Ivor Gurney is one of those remarkable voices from the First World War who was both poet and …. Isaac Rosenberg, for instance, was both poet and artist; so was David Jones. Gurney was both poet and composer. And as with Rosenberg and Jones, if we read Gurney’s writing in the context of his other creative activity we can greatly enhance our understanding of both his verse and his music.
Gurney was acutely sensitