes’ Twilight: a study of the literature of the Great War (3rd ed., Carcanet Press, 1996) Bernard Bergonzi notes the signs of talent apparent in even the earlier poems of 1913, and is struck by the young poet’s individuality and independent attitude. Bergonzi concludes:
Every death is an absolute loss: but Sorley’s, at such an early age and when he had already given evidence both in his verse and in his letters of such remarkable powers of intelligence and feeling, was a tragedy for English letters. One can only quote, in a spirit of seriousness, the possibly ironical concluding lines of one of his sonnets to death:
But a big blot has hid each yesterday
So poor, so manifestly incomplete.
And your bright promise, withered long and sped,
Is touched, stirs, rises, opens and grows sweet
And blossoms and is you, when you are dead.