Dweller in Shadows: A Life of Ivor Gurney 
by Kate Kennedy.
Princeton, 488 pp., £28, June 2021, 978 0 691 21278 4
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In March​ 1918, Ivor Gurney spoke to Beethoven. It was three years since the war had interrupted his studies at the Royal College of Music, and a few months since he had ended up in a casualty clearing station in France, his right arm wounded and his lungs gassed, correcting the proofs of his verse collection Severn and Somme. Back in Britain, he drifted from hospital to hospital, diagnosed with ‘soldier’s heart’, a complaint more common than shellshock. Writing to a friend, he notated his heartbeat’s irregular waltz and wild dynamics. He was also a ‘bundle of oppressed nerves’, and began to exhibit symptoms of schizoaffective disorder. ‘Yesterday,’ he wrote from an outpost of Newcastle General Hospital, ‘I felt and talked to (I am serious) the spirit of Beethoven, [who] said … he was fond of me, and that in nature I was like himself as a young man … What would the doctors say to that? A Ticket certainly, for insanity. No, it is the beginning of a new life, a new vision.’

Gurney died in 1937, aged 47, after spending the last fifteen years of his life in psychiatric hospitals, leaving behind hundreds of poems and songs (many still unpublished). He always thought of music as his ‘real groove’: ‘The brighter visions brought music,’ he said, ‘the fainter verse.’ His Five Elizabethan Songs were, he was convinced, proof of his musical genius. But he might not have been the best judge of his own talents. His war poems have a quietness far from the guttering-choking-drowning world of Wilfred Owen, and no other war poet juxtaposed the visionary with the everyday detail of the trenches as he does in ‘Laventie’:

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

Kate Kennedy thinks he was equally talented in words and music: ‘The only other models,’ she writes in this new biography, ‘are Renaissance figures such as John Dowland and Thomas Campion.’ (She might have looked sideways to Noël Coward, Bob Dylan or Cole Porter; to John Cage’s poetry, Ezra Pound’s operas, the compositions of Christopher Fry or Anthony Burgess.) One of the aims of her study is to rescue Gurney’s later work from accusations of madness, and offer it as evidence of his experimental, even modernist, spirit.

As a teenager, Gurney was a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral: his father was a tailor in the city and the family lived above the shop. The cathedral choirmaster, Herbert Brewer, had an eye for local talent: as well as Gurney, his apprentices included Herbert Howells, later famous for his Anglican church music, and Ivor Novello, who soon disappeared into a different world. In 1910, Gurney and Howells attended the premiere, at the cathedral, of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and spent much of the night walking the streets, delighting in the ‘divine afterglow’ (Gurney’s phrase) of the music.

Gurney won a scholarship to the Royal College and threw himself into his studies with an ambition bordering on hubris. He planned to compose an opera cycle based on the dramas of Yeats, but soon came to realise his skills suited a smaller canvas: only three orchestral pieces are extant. His teacher Charles Villiers Stanford thought Gurney perhaps the most talented, though the most wayward, of his students. Critics have identified signs of mania in his earliest work, but Kennedy presents a collection of technically competent pieces – conservative, well-structured, even dull.

His ambitions were threatened by his health. In the summer of 1912, he suffered his first breakdown: digestive trouble, mood swings, bleakness. This experience seems to have pushed him towards poetry, which, he said, flowed from him ‘like buttermilk from a jug’. He was soon submitting his efforts for publication, though opportunities to write or to compose had to be snatched between periods of illness: ‘The sad fact is,’ he admitted, ‘that I do not know what it is to feel well.’ His college terms took on a familiar pattern: optimism and aspiration curdling into depression that could be alleviated only by fleeing London for the countryside. But he was gregarious and, if his letters are anything to go by, enormous fun.

In his first year he met the violinist and musicologist Marion Scott. Gurney was 21, she was 34; the friendship, apparently platonic, would endure for the rest of his life. Scott was a formidable figure, among the first of Stanford’s female pupils and leader of her own quartet, but most successful as a writer on music. For Gurney, she was to combine the role of devoted friend, business manager, editor and champion. (After his death, Scott and Gerald Finzi worked tirelessly to gather and promote his manuscripts.)

