Charles Sorley must have been the most brilliant of all the young poets who died in the First World War. Yet 'brilliant', with its flashy, brittle connotations, isn't the right word. He was undeniably clever, and forthright, but also good-humoured and modest, often very funny, shrewd and serious, but never (the young man's vice) priggish. His intelligence, far from bullying, evinced itself in a throwaway manner, and there was nothing calculated about his charm. His letters, some of which Jean Moorcroft Wilson used to excellent effect in her biography of 1985, are more immediately engaging than those of Wilfred Owen, if less touching. Sorley enjoyed a better start in life, his father being Knightsbridge Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge and his mother a cultivated and unconventional woman, but there was no question of his living on inherited intellectual capital: in that respect he paid his own way or thought it out, no doubt with some help from his teachers at Marlborough College. With Owen there is an impression of effortfulness, and of sadness, at least of lesser youthfulness, as if you can feel his early death coming; Sorley was so full of life and the enjoyment of it that his death - five months after his 20th birthday, compared with Owen's eight months after his 25th - seems even more incongruous.
LRB 21 February 1991 | PDF Download