Ivor Gurney was the least-known to me of the War Poets – at least until this week’s excellent BBC 4 documentary, The Poet Who Loved the War, presented by University of Exeter Professor Tim Kendall who argued for a major re-evaluation of the Gloucestershire poet’s work. Unusually, Gurney wasn’t an officer like most of the rest of the famous war poets (with the exception of Isaac Rosenberg), but a private who bizarrely joined up in the hope that the discipline and routines of army life would help ease a mental health condition. Initially this shock therapy worked but, invalided home after being shot and gassed, he spent the last 15 years of his life in a mental asylum.
The documentary was done well, with sensitive readings from Gurney’s poems and Gurney’s music on the soundtrack (he was a highly successful composer, and is best known for this aspect of his work). The use of nostalgic and romantic dramatic reconstruction in which the poet was seen skipping along Gloucestershire lanes was thankfully limited. With the help of knowledgeable expert witnesses, Kendall presented a serious account of Gurney’s deeply sad life. Above it all it was the poetry that gripped your attention – poetry that powerfully captured the experience of the ordinary soldier and which, Kendall argued, is the equal of the work of any of the more well-known soldier-poets of World War One.
Gurney was one of four children from a poor Gloucestershire family, a musically gifted boy who first gained a chorister scholarship to the King’s School Gloucester, and then to the Royal College of Music. By 1912, Gurney was recognised as a composer of great promise, who had begun setting poems to music. At about that time he began to write poetry himself.
At the same time, Gurney was already experiencing mental health issues, eventually leading to a breakdown. In 1914 he was keen to enlist, but was rejected by the army on grounds of defective eyesight, but a year later he was accepted and, in May 1916, crossed to France with the 2nd/5th Gloucesters. In the film, Professor Kendall argued that Gurney’s sole motivation for enlisting was his belief that the discipline of army life would help him overcome his mental instability.
The letters, poetry and the music that Gurney wrote while serving on the Somme suggest, argued Kendall, that his time at the front was, in fact, the happiest of his life:
The war years were pretty much the most stable of Gurney’s adult life, and it was after the war that he broke down completely. He associated war with all the horror and brutality, but also with the comradeship, that sense of belonging, that sense of place. That’s why Gurney thought, when war broke out, ‘This is going to help me, the whole discipline of army life.’ Army life gave him that sense of regimentation and discipline that otherwise he wouldn’t have.
By 1917, Gurney had enough poems for a first book, called Severn and Somme. Kendall discussed how in these poems, deeply sensitive to the landscape and natural world around him, Gurney reveals ‘an intense attention to place’. He sees the meandering river Severn of his Gloucestershire childhood mirrored in the the one that had given its name to the battle in which he had been fighting. One from that first collection, read during the programme, was ‘Trees’ which name-checks Cooper’s Hill, near Cranham in Gloucestershire. It brought to mind the haunting war paintings of ‘torn trees’ by Paul Nash, who also expressed his rage at the waste of life in images of the violation of nature:
(“You cannot think how ghastly these battle-fields look under a grey sky. Torn trees are the most terrible things I have ever seen. Absolute blight and curse is on the face of everything.”)
The dead land oppressed me;
I turned my thoughts away,
And went where hill and meadow
Are shadowless and gay.
Where Coopers stands by Cranham,
Where the hill-gashes white
Show golden in the sunshine,
Our sunshine — God’s delight.
Beauty my feet stayed at last
Where green was most cool,
Trees worthy of all worship
I worshipped then, O fool,
Let my thoughts slide unwitting
To other, dreadful trees,
And found me standing, staring
Sick of heart — at these!
Paul Nash, Inverness Copse, watercolour, 1919
On Good Friday, 1917, at Passchendaele, Gurney was first wounded (though not seriously), then gassed. He was sent home. Two years later he produced his second collection, War’s Embers, that contained the poem ‘To His Love’ that is considered his masterpiece, the song-like elegy composed for his friend from childhood, Will Harvey, who Gurney believed to be dead (in fact Harvey had been captured by the Germans and was a prisoner of war):
He’s gone, and all our plans
Are useless indeed.
We’ll walk no more on Cotswolds
Where the sheep feed
Quietly and take no heed.
His body that was so quick
Is not as you
Knew it, on Severn River
Under the blue
Driving our small boat through.
You would not know him now…
But still he died
Nobly, so cover him over
With violets of pride
Purple from Severn side.
Cover him, cover him soon!
And with thick-set
Masses of memoried flowers-
Hide that red wet
Thing I must somehow forget.
That raw, colloquial ‘red wet / Thing’ of the final stanza has as much shattering force as anything in the body of First World War poetry.
