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Charles Hamilton Sorley - Death and the Downs

by The Poet's Press

DEATH AND THE DOWNS: THE POETRY OF CHARLES HAMILTON SORLEY. Revised second edition, 2017,edited and annotated by Brett Rutherford. Robert Graves called Sorley one of the three best poets killed in World War I. Shot by a German sniper in the Battle of Loos, Charles Sorley died at age 20, leaving behind enough poems for a slender volume published by his father in 1915: Marlborough and Other Poems. Several of Sorley's poems have been featured in countless war anthologies, but the poet's complete work was kept in print only until 1932. There was a reprint sometime in the 1970s and then Sorley seems to have been forgotten again.

Sorley's nature poems, inspired by English naturalist Richard Jefferies (the British Thoreau), depict the haunted landscape of the Wiltshire Downs, from the days of Roman-occupied Britain to Sorley's own time. As a student at Cambridge, young Sorley was steeped in the classics; he then traveled to Germany to study and was in school there when the War broke out. He was arrested and sent home by the German government, and within days of returning to England, Sorley enlisted. The last set of his poems, written in the battlefield, contain both stark soundings of death, but also a kernel of wisdom and tolerance, as when he addresses a poem to the Germans he cannot bring himself to hate. Perhaps the most poignant poem is one he sent home retelling a key scene from Homer's Odyssey and then assuring his friend that he, too, ten years hence, would be telling his own war stories by the fire. Three months later, Sorley was dead. His last poem, a blistering war sonnet, was sent home to his father in his kit. Sorley's body was never found.

This volume includes passages from letters, selected by Sorley's father as illustrative of the themes of the poems in the book. To make this volume more accessible to today's readers (and to students), Brett Rutherford has annotated both the poems and the letters, making clear the numerous classical and Biblical allusion that would have been well-known to Sorley's contemporaries. Some 1903 photos of the Wiltshire landscape have also been added, taken from an edition of Jefferies nature writing. The book was completely re-typeset from the 1932 edition, using typefaces from the World War I era. The book also includes an annotated checklist of the critical reception of Sorley's work from 1915 through 1973, by Larry Uffelman; a biographical sketch of the poet written by his mother for the 1919 Letters of Charles Sorley; additional letters; and juvenilia.

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