Charles Sorley: Expectans Expectavi

Charles Hamilton Sorley (1895 – 1915) was born in Aberdeen but educated at Marlborough College – the same place that Siegfried Sassoon went to school. This fact is significant as both men would go on to fight in the First World War and to be celebrated for the poetry that they wrote during that same period (Robert Graves considered Sorley to be one of three poets of great importance that were killed during the war – the other two being Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg; he is also one of sixteen war poets whose names are etched into a remembrance stone in the ‘Poet’s Corner’ of Westminster Abbey).   Sorley died in October of 1915, having swiftly risen to the rank of captain in a matter of months, after arriving at the Western Front as a lieutenant.

His poetry was published posthumously in January 1916, and the poem Expectans Expectavi became especially popular, eventually having its last two stanzas set to music by Charles Wood (in 1919), which then became a standard anthem for use in Anglican churches (particularly cathedrals and collegiate chapels). The poem itself is direct and urgent in its language and its rhythm, describing in distinctly unsentimental terms the light and shade of the human heart as it charts its way through the uncertainties of life. Sorley combines a keen sense of insight into the inner life of the individual with the recognition that the bottomless mystery that exists within each human life is deeply interconnected with the mystery within others – that what really unites humanity is not what we can see or touch, or any shared physical quality, but what we grasp at, long for, and (unfortunately) often push away and resist.

The final two stanzas that were later adapted for hymnody bring this existential insight into a wider context – that the reaching in to our innermost selves is always a reaching out to the ultimate Other, to God, of whom Saint Augustine famously said that ‘you were more inward than my most inward part and higher than the highest element within me…you were there before me, but I had departed from myself.’ In accessing the very core of our being, having moved past the distractions of the world outside and the chattering noise of the ego within, we meet God in the ‘sanctuary of our soul’ and are led beyond ourselves to His love, which animates and sustains every part of His creation.

That Charles Sorley was able to write such inspiring words, enjoying the peace of knowing the ceaseless and boundless love of Christ in the midst of brutal war, is inspiring indeed, and a reminder to us of how this Love is always with us, right in the heart of all the things that He has made, and of how important it is to keep a place within us where we may retire to and meet Our Lord, and from where He may restore our soul and give us the strength to do the works given to us to do. It is also however a moving tribute to the faith that is often required in waiting (the title of the poem roughly translates as ‘awaited waiting’ or, more simply, ‘I waited’) for that strength and restoration to arrive:

 

From morn to midnight, all day through,      

I laugh and play as others do,

I sin and chatter, just the same          

As others with a different name.        

 

And all year long upon the stage,              

I dance and tumble and do rage        

So vehemently, I scarcely see 

The inner and eternal me.      

 

I have a temple I do not         

Visit, a heart I have forgot,           

A self that I have never met,  

A secret shrine—and yet, and yet      

 

This sanctuary of my soul      

Unwitting I keep white and whole,    

Unlatched and lit, if Thou should’st care              

To enter or to tarry there.  

   

With parted lips and outstretched hands       

And listening ears Thy servant stands,          

Call Thou early, call Thou late,         

To Thy great service dedicate.

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