Despite the pain and horror of war, Gurney had relished the camaraderie of the war. In his poems he captures the voices of the soldiers, whether from Gloucestershire – or the men of Wales, ‘Hiding in sandbag ditches,whispering consolatory / Soft foreign things’ in ‘First Time In:
After the dread tales and red yams of the Line
Anything might have come to us; but the divine
Afterglow brought us up to a Welsh colony
Hiding in sandbag ditches, whispering consolatory
Soft foreign things. Then we were taken in
To low huts candle-lit shaded close by slitten
Oilsheets, and there but boys gave us kind welcome;
So that we looked out as from the edge of home.
Sang us Welsh things, and changed all former notions
To human hopeful things. And the next days’ guns
Nor any line-pangs ever quite could blot out
That strangely beautiful entry to War’s rout,
Candles they gave us precious and shared over-rations —
Ulysses found little more in his wanderings without doubt.
‘David of the white rock’, the’ Slumber Song’ so soft, and that
Beautiful tune to which roguish words by Welsh pit boys
Are sung — but never more beautiful than here under the guns’ noise.
Another example of his delight in the varieties of human voice – listening with a musician’s ear, perhaps – comes in ‘The Silent One’, with its ‘lovely chatter of Bucks accent’ and the ‘finicking accent’ of the officer. The poem emerged from an incident experienced by Gurney during an advance on German lines:
Who died on the wires, and hung there, one of two –
Who for his hours of life had chattered through
Infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent:
Yet faced unbroken wires; stepped over, and went
A noble fool, faithful to his stripes – and ended.
But I weak, hungry, and willing only for the chance
Of line- to fight in the line, lay down under unbroken
Wires, and saw the flashes and kept unshaken,
Till the politest voice – a finicking accent, said:
‘Do you think you might crawl through there: there’s a hole.’
Darkness shot at: I smiled, as politely replied –
‘I’m afraid not, Sir.’ There was no hole, no way to be seen
Nothing but chance of death, after tearing of clothes.
Kept flat, and watched the darkness, hearing bullets whizzing –
And thought of music – and swore deep heart’s oaths
(Polite to God) and retreated and came on again,
Again retreated a second time, faced the screen.
One aspect of Gurney’s poetry that distinguishes him from other war poets, Professor Kendall observed, is his naming of people and places, and his itemising of the small, ordinary things of the soldiers’ days. ‘Laventie’ (named for a small town on the front line near Lille) illustrates this:
One would remember still
Meadows and low hill
Laventie was, as to the line and elm row
Growing through green strength wounded, as home elms grow.
Shimmer of summer there and blue autumn mists
Seen from trench-ditch winding in mazy twists.
The Australian gunners in close flowery hiding
Cunning found out at last, and smashed in the unspeakable lists.
And the guns in the smashed wood thumping and grinding.
The letters written there, and received there,
Books, cakes, cigarettes in a parish of famine,
And leaks in rainy times with general all-damning.
The crater, and carrying of gas cylinders on two sticks
(Pain past comparison and far past right agony gone,)
Strained hopelessly of heart and frame at first fix.
Cafe au lait in dugouts on Tommies cookers,
Cursed minnie werfs, thirst in 18 hour summer.
The Australian miners clayed, and the being afraid
Before strafes, sultry August dusk time than Death dumber —
And the cooler hush after the strafe, and the long night wait —
The relief of first dawn, the crawling out to look at it,
Wonder divine of Dawn, man hesitating before Heaven’s gate.
(Though not on Coopers where music fire took at it,
Though not as at Framilode beauty where body did shake at it)
Yet the dawn with aeroplanes crawling high at Heaven’s gate
Lovely aerial beetles of wonderful scintillate
Strangest interest, and puffs of soft purest white —
Soaking light, dispersing colouring for fancy’s delight.
Of Maconachie, Paxton, Tickler, and Gloucester’s Stephens;
Fray Bentos, Spiller and Baker, Odds and evens
Of trench food, but the everlasting clean craving
For bread, the pure thing, blessed beyond saving.
Canteen disappointments, and the keen boy braving
Bullets or such for grouse roused surprisingly through (Halfway) Stand-to.
And the shell nearly blunted my razor at shaving;
Tilleloy, Pauquissart, Neuve Chapelle, and mud like glue.
But Laventie, most of all, I think is to soldiers
The Town itself with plane trees, and small-spa air;
And vin, rouge-blanc, chocolats, citron, grenadine:
One might buy in small delectable cafes there.
The broken church, and vegetable fields bare;
Neat French market town look so clean,
And the clarity, amiability of North French air.
