How the sanity of poets can be edited away
- ‘Severn and Somme’ and ‘War’s Embers’ by Ivor Gurney, edited by R.K.R. Thornton
Carcanet, 152 pp, £7.95, September 1997, ISBN 1 85754 348 3
- 80 Poems or So by Ivor Gurney, edited by George Walter and R.K.R. Thornton
Carcanet, 148 pp, £9.95, January 1997, ISBN 1 85754 344 0
Most loyal and protective of Gurney’s many friends, Marion Scott wrote after one of her regular visits to the asylum: ‘Ivor is so heart-breakingly sane in his insanity.’ Letters, reported conversation, music, poems all attest to the fact. He was trained and already admired as a composer before enlistment; in the trenches poetry had occupied him more and more and, when he returned afterwards to music, the poetry continued. The asylum cut him off, therefore, from what had been a life of continuous intellectual companionship – in music, poetry and trench-life. In the end, all reasoning had to be here, inside. Outside became for him one vastly simplified establishment of Church and Metropolitan Police, to which he would write long and, if you choose to see them so, quite dotty pleas, sometimes in verse, against his continuing incarceration. The world inside became increasingly the source of all creativity. Here he could chat happily with such companions as Beethoven about the music of Herbert Howells, his schoolboy friend and fellow music student; or could by turns become Schubert, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Traherne, Whitman, even Gurney – anyone, musician or author, whose work he understood to the point of loving. ‘The idea that he had written everything and composed everything persisted ... But there were moments of real conversation and he spoke of real grievances,’ Adeline Vaughan Williams wrote after one of many visits with her husband, Gurney’s one-time teacher of composition, admirer and longstanding advocate. My own hunch is that other Gurney personae usually written off as lunatic fictions – Michael Flood, Frederick Saxby, Valentine Fane, Griffiths Davies and so on: there were many – may yet turn out to be comrades from the trenches, those other persons he so loved. Although writing of place-names rather than people, P.J. Kavanagh puts the matter exactly in the introduction to his wonderful Collected Poems of Ivor Gurney (1982): ‘Like most poets, he is dependent on the particular, and on being able to name it.’
Gurney was nonetheless committed and formally certified in 1922 and, apart from three frustrated escapes – the last of them to Vaughan Williams – and one or two subsequent outings organised by Marion Scott, he remained incarcerated until his death in 1937. This sounds, and was, and was meant to be, brutal. Ronald, his newly-wed younger brother, with whom he had gone to live, saw to the original committal and was blunt about it: ‘Nothing on earth will do Ivor any good till by Iron Discipline he has had his natural obstinacy and stubbornness broken down.’ To be fair to Ronald and others, Gurney (at least from the age of ten) had always been a misfit in an unmusical family of minimal education whose business was tailoring. Winning a chorister’s place at Gloucester Cathedral and attending the King’s School as a dayboy lifted him into a world so different that he would often not bother to return home for meals or even bed. This, and a not unusual country lad’s liking for night-walking the Gloucestershire hills and river-paths, led to a family reputation for solitariness when in fact, for his time and background, he was astonishingly gregarious. Those walks were often taken in company – they lasted for as many as three days and nights at a time, according to Herbert Howells, who occasionally accompanied him. Gurney also went to stay with the family of another poet-to-be, F.W. Harvey. The tendency to distance himself from his own family became more pronounced when Gurney went, in 1911, at the age of 21, to the Royal College of Music in faraway London. Howells followed him in 1912, and Gurney returned there after demobilisation, in 1919, to resume his part in a quartet of friendship with Howells, Arthur Benjamin and Arthur Bliss. His siblings had also to contend with his burgeoning fame, which they did not understand: two published volumes of poetry (1917 and 1919); much performance and publication of music (1920-22); another volume of poetry at the publishers and a fourth in preparation by 1922. Apart from any personal idiosyncrasy, this was madness enough: it made no money. The trouble with family stand-offs like this – Wilfred Owen’s was not dissimilar: away to Oxfordshire, away teaching in France long before enlistment – is that they exacerbate sibling tensions, intolerance, even dislike.