In 1914, aged 24, Gurney produced what he called ‘the Elizas’, Five Elizabethan Songs, which set to music Tudor poems he seems to have chosen for their contrast between winter and spring, sleep and wakefulness. The songs were conceived for soloist and chamber ensemble (flutes, clarinets, bassoons, harp), although only the first survives in its original scoring; the piano accompaniments for the others have a space and colour that may stem from their instrumental origins. ‘Orpheus with His Lute’, with words from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, opens the cycle with rising E major semi-quavers, and moments of harmonic shock, with voice and piano sometimes just a tone apart. ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ introduces a hey-nonny perkiness, mirrored by the fifth song, ‘Spring’, which is all cuckoos and sprightly syncopation. Second and fourth are poems by John Dowland and John Fletcher, which constitute the cycle’s stretches of uneasy repose. The setting of Fletcher’s ‘Sleep’ is the most recorded of the Elizas – indeed of Gurney’s catalogue. The song is dreamy, but the dream is disturbed: slowly rocking semi-quavers in the piano (a Gurney trademark) create a shadowy cradle song; a chromatic vocal line scrunches the ostensible key of B flat minor with naturals and double-flats. Slowly the song finds resolution in D flat major, as if sinking, finally, into slumber. The pianist Frederick Kiddle thought ‘Sleep’ could have been written by Brahms, but it looks forward as well as back: add a French horn and it could almost be part of Benjamin Britten’s Serenade (1943), his cycle on night and dreams.

With Five Elizabethan Songs Gurney felt he was knocking on the door of mastery. ‘Blister my kidneys,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘if the music is not as English, as joyful, as tender as any lyric of all that noble host. Technique all right, and as to word setting – models.’ With bleak synchronicity, his maturity in composition arrived as war was declared. In February 1915, he enlisted as a private in the Fifth Battalion of Gloucesters and began a period of arduous military training; eventually he was sent to France as a signaller. His letters home convey military life experienced by ear – he heard the departure of a battalion to the Front as the end of the development section in the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. A later posting had a ‘Scarlatti, early Mozartish’ atmosphere. He immortalised in ‘The Silent One’ a soldier ‘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.’ He notated the rhythm of machine guns, which appear in his poetry as deadly instruments: ‘Got gassed, and learned the machine gun, how it played/scales and arpeggios.’ Even the buttons and buckles on an army uniform brightened through polishing with an ‘awful crescendo’.

He prised beauty from the trenches, thrilling to ‘the most handsome young men I have ever met’. ‘First Time In’ (one of several poems by that title) recalled his first night on the front line:

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 day’s guns
Nor any Line-pangs ever quite could blot out
That strangely beautiful entry to war’s rout.

The poem’s susurrations are typical of Gurney, as are the wrinkles in the verse: ‘ever quite could’; ‘Welsh things’ soon followed by ‘human hopeful things’. These distinguish, rather than hamper, his evolving written voice. ‘Slitten’ is Middle English: used beside the military ‘oilsheet’ it finds its place, actually ‘lit’ from within – the words themselves seem to flicker in the shadowy trench. Gurney’s verse brought chiaroscuro to dug-outs: ‘Silent, bathed in firelight, in dusky light and gloom/The boys squeeze together in the smoky dirty room.’ The faces of the dead are illuminated: ‘Pour out your bounty, moon of radiant shining/On all this shattered flesh.’ Some of the longest entries in a Gurney concordance would be for ‘glow’, ‘shine’, ‘fire’, ‘sun’, ‘stars’.

He read Keats and, to drown out the noise of the machine guns, played Bach and Elgar in his head. He set John Masefield’s ‘By a Bierside’ to music while sitting on a sandbag (the manuscript is stained with mud). He sent his poems to Marion Scott, along with songs composed with the aid of pianos hired in war-blighted villages for a franc an hour. He set to music texts recalled from memory. Friends were soon killed, or reported killed. When the poet William Harvey, with whom he had had an intense friendship, was taken prisoner but presumed dead, Gurney wrote ‘To His Love’: ‘with thick-set/Masses of memoried flowers –/Hide that red wet/Thing I must somehow forget.’ A corporal with whom he had fallen in some kind of love, Richard Rhodes, was shot on sight when mistakenly trying to enter a German trench, and Gurney mourned his youth and beauty in ‘Dicky’: ‘Can Death, all slayer, kill/The fervent source of those exultant fires?/Nay, not so;/Somewhere that glow/And starry shine so clear astonishes yet/The wondering spirits as they come and go.’