Like water flowing beneath the dark plough and high Heaven,
Music’s delight to please the poet pack-marching there.
Or the memory of marching, in October 1916, ‘Towards Lillers’, just a few miles along from Laventie, dreaming of ‘a quench for thirsty frames’, estaminets and ‘longed for cool wine or cold beer’, but remembering ‘two ditches of heart-sick men’, barb-wire to the front, and ‘the times scientific, as evil as ever again’:
In October marching, taking the sweet air.
Packs riding lightly, and homethoughts soft coming,
‘This is right marching, we are even glad to be here,
Or very glad?’ But looking upward to dark smoke foaming,
Chimneys on the clear crest, no more shades for roaming,
Smoke covering sooty what man’s heart holds dear,
Lillers we approached, a quench for thirsty frames,
And looked once more between houses and at queer names
Of estaminets, longed for cool wine or cold beer.
This was war; we understood; moving and shifting about;
To stand or be withstood in the mixed rout
Of fight to come after this. But that was a good dream
Of justice or strength-test with steel tool a gleam
Made to the hand. But barb-wire lay to the front,
Tiny aeroplanes circled as ever their wont
High over the two ditches of heart-sick men:
The times scientific, as evil as ever again.
October lovely bathing with sweet air the plain
Back in Gloucester after the war, Gurney faced a seemingly hopeless future: instability and depression had descended into a profound mental collapse. From 1919 to 1922 Gurney drove himself hard, physically as well as creatively, taking jobs where his labours included digging, delving and felling trees, believing that physical exertion was essential to settle his nerves and to still the imagined voices and radio waves with which he now felt himself to be bombarded.
He alarmed his family with his terrified conviction that the police were torturing him, bombarding him with radio waves. Medical help was sought, and in September 1922 Gurney was certified insane and admitted to Barnwood House mental hospital in Gloucester. Gurney made a desperate night-time escape from Barnwood, running off in his pyjamas (this made me think of John Clare). He was recaptured by the police, and transferred to the City of London Mental Hospital at Dartford, where he wrote and composed with feverish intensity, at one point producing a poem a day for a year.
Incarcerated for the last 15 years of his life, Gurney was all but forgotten, though he received visits from friends. There was Marion Scott (the writer and musicologist who had met Gurney at the Royal College of Music; they had formed an enduring friendship recounted in the documentary, with Scott championing both his music and his poetry. His old friend Will Harvey visited – and Helen Thomas, the widow of Edward Thomas. She discovered that Gurney refused to go into the asylum’s grounds because ‘it was not his idea of the country at all – the fields, woods, water-meadows and footpaths he loved so well, and he would have nothing to do with that travesty of something sacred to him’. In the BBC 4 film, Kendall read this moving extract from her diary, describing one of her visits:
We arrived at the asylum which looked like – as indeed it was – a prison. [… ]We were walking along a bare corridor when we were met by a tall gaunt dishevelled man clad in pyjamas and dressing gown, to whom Miss Scott introduced me. He
gazed with an intense stare into my face and took me silently by the hand. Then I gave him the flowers which he took with the same deeply moving intensity and silence. He then said: ‘You are Helen, Edward’s widow and Edward is dead.’ I said, ‘Yes, let us talk of him’ [. . .]
We spoke of country that he knew and which Edward knew too and he evidently identified Edward with the English countryside, especially that of Gloucestershire. […] The next time I went I took with me one of Edward’s own well-used Ordnance maps of Gloucester where he had often walked. This proved to have been a sort of inspiration, for Ivor at once spread it out on his bed and he and I spent the whole time I was there tracing with our fingers the lanes and byeways and villages of which he knew every step and over which Edward had walked. He spent that hour in re-visiting his beloved home, in spotting a village or a track, a hill or a wood and seeing it all in his mind’s eye, a mental vision sharper and more actual for his heightened intensity. He trod, in a way we who were sane could not emulate, the lanes and fields he knew and loved so well, his guide being his finger tracing the way on the map. It was most deeply moving, and I knew that I had hit on an idea that gave him more pleasure than anything else I could have thought of.
During those last fifteen years in the asylum, Gurney constantly wished for death; as Professor Kendall explained, he felt forgotten, betrayed, exiled from his native Gloucestershire and condemned to a lingering torture. He died of tuberculosis on Boxing Day, 1937, aged 47. Only then did he return to his beloved Gloucestershire to be buried near Twigworth.
The songs I had are withered
Or vanished clean,
Yet there are bright tracks
Where I have been,
And there grow flowers
For other’s delight.
Think well, O singer,
Soon comes night.