Given the hopelessly misdated or undated state of Gurney archives at the time he was writing his book, Michael Hurd’s The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney (1978), the only biography we have so far, had to rely heavily, if critically, on Ronald’s exasperated accounts and letters. Under such circumstances, serious dislocations of character begin to occur, and poems and their meanings can be displaced. For instance, following Marion Scott, Hurd calls the following ‘an Asylum poem’:
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-the-mud – blinkered up, roped for the fair.
What use to vessel breath that lengthens pain?
O but the empty joys of wasted air
That blew on Crickley and whimper wanting me!
Written in London in 1919 or 1920, the poem is by a passionate lover of Gloucestershire divorced from its landscape, not from reason. To take it as a symbol of unreason and make the poet mad to begin with mistakes a beautifully simple sanity and, worse, the courses such a sanity might run. The poem’s central image of a bull tethered by custom, though, may in the end prove more telling.
No one can deny that Gurney early became an awkward bastard to deal with: on the scrounge for money, or tobacco, not turning up for meals, whereabouts unknown, walking away from jobs found for him by friends or relatives – as organist, tax clerk, cinema pianist, farm labourer – caring only to write, so the family thought, incomprehensible music and poems. In the presence of family and friends alike, he seemed tense, taut, twanging with nerves. The composer Arthur Benjamin, that ‘well-integrated homosexual’, as Hurd calls him, believed this derived from Gurney’s own repressed homosexuality, a suggestion to which Howells responded: ‘Unthinkable!’ Gurney ‘would have died first’. Hurd is surely right, however, that the two opinions are far from mutually exclusive. And there is more: love poems written man to man, of which even the heartbreakingly sane and justly famous ‘To His Love’ can be distanced into possible heterosexuality only by jiggering about with the ‘his’ in its title; a sometimes obsessional liking for self-administered enemas; above all, that curious cartoon-like balloon that seems to hover above the heads of the Gurney family bearing the words, ‘Ah, what we could tell you should we but choose!’ Ronald preceded his opinion about Iron Discipline with the remark: ‘I understand far better than anyone else in the world the inner state of his mind. I have myself travelled a long way down the same road.’ Clearly music and poetry are not what he meant by ‘the same road’. Equally – for Ronald was a blunt-speaking man – had he meant the shared experience of soldiers in wartime, he would have said so. Perhaps we are in the realm of that more general, sexually innocent homoeroticism discussed by Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) or in Martin Taylor’s less fashionable, less thesis-driven anthology, Lads, republished in 1998. In Taylor’s collection, so often are the poems bad, unaware (Ronald-like?) or puny that the best among them – Gurney’s, Edward Thomas’s, Owen’s – rise from the shared world of trench-mud with astonishing freshness. And Gurney, at least, would have approved Taylor’s chosen prelude, a poem by that patron of all things common, Walt Whitman, whose work he appears to have encountered first in 1910 at the Three Choirs festival in Gloucester as the text to Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony. Re-reading Whitman in the trenches took him, he told Marion Scott, ‘at the flood’. Everyone notes the same passionate camaraderie in Gurney’s recall of trench-life:
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 ...
(‘The Silent One’)
Don Hancocks, shall I no more see your face frore,
Gloucester-good, in the first light? (But you are dead!)
Shall I see no more Monger with india-rubber
Twisted face ...
And, as Kavanagh long ago noted, his love of the namable common things:
Of Machonachie, Paxton, Tickler, and Gloucester’s Stephens;
Fray Bentos, Spiller and Baker, odds and evens
Of trench food ...
And of songs:
‘David of the White Rock’, the ‘Summer 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.
(‘First Time In’)
In his 1996 Everyman selection, George Walter calls this squaddie quality of absorption in the ordinary ‘his fascination with people – his democracy’. But it is not always present: it seems to come and go like a mind moving in and out of focus across all his postwar poetry-writing from 1919 to 1929 – supporting the idea of lunacy at work. But recent publications suggest that this has been more a chaos of archives than of mind.