Kennedy is level-headed about Gurney’s love affairs, which involved both sexes and various degrees of filial adoration, homosocial comradeship, homoerotic passion and sexless romance. Friendships with older women such as Scott existed alongside his obsession with one ‘delightful’ French girl and his impetuous marriage proposals to the daughter of a local curate and to a Scottish nurse who tended him in hospital. ‘To His Love’ may, Kennedy argues, have been addressed not to Harvey but to the wife of Harvey’s younger brother. But in ‘After-Glow’, Gurney describes himself and Harvey at sunset:

The elms with arms of love wrapped us in shade
Who watched the ecstatic west with one desire,
One soul uprapt; and still another fire
Consumed us, and our joy yet greater made:
That Bach should sing for us, mix us in one
The joy of firelight and the sunken sun.

Late in 1916, Gurney’s regiment was transferred to the Somme. Arriving at trenches in the commune of Grandcourt, the soldiers found themselves compelled, he wrote, ‘to live more like rats than men’. Still, in fits and starts, the poems and songs came. ‘That will be in anthologies hundreds of years hence,’ he wrote of ‘In Flanders’. ‘Song’, written in the first months of 1917, has a Blakeian simplicity: ‘And who loves joy as he/That dwells in shadows?/Do not forget me quite,/O Severn meadows.’ Gurney set it to music as ‘Severn Meadows’, one of his most delicate songs, with the vocal part unfurling over shifting D major chords.

In the spring of 1917 he was in the small town of Vermand, chasing retreating Germans. He went over the top on Good Friday and was shot in his right arm. In September, he was approaching the blasted village of St Julien when the Germans gassed the British trenches, and after a week of symptoms, reported sick. Kennedy follows Gurney’s military and medical life in minute detail. She describes the lice that wriggled in the seams of his uniform. She knows when the 2/7th Worcesters and the 2/1st Bucks arrived to replace the 2/5th Gloucesters, and when mustard gas replaced chlorine and phosgene. Gurney’s deterioration used to be attributed to the effects of gas; Kennedy tells a more complicated story. By May 1918, he was a mental patient at Lord Derby War Hospital in Warrington; in October he was discharged and – looking to begin the ‘new life’ ushered in by Beethoven, perhaps – returned to the Royal College, where he studied under Vaughan Williams. A second volume of poetry, War’s Embers, appeared in 1919.

Gurney’s previous biographer, the composer Michael Hurd, believed his subject’s truest vocation was music and that the songs are a greater achievement than the poetry. Trevor Hold, also a composer, disagreed, arguing that Gurney’s poetry is ‘more original than [the] music’. I am on Hold’s side: Gurney’s piano writing sometimes becomes aimless and clotted; his style never seems fully to escape the post-Germanic legacy of Stanford and Hubert Parry. ‘Gurney’s musical idiom is essentially traditional,’ Kennedy concedes, ‘in that he yoked harmonies together that our ears would recognise as logical.’ She argues for his ‘bewilderingly broad range’ of musical reference, but his reading – Yeats and Whitman, Sitwell and Claudel, the newly discovered Thomas Traherne and Gerard Manley Hopkins – was wider than his listening. Musically he ignored almost every new world that might have appealed to an ambitious young composer of his generation. Friends and contemporaries at the Royal College took inspiration from jazz, spirituals and rumba (Arthur Benjamin), or studied the Second Viennese School and the French group Les Six (Arthur Bliss), but Gurney seemed uninterested in the new music coming out of Europe and America, or even in the English folk revival. He came more and more to believe in a ‘purely English music’, untarnished by ‘French mannerisms’ or the ‘universal clamorous desire for ragtime’. But the efforts in his composition to evoke the English landscape often seem to stem from Schumann and Brahms. Kennedy claims that Five Elizabethan Songs ‘set the standard for the genre [of English song]’ but songwriters such as Lutyens, Britten and Birtwistle would produce works that question whether ‘English’ (which isn’t a synonym of ‘pastoral’) is a meaningful stylistic adjective, and whether ‘English song’ is a genre at all.

Many of Gurney’s songs – ‘An Epitaph’, ‘All Night under the Moon’ – have a combination of tenderness and technique that shows his melodic inspiration at its best. Encouraged by Vaughan Williams, Gurney wrote a seven-part song-cycle, Ludlow and Teme (1919), using poems from A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. The second song, ‘Far in a Western Brookland’, is infused with Gurney’s longing for Gloucestershire, as ecstatic as it is nostalgic, although the accompaniment (the piano joined by a string quartet) can be thick undergrowth for the tenor to hack through. The cycle, a memorial to the ‘lads that will die in their glory and never be old’, introduces a violence and condemnation that are only implicit, at most, in Housman’s verse. Kennedy describes Gurney’s orchestral War Elegy (1920) as incorporating ‘adventurous dissonance’ and ‘elements of modernism’, but it seems little more than a densely orchestrated pastiche of Elgar in ceremonial mode. When Kennedy invokes Stravinsky and Schoenberg to justify some of Gurney’s stranger harmonies or shifts of key, she risks casting him further into the shadow of true innovators.

