When we think of First World War poetry we almost instinctively recall the officer class poets – Owen, Sassoon, Blunden and others. Their voices have come to represent the experience of war for generations of readers. It was not until after the Second World War that the perspective of the ordinary soldier just ‘doing his duty’ and using poetry and humour to keep his wits, received much attention.
Ivor Gurney had gained a reputation as a composer much earlier. This dual aspect of his talent can be construed as a reflection of his divided life – a poet and a musician; a grammar school lad with a ‘posh’ interest, and a quiet, sensitive voice in a brutal, universal catastrophe. He saw poetry – both the writing and reading of it – first as a way of maintaining a mental balance, and secondly – not unrelated – as a defence mechanism. His particular poetry uses humour to block out the gruesome reality of survival, death and killing.
Gurney suffered from what is now agreed to have been severe manic depression, which first became evident just before the war (in 1913), turned more acute as the war went on, and intensified from there onwards. He spent the last fifteen years of his life in an asylum.
Like Edward Thomas, whom he befriended and whose poetry he admired, Gurney was from Gloucestershire. Although he wrote up until his death, he published only two collections Severn and Somme (1917) and War’s Embers (1919) both laden with place names from the scenes he loved. Some, like May Hill, the Severn Meadows, Framilode and Birdlip are poetically resonant, while others, like the playing fields of his old school and the ‘grey ugly streets’ of Gloucester are more bold, conveying a certain homely affection.
Gurney did not write (like Owen) of ‘the pity of war’. He was not bitterly satirical like Sassoon, nor did he rage against the indifference of nature and landscape, as did Isaac Rosenberg and Edward Thomas. Instead, Gurney’s war poetry focuses on details and routine amid the chaos and horrors. In a letter dated 23rd February 1917, he writes of Severn and Somme, ‘I want… people to realise a little of what the ordinary life is’. This, plus the tragic facts of his life and his enduring attachment to his native region have tended to sideline him as an eccentric, local poet. His use of informal language and bold rhyming have prompted comparisons with the 19th century poet John Clare.
But poems like The Estaminet (a cafe, or ‘local’) hint at what this informality and ease hold at bay:
… loud with song and story
And blue with tales and smoke, –
We spoke no word of glory,
Nor mentioned ‘foreign yoke.’
But yarns of girls in Blighty;
Vain, jolly, ugly, fair,
Standoffish, foolish, flighty –
And O! that we were there!
(Severn and Somme, 1917)
His illness was not simply the shell-shock which was diagnosed at the time. Gurney himself would later confirm that he did not ‘re-live’ the war afterwards. But his poetry reveals something of his disorder. In The Strong Thing (1916) for instance, the horror of war and the peace and tranquillity of Gloucestershire are equal and quite distinct:
I have seen Death and the faces of men in fear
Of Death, and shattered, terrible ruined flesh,
Appalled ; but through the horror, coloured and clear
The love of my country, Gloster, rises afresh.
And on the Day of Days, the Judgement Day,
The Word of Doom awaiting breathless and still,
I’ll marvel how sweet’s the air down Framilode way
And take my sentence on sheer-down Crickley Hill.
(Severn and Somme, 1917)
‘Framilode way’ and ‘Crickley Hill’ are not just physical landmarks but mental anchors. In other poems he immerses himself in thoughts about home like a kind of self-medication. In an autobiographical poem, The Signaller’s Vision, for instance, whilst mending ‘a parted cable’ he sees ‘home and the tea-table’:
So clear it was, so sweet,
I did not start, but drew
The breath of deep content
Some minutes ere I knew…
(Severn and Somme, 1917)
References to friends, dreams, bread, butter, chocolate, smoking and other ordinary doings litter his poetry, because in the trenches it is the once familiar that is now resonant. Gurney’s focus is a counter-reaction to the destructive reality in which the soldiers found themselves. But this shift from the external to the internal world eventually heightened his awareness of his mental instability:
What evil coil of Fate has fastened me
Who cannot move to sight, whose bread is sight,
And in nothing has more bare delight
Than dawn or the violet or the winter tree
Stuck in mud – Blinkered up, roped for the Fair,
What use to vessel breath that lengthens pains?
O but the empty joys of wasted air
That blow on Crickley and whimper wanting me!
(What Evil Coil of Fate1919-22)
In a letter to his friend Marion Scott, he writes that he ’tried to write to keep madness away and black torture away – a little…’. For Gurney, poetry served a practical purpose; it was therapeutic. Memories of his home became the weapons in his internal conflict with disorder, with the history and architecture of Gloucester as steadying as the Cotswold landscape. Ancient Roman remains provided symbols of durability and permanence that he could hang on to amidst the spiralling chaos of war:
With noise of thunder,
I turned and saw
A tower stand, like an immortal law –
Permanent, past the reach of time and change,
Yet fair and fresh as any flower wild blown…
(The Tower, in a manuscript dated ‘St Albans, July 1918’)
Buildings that have withstood destructive forces such as time, weather and wars, offer an anchor to a mind wandering off into a mental abyss and darkness. When everything around him is falling apart – physically and mentally – his poems are packed with things that endure: towers, churches, spires and cathedrals. In lines such as ‘…and wrote til night’s veil was nothing – / Square and the human beauty, proving, proving’ (William Byrd) or ‘O what shape what squareness/ Over strong Latin moving powerful to its close’ and ‘Greatness showed from the page, / Mastery, square shaping…’ (The Motetts of William Byrd) we can sense a tottering mind reaching out for support. Even the simple neatness of a square shape is associated with rightness and order:
Had I a song
I would sing it here
Four lined square shaped
But since I have none,
Well, regret in verse
Before the power’s gone
Might be worse, might be worse.