After the Second World War, the younger composer Gerald Finzi began amalgamating scattered collections – made by Marion Scott, the Gurney family, Ivor’s Gloucester friend John Haines, Vaughan Williams and others – into a central archive. The process continued after Finzi’s death in 1956. Neither Gurney nor Scott had bothered much about dates and the habit of confusion grew by amalgamation. Blunden, returning manuscripts borrowed for his madness-loving Poems by Ivor Gurney (1954), shoved them back wholly at random. (Perhaps fortunately, the book did badly. My own copy, library-stamped ‘withdrawn’, was bought off a barrow for sixpence only 18 months after publication, at the insistence of another First World War poet, Edgell Rickword – ‘for fear,’ he told me, ‘that Blunden has queered the pitch against future editions’). Again, in the Sixties Finzi’s widow Joy shuffled versions of poems together quite out of context – unwittingly, I’m sure, pointing again at madness on Gurney’s part. The chaos Hurd and Kavanagh encountered was thus immense. Hurd found only one setting by Gurney of his own words, where the musician Richard Carder, searching the archive in 1993, found 16. And as recently as 1996 a letter was unearthed, there since the beginning, enclosing 13 hitherto unknown poems of 1919. The pattern Kavanagh contrived from ‘upwards of 1700 items of verse of all kinds’ for his Collected Poems consisted of six sections: 1917-19 (from the two published volumes Severn and Somme and War’s Embers); 1917-19 (poems not in those volumes); 1919-20 (from an unpublished collection thought to be called ‘Rewards of Wonder’); 1919-22 (other poems up to committal to the asylum); 1922-25; 1926 and after. Now it seems that the third, fourth and fifth sections of this pattern won’t do.
Kavanagh followed Hurd in supposing that the collection ‘Rewards of Wonder’ was sent to Gurney’s publishers in 1919 or 1920. It now appears that Gurney sent no collection until 1922, and that what he sent then was not ‘Rewards of Wonder’, which was not completed until 1924, but something he referred to in a letter as ‘80 poems or so’. This was rejected by the publishers, revised and again rejected. Further attempts to have it published failed and, in due course, the collection was scattered. By a complicated process, involving much research outside the archive, Thornton and Walter claim to have reassembled the papers distributed by Blunden, Joy Finzi and others and, accepting Gurney’s description, have published them as 80 Poems or So. An introduction and textual backnotes detail this considerable piece of detective work, and it looks to me quite incontrovertible. (A reconstruction of the later ‘Rewards of Wonder’ is due to be published sometime next year.) All this means major changes to Kavanagh’s pattern. His third section and much of his fourth (1919-20 and 1919-22) must now be shifted into his fifth (1922-25), since the central discovery about 80 Poems or So is that it contains only shadowy background references to war. Major ‘war’ poems – ‘Of Grandcourt’, ‘Felling a Tree’, ‘The Noble Wars of Troy’, ‘Laventie’, ‘Crucifix Corner’, the two distinct poems called ‘First Time In’ and ‘The Silent One’ – must now be moved deep into the asylum years.
The effect of such reordering can be huge. More important than the absence of ‘war poems’ in Gurney’s work between demobilisation and his becoming entrenched in the asylum is the fact that in his own mind the very nature of war, when he eventually returns to it as a subject for poetry, has changed:
Cover him, cover him soon!
And with thick-set
Masses of memoried flowers –
Hide that red wet
Thing I must somehow forget.
(‘To His Love’)
There is a radical difference between that, in 1918, and Gurney’s sense of war from 1925 onwards. The focus was intense then, it is intense now. But the war which now concerns him can only be called a kind of peace:
After the dread tales and red yarns 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 the boys gave us kind welcome,
So that we looked out as from the edge of home.
(‘First Time In’)
Some of his sanest, most focused, loving utterance must now be heard as coming from a period previously thought to be one of finally disabling madness. Moreover, what happened between the two extremes of horror and camaraderie is now as startlingly clear as either of them. Recovery of the missing, rejected collection, 80 Poems or So, is crucial. The convention has been, I suppose, to see Gurney as torn between London and Gloucester, music and poetry, peace and war, gay and straight, sense and nonsense. Not so; or perhaps one should more cautiously say, only peripherally so. What it is now possible to see is a rational mind developing.