In the years​ after the war his reputation became more secure, but he never had much money, and worked briefly at a tax office and on a farm. He starved and then binged, and his friends worried and rallied round, not least Scott and Vaughan Williams. When suicidal thoughts overwhelmed him in 1922, he was certified insane and committed first to an asylum in Gloucester, then to the City of London Mental Hospital in Dartford, where there was one doctor for every 450 patients and no attempt at treatment. Scott said that he felt ‘every thread of the suffering’.

During this last, long confinement, Gurney became convinced that he was receiving wireless signals from the local constabulary and was being made to eat electric meals. He believed his brain was being removed from his head, and became obsessed with enemas; he was certain he had been subsumed into the anus of a policeman. Yet he continued to write and compose prolifically: eleven string quartets and more than fifty songs in 1925 alone, as well as essays, short stories, verse plays and poetry. Much of this work has been neglected or even suppressed. Gurney’s asylum letters, which flit between mad ramble and vers libre, are omitted from his published correspondence. Kennedy is justified in claiming that his asylum work amounts to more than documents from the other side of sanity. A set of piano preludes and a rewriting of The Tempest, for instance, use pastiche as a means of inhabiting the spirits of dead men, as if Gurney thought he had become Shakespeare or even Prospero.

Kennedy examines the late work for coherence, structure and beauty. Because many of Gurney’s asylum compositions are unrecorded or unpublished, her descriptions of their sophistication and skill must be taken on trust. I wasn’t always persuaded by her evidence of progressive experimentation – his use of chromatic harmonies, say, or the addition of a string quartet to a vocal part. But Gurney’s late writings do venture into a territory which earns comparison with Eliot or Pound. His poetry was still beating to the arrhythmic thump of his ‘soldier’s heart’. ‘I am praying for death, death, death,/And dreadful is the indrawing or out-breathing of breath.’ Longing for Gloucester, he wrote instead of London:

Sleepers have gone
Where men go who can have no warmth but sun,
Unless a lucky twopence might mean tea.
(One affluent adds Woodbines and a bun.)
It is half past three.
See now how she changes, the brooding city.

There is something of Eliot here, even if elsewhere McGonagall is to the fore (as in a couplet from 1925: ‘this most treacherous and fine sailing/vessel of mine, so leaky – but never failing’). In ‘The Lock-Keeper’, which Gurney revised in the year he was committed to the asylum, there is a glimpse of him as the missing link between Manley Hopkins and Dylan Thomas: ‘furious, electric/Under the apple boughs, with a short stick,/Burnt black long ages’. In his autobiographical accounts, written in blank verse and addressed to the police at Scotland Yard, economy, sense, structure and allusion hide in plain sight:

Nevertheless, Songs and verses. Laventie, by Arras,
Crucifix Corner, Caulaincourt, Rouen, by Ypres …
On, on to summer; my nights to working so given,
Days to sketching, walking, watching, water, earth, heaven –
Labouring as might be – seventeen miles, home again,
Fair payment of body’s usage for using pen,
Back at dusk; talking (scribbling the while) not to lose
Much of the precious work-time. Her habit, use,
Was – bed-at-eleven …

It’s hard to resist the comparison with Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno, written in an asylum in the mid-18th century and published in 1939. Gurney’s verse, like Smart’s, veers between wide-ranging vision and the chatter of an asylum journal. In poems such as ‘My Life’ or the panoramic ‘Iliad and Badminton’, he juxtaposes Gloucestershire cricketers with Homeric heroes, as Smart had once written of the local postman and Old Testament prophets. Gurney has had to wait almost a century for a biographer willing to recognise the curious order that can emerge from psychological disorder, the sounds composed by the unsound mind. At the time of his death from TB in 1937, he had produced nothing for years. His letters had fractured into chaos – ‘Ivor Gurney in Hell 17-27’, ‘In 3333-11 etc. torture’ – though at times he was still lucid. As Scott put it, ‘Ivor is so agonisingly sane in his insanity.’

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