(Had I A Song, 1919-22)
In effect the physical shapes of his poems counteract his loosening mental structure. It is not just Sonnets 1917 that imply an imposed orderliness; his later stanzaic poems also look like solid bricks as if solidity was what his mind is craving.
Although we must be wary of amateur psychologising, there are other reflections of a divided mind in Gurney’s poetry. He dedicated the five Sonnets 1917 to Rupert Brooke, perhaps ironically. Since Brooke’s sonnets (including the famously patriotic If I should die, think only this of me) had been published in 1914, three hellish years had passed. Gurney said of his own sonnets that ‘Old ladies won’t like them’ suggesting a comparison with the genteel appeal of Booke’s poetry. His own images such as the ‘horses shot, too tired merely to stir’ (Pain) are a long way from Brooke’s sentiments of ‘rich earth and a richer dust concealed’. Essentially Gurney had no ambition to be heroic like Brooke’s Soldier. Instead he creates a defiant antithesis:
…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.
(The Silent One, 1919-22)
As Geoffrey Hill has observed ‘the perfect good manners of the episode are simultaneously a tone-poem of the class system, and a parody of what it is that brings two men through the exercise of traditional discipline and reason into a situation of unpremeditated terror and absurdity’ Good manners, as much as any indulgence in noble suffering or pity for mankind, get in the way of Gurney’s main concern: simply staying alive.
What distinguishes his work from both the patriotic poets and the anti-war poets is his emphasis on the private experience. When one of his fellow soldiers is killed, in The Silent One what Gurney misses most is an incidental, inconsequential aspect of his life – the sound of his dialect:
Who died on the wire and hung, one of two –
Who for his hour of life had chattered through
Infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent…
Instead of generalising about men in war, Gurney recorded his personal, individual response. Sometimes he combined incredulity with black humour, capturing that bizarre sense of ‘what am I doing here?’ which troops in later wars have often recorded. It is the singular, not the universal perspective that is conveyed by mingling horror with idiosyncratic comedy:
…I fired straight at the middle one
No more; now at the right side of the left one
No more; again between the right one and the middle one…
When up there dashed my Platoon, crashing branches down;
And off went Germans as swift as deer, as soon
No turn. Great, well-fed men, to our hungry…
(The Retreat, dated 23rd April 1925)
But there is also in this humour an emotional nihilism, as if he had become desensitised, a product of the harsh reality of war. It was (and is) an outlook not uncommon among men and women at war. In The First Day on the Somme, Martin Middlebrook quotes a private soldier: ‘I jumped into the trench, ready with my bayonet to encounter the three Germans but they were all lying about in such awkward looking positions with blood all over them and I laughed – the reaction, I suppose.’ Yet Gurney’s humour dehumanises nobody: not his own clumsy platoon, not the ‘well-fed’ Germans, not even his ineffective self. His detachment is equally applied to all, and is quite unlike – say –
Sassoon’s dark satirical humour. Sassoon was making a powerful political protest. Gurney never made explicit political protests about the war. His protests are personal statements about life or mortality, directed at God rather than Government. Even in the asylum, in his bleakest hours, traces of this laconic humour would persist:
Why have you made life so intolerable
And set me between four walls, where I am able
Not to escape meals without prayer, for that is possible
Only by annoying an attendant. And tonight a sensual
Hell has been put upon me, so that all has deserted me
And I am merely crying and trembling in heart
For death, and cannot get it.
To God, 1922-25
But nothing that Gurney experienced during the Great War educed in his poetry anguish as great as this. There is no reason to believe that what he endured in the trenches was in any way milder than the lot of other poets, and so we may find ourselves pushed towards the conclusion that for him, the chaos, horror and inanities of war sat more easily with his personal turmoil than confinement in an asylum, supposedly a place of refuge.
In the end, despite considerable acclaim for both his music and his poetry, neither Gurney’s poetry nor his humour could ‘keep madness and black torture away’ – not even a little. He died on 26th December 1937.
Blunden, E. (ed) (1954) Poems of Ivor Gurney, London: Hutchinson
Hill, G. (1984) ‘Gurney’s Hobby’, Essays in Criticism, April 1984, Vol. 34
Hurd, M. (1978) The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Kavanagh, P.J. (1981) Ivor Gurney: Collected Letters (2nd edition), Middlesex: Penguin Books
Middlebrook, M. The First Day on the Somme, London: Penguin Press 1971
Thornton, R.K.R. (1997) Ivor Gurney: Severn and Somme/War’s Embers, London: MidNAG/Carnet Press