The one thing which reassembling chance-blown papers cannot supply is any sense of original sequence, and the great blocks of poems, grouped by single subject, which Thornton and Walter offer (apologetically) are as unlikely as they are unlovely. Twenty-four poems about the seasons followed by 17 about cities – London first, then Gloucester – then a Gloucestershire block and so on: this is not the way Gurney assembled himself, either in the two volumes he published or in other draft collections. But the Thornton-Walter blocks do serve to make a point. It is change Gurney is after, and spring means change to him, suddenness, urgency:
But how the green has sprung in a single night;
What sudden flood bears high the foam of May!
... pinpoints grown to buds between day and day!
Or he fears, in a dusk he calls ‘November’s hour’, that change won’t happen:
Dumb Spring without a sign waits the day coming,
But in such drab trance nothing can come sudden,
Time hesitates, but moves to an East looming ...
More often there is certainty, as in ‘Spring Dawn’ (the poem called ‘Smudgy Dawn’ in Kavanagh’s Collected):
Smudgy dawn, scarfed with military colours,
Northward, and flowing wider like slow sea-water,
Wake in lilac and elm and almost among garden flowers.
Birds a multitude: increasing as it made lighter.
Nothing but I moved, by railings there. Slept sweeter
Than kings the country folk in thatch or slate shade.
Peace had the grey West, fierce clouds in its power.
Out on much-Severn I thought waves readied for laughter,
And the fireswinger promised behind elm-pillars
Showed of a day worthy of such dawn to come after.
There’s little of autumn and none of summer’s flowering and fruition in the book. Spring and the cities dominate: spring does fine for the promise (or fear) of change, but for its agency Gurney must look to congregations of people, all those streets from which the majority of his fellow squaddies had come. Recalling the self-proclaimed socialism of trench-life, the scathing sense of class in references to officers (‘the politest voice – a finicking accent’, the others in a trench ‘all dead or officers’) and, above all, the poem ‘To the Prussians of England’ which frightened the wits out of Marion Scott in 1917 with its promise ‘to forge a knife/Will cut the cancer threatens England’s life’, one senses that the ‘East looming’ in ‘Coming Dusk’ and the ‘Northward ... flowing wider’ in ‘Spring Dawn’ is the wave of revolution sweeping west and south across Europe, and that all that is wanting for it here is numbers, population. The imagings of fear and inadequacy – ‘dumb’, ‘trance’ – in ‘Coming Dusk’ are human.
As for the city poems, Walter and Thornton’s introduction perceptively remarks that
Gurney’s London is not Eliot’s ‘unreal city’ but rather a city of realty made up of social activity, geographical detail and historical survival ... It is London, too, which reveals his reluctance to accept other aspects of the static versions of Englishness espoused by his contemporaries ... Similarly, the English countryside is realised not merely in terms of rolling hills, quaint customs and tradition but as a living human environment with its fair share of poverty and distress.
Gurney would, in fact, have nothing to do with the attempt to wedge apart the urban and rural radical traditions – an attempt which contrived, for instance, to make William Morris look bosky. Indeed, in ‘The Road’, a crucial 86-line poem which is not in Kavanagh, he celebrates their essential congruity – and a politics we do not meet again until the recollected ‘war’ poems of the asylum years:
Anyhow folk live there
And daily strive there,
And earn their bread there,
Make friends, see red there
As high on the clean hills
Where soft sea-rapture fills
The gladdening lungs.
And young souls are freshed there
And tyrant inmeshed there
As in Athens or Ukraine.
I would even go bail that the spring of ‘Spring Dawn’, undated, in 80 Poems or So, is that of 1920, during which socialism in Britain turned militant and Churchill sent tanks against the Glasgow soviets and an army to Poland against the Russian soviets, the year in which a Communist Party was founded in England. I would also suggest that ‘Spring Dawn’ and ‘Coming Dusk’, though separated in 80 Poems or So, are companion pieces, doubt following joyous anticipation. Gurney was no fool, I mean, and not yet certified either.
