How the sanity of poets can be edited away

Arnold Rattenbury

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.

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