Academic societies are always special after a war. Uniquely experienced, horribly experienced, people return to institutions which innocents from school and cathedral choir are entering for the first time. There is a tendency to clench into ex-service groups, to suicide or (after the Second World War, the one within my knowledge) psychoanalytical treatments for survivor guilt and failure to stay the course. Gurney managed only one year back at the Royal College of Music, his fellow ex-soldier-poet Rickword only one year at Oxford. Both were friends of the older poet W.J. Turner. Rickword, who had first met Turner during military training, and shared with him the rent of a room in Gidea Park to which they could escape from the training depot, now took up with him again – missing presumably his own clenched group at Oxford (A.E. Coppard, de la Sola Pinto, Richard Hughes and Roy Campbell, with Yeats sometimes attending) who called themselves the New Elizabethans. When Rickword came to London in search of a home and work, it was with Turner that he stayed.
So did Gurney, conducting that same year his slow retreat, via High Wycombe, to Gloucestershire, even while continuing at college and sometimes needing a bed. In a way a New Elizabethan, too, he had made his musical name in 1914 with ‘The Five Elizas’, song-settings of Shakespeare, Fletcher and Nashe. His own clenched group of Bliss, Benjamin and Howells – and sometimes members of staff like Vaughan Williams – passed between them the likeliest poem-texts for setting, the newly discovered Thomas Traherne being a favourite. But Elizabethanism of this sort was a love of newness, poetic invention, verbal and imagistic adventure rather than something historically exclusive; a sort of enthusiasm that drove Rickword (the better linguist) towards Rimbaud and Corbière. As a man about poetry with two collections behind him – Rickword’s first volume, Behind the Eyes, appeared in 1921 – Gurney was abundantly aware of contemporary poets, his old Gloucester and Army friend Will Harvey among them, but Hardy remained dominant. And of folksong: it was impossible to be at the Royal College and remain any distance from the spirit of collecting which went back to Cecil Sharpe. And of Whitman, who had taken him ‘at the flood’. Sylvia Townsend Warner, another of Vaughan Williams’s composition students, had just completed her ‘Requiem’, a setting of Whitman for string quartet and voice and, fumbling towards her quite different eventual art, was writing poems of her own. She, too, was palpably a New Elizabethan, being the secretary, amanuensis and chief collector, from whatever cathedral hiding places such ex-choristers as Howells and Gurney could suggest, for the ten volumes, which appeared between 1922 and 1929, of hitherto chiefly unpublished Tudor Church Music. Rickword and Warner’s reminiscences seem far more to the point than any amount of supposition about Gurney to do with the uniquely devastating effects of trench warfare and gas attack on the sanity of a sensitive soul. They suggest, on the contrary, the possibility of an active, sane and violent response to the insensitivity and soullessness of his society. And there is, of course, far more in common between Gurney and the others than New Elizabethanism and a liking for folksong and Whitman.
In an essay called ‘Edward Thomas, Ivor Gurney and English Socialism’ (Ivor Gurney Society Journal, 1998), John Lucas traces the influences of William Morris and John Ruskin through handcraftsmanship, the Arts and Crafts movement, the love of countryside, its songs and customs, into an elysian view of an Elizabethan England – at least a pre-industrial England – where delight in skills and a chattering individuality of dialect represent ‘freedom’, a place which never was but will be. Here is the ground on which Morris’s socialism, which admitted industrialisation, indeed insisted on it in tract after tract, and the importance of cities, grew. Searching towards Gurney’s Gloucestershire, Lucas discovers such groupings as, first, the Gimson/Barnsley craft communes at Ewen; then Daneway, Detmar Blow’s ‘soviet’ at Hilles; and eventually that grouping of Haines’s friends, the Dymock Poets – for Gurney the constant link. Closely reading the work of both Edward Thomas (himself a Dymock Poet) and Gurney (a friend of a friend), Lucas reveals in each the descent and enrichment of Morris’s beliefs. There is, however, another tradition supporting all this.
The audience for art, for music particularly, in those prewar, immediately postwar, pre-canned years, was deeply implicated in its creation. Student composers not only played each other’s work in relative privacy but in concerts that relied on amateurs where their own forces were insufficient. An enormous number of people all over the country were competent piano accompanists, able recruits for instrumental quartets or members of choirs. It is hard to distinguish between professional, amateur, musical and political traditions here. Vaughan Williams’s colleague and friend Gustav Holst had joined William Morris’s Hammersmith Socialist League in 1895, a year before Morris’s death. Vaughan Williams had been a socialist since his student days at Cambridge. Early in his relationship with Gurney he introduced him, presumably sensing a coincidence of interest, to Rutland Boughton, whose Glastonbury festivals just before and after the First World War had been founded on communitarian (not to say, wife-sharing) principles and largely amateur forces (accompanied often by poultry). The Immortal Hour apart, Boughton’s enormous cycle of Arthurian operas, with all their musical demands, were only ever performed by amateurs. By the time I met him, his famous Communism had become a belligerent jargon-laden bigotry, but the cello was still laid lengthwise along the closed lid of the grand, a viola – was it? – across the arms of a chair, hoist up as if music might at any time be plagued by house-invading livestock.
Common customs of self-sufficiency, reliance on amateurs, making your own professional music within a non-professional social web, did – just about – continue. Gerald Finzi, who like Boughton had no economic need to do so, grew marketable apples, kept hens, geese and bees. For the house built for him by Peter Harland, he involved himself, following good arts and crafts tradition, in the choice of timbers, bricks and pavings, insisting on the inclusion of local flints. He was devoted to the Newbury Players, the strictly amateur orchestra he recruited, organised, rehearsed (weekly) and conducted for most of his working life, and the village chapel he used for chamber concerts. And when Townsend Warner left London to live at West Chaldon, it was both to settle into a traditionally pubcentred village and to annex herself to what that village considered its community of Powyses. Concluding his close and careful reading of Lolly Willowes, her novel of 1926 deliberately back-set to 1921, Lucas has remarked: ‘Townsend Warner’s decision to join the Communist Party in the early Thirties does not present a new departure, still less a change of heart. If we read Lolly Willowes aright it becomes difficult to imagine that she could have done anything else.’ Rickword, too, though on the different route of literary criticism, reached that point. Boughton had been there since 1925. And Gurney? No one can possibly suggest where sanity would have led, had intellectual companionship rather than committal been granted him, but in his poems (as re-dated) he is going somewhere. There is now the outline of a route.
Apparently it was in 1919, before the completion of 80 Poems or So, that Gurney began work on ‘Rewards of Wonder’. Now restored in the same whodunnit manner as the earlier collection, it is predictably described in an advance notice in the Gurney Society Newsletter as ‘the only volume of Gurney’s poems to transcend the boundary between his sanity and madness’, showing ‘how his illness affected his poetic development’. One can only pray that this does not represent Walter’s editorial attitude, and that we are not to be given the lumpy bunching by theme that characterises 80 Poems or So. Starting, say, with a group of poems about music and musicians, followed by others about Gloucestershire, London, cherished authors, the beauties enclosed in war, and the rest of Gurney’s favourite themes, is liable to take the reader from 1919 to 1924 and back again to 1919, creating the impression of a mind as sane as a roller-coaster in a funpark. On the evidence of what Gurney himself did in War’s Embers, some of the poems of early 1919 in Rewards of Wonder, whatever their theme, are likely to show considerable Georgian influence, and the later poems to be far less formal but rhyming, half-rhyming, off-rhyming, sometimes almost secretly-rhyming, with chattering rhythms and dictions of a faint-heard music alternating with the conventionally ‘poetic’.
Kavanagh wrote that Gurney ‘was not a Georgian poet who “broke down” but one who consciously though unprogrammatically broke away, and was, as far as he knew, on his own, fortified by his beloved Whitman’. Rewards of Wonder must surely show that conscious breakaway gathering definition from 1919 to 1924, even its programme becoming more apparent. Of the 102 poems of which the book is to consist, ‘over a half ... have never before been published’; but of the other half we already know 29 from Kavanagh’s edition – ‘On Somme’, ‘Laventie’, ‘Crucifix Corner’ among them, returned at last from exile in 1919-20. Indeed the conscious journey is just apparent in Walter’s 1996 selection for Everyman, which has the advantage of nearly all recent post-Kavanagh research and so can show a pattern – from Georgianism to breakaway, to springtime and city-searching and an absolute absence of war. But there is no abrupt fracture after committal, no change of poetic direction. Forcibly removed from the possibilities of cities, community, countryside, Gurney had to continue his search in what was left him: memory and reading. He cannot look in cities? Then he will look back to the trenches, his only intimate experience of multitude, and discover there what he seeks. In that curious quality of peacefulness and change there begin to appear the love of comrades, their numbers and difference, beauty seen in landscapes of horror, promise in nightmare skies. He reinvents trench-life so as to send – as socialists frustrated by circumstance have always sent – a personal News from Nowhere out of whatever materials of mind and memory are to hand; then further explores and considers other wars, times, creative spirits. This sense of persistence, and this view of Gurney, does not mean that Walter’s Everyman edition is the better book: Kavanagh’s is almost always better in its sensitivity to the poem as craft. But Walter’s 140 poems (as against Kavanagh’s 228), with only 14 that are not in Kavanagh, show the actual pattern, the route sanity took.
There are other views. Michael Hurd began The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney with an asseveration of madness simply by publishing one of the most unhinged and harrowing of the late pleas for release, and ended with the judgment that it would be wrong to claim for Ivor Gurney the status of a neglected major poet: a clear case of shunting forwards. And twenty years later, Hurd goes further: ‘Gurney was working, largely, within the traditions of a settled musical language where procedures are either right or wrong, and even innovations keep touch with the norm ... The musical equivalent of what Edmund Blunden so aptly referred to as Gurney’s “gnarled” poetic style grates somewhat on my sensibilities.’ This denial of Kavanagh’s breakaway v. breakdown understanding of Gurney seems, ultimately, to deny all originality to any act of creation, and certainly disallows Gurney’s quite central desire for change, indeed his persistent need to change and change again, irrespective of any ‘norm’.
The publication four years ago of two of Gurney’s working notebooks as ‘Best Poems’ and ‘The Book of Five Makings’ tells much about his changing, chopping methods. Both notebooks are of 1925 and 1926 and, as printed, show his early versions beneath extensive crossings-out and between other marks – ‘/’, ‘>’, ‘<’ – indicating further shifts, stresses, line-breaks, indentations. The sense of progress, change by change, draft by draft – all the great war-recalling poems I have mentioned among them – is doubtless of great interest to other poets. But anyone can be pulled up short by shock. These lines, for instance, appear in a version of ‘The Silent One’:
Till the politest voice – a finicking accent, said –
‘Do you think you might crawl through there,
Gurney, there’s a hole’
with the ‘Gurney’ crossed out. Here, suddenly, is the reality of a distant experience now being re-created in a staggering poem of comradeship and class, even (since he seems in every other way consistent) class war. Other subjects continue as always since confinement – ‘the Elizabethans, Gloucester, France, London, people and places from his reading and memory: the inhabitants and geography of his mind’, as Thornton and Walter list the themes, in their introduction to ‘Best Poems’ and ‘The Book of Five Makings’. I suppose the word ‘France’ is meant to cover the late asylum poems of war/peace, almost of struggle/utopia. At about the same time as Best Poems, Gurney launched himself into a huge series about America, an atlas of the Civil War to hand, obsessed as he had been from Severn and Somme onwards with comparing one battlefield to another. Nor have his beliefs changed: happy that the common soldiers of the North have Whitman to speak for them, he despairs that there is no one to speak for the Southern commoners. This is the same voice that identified Prussians on both sides in 1917 (‘To the Prussians of England’), that later treasured the names of Hancocks, Monger, the Bucks chatterer, the Welsh pit boys and all the others who, with him, had been killing Germans: the Union and the South, soldiers of the same country; English and German working men, the same squaddie class.
Not much later, the musicians, warriors, poets, the personae in Gurney’s head, deafened, then silenced him. He often refused to speak, and only became outgoing, almost garrulous, when Edward Thomas’s widow Helen had the wit to bring him maps of Gloucestershire which they used to trace the walks that Gurney and her husband had, separately, so enjoyed. Yet still – dates are usually vague – he wrote some poems, in a sort of resignation, a sort of Prospero’s burial, another peace. He wrote one at least in 1929, since it is written on the back of a letter dated that year. Unaccountably doubted, though included by Kavanagh, the poem is surely saying that Gurney has done all he can in the emptiness of non-companionship but that it has been worth it because he foresees, as Morris foresaw in A Dream of John Ball, a future in which the things he believes in will prevail:
All night the fierce wind blew,
All night I knew
Time, like a dark wind, blowing
All days, all lives, all memories
Down empty endless skies –
A blind wind, strowing
Bright leaves of life’s torn tree
Through blank eternity;
Dreadfully swift. Time blew.
All night I knew
The outrush of its going.
At dawn a thin rain wept.
Worn out, I slept
And woke to a fair morning.
My days were amply long, and I content
In their accomplishment –
Lost the wind’s warning.
Historically it has been the musicians, from Finzi to Michael Hurd, who have given the most thorough consideration to Marion Scott’s belief in Gurney’s sanity, and have to a large extent shaped perceptions of the poetry as well. In truth, considered debate is much the same for poem or song, as perhaps Vaughan Williams was the first to see. The double CD set which steals Gurney’s title War’s Embers for a collection of songs by six composers (Gurney included) contains exquisite performances by Michael George (bass), Martyn Hill (tenor), Stephen Varcoe (baritone) and Clifford Benson (pianist). The words and music ache with nostalgia for a ‘lost’ world – or, in Gurney’s case, perhaps, with a yearning for worlds to be ‘gained’. Together the discs contain 41 tracks, 28 by Gurney, the other 13 used chiefly as breaks between his larger sets. It is good to have ‘The Five Elizas’, which established him before the war, performed as a group, but maddening to have them immediately preceded by two much later songs. As for that other famous group of four written in the trenches (though not, admittedly, as a sequence), ‘In Flanders’, ‘By a Bierside’ and ‘Severn Meadows’ are blown apart to become numbers 1, 4 and 9 in an opening set made up otherwise of much later work; and the fourth, the wonderful ‘Even Such Is Time’, is swept clean off that disc onto the other.
Until last year 87 of the roughly three hundred songs which Gurney left had been published. Last year two more were added in Eleven Songs (Thames, 1998), and four more are due in Seven Sappho Songs from the same publisher this year, bringing the published total to 93. But the chief interest in Hurd’s introduction to Eleven Songs is again its ‘gnarling’ anathema: ‘moments of sheer genius are undermined by moments of sheer incompetence ... The same is true of his poetry.’ And this of a setting of Edward Thomas’s ‘Cock-Crow’: ‘thickets of semi-quavers that threaten to engulf ... accidentals that distress almost every bar ... harmonic complications ... harmonic problems.’
The Gurney songs on these War’s Embers discs, on the other hand, can be taken to fulfil Hurd’s nostalgic requirement: the notion of a mad Georgian finally broken down rather than a truly modern spirit breaking away as Kavanagh so clearly saw. (Gurney’s own letters to Debussy, Reger, Scriabin, Sibelius and others say as much.) Richard Carder and the English Poetry and Song Society, which last year premiered Seven Sappho Songs in London, seem to be exerting the pressure to publish more – the Edward Thomas setting in Eleven Songs, for example – and Carder speaks of ‘at least thirty more good songs which could be published with minimal editorial interference’. One is constantly reminded of Gerald Finzi’s astonished generosity on first discovering this Tutankamun’s tomb of music: ‘Even the late 1925 asylum songs, though they get more and more involved (and at the same time more disintegrated, if you know what I mean), have a curious coherence ... A neat mind would smooth away the queernesses, yet time and familiarity will probably show something not so mistaken after all, about the queer and odd things.’
Read the poet as, fifty years ago, Finzi prepared himself and us to read the musician, and Gurney becomes one in that long line of writers – Smart, Swift, Cowper, Blake, Clare – to whom madness is imputed so that the chance of hearing what they clearly say is muffled, and in that other lineage – Shelley, Morris, Edward Thomas – whose radical sanity is masked by veils of assertion that they are lovely, folksy, romantic dreamers only. This is perhaps the bravest lineage there is in English: and Gurney, emerging now as a major poet after all, does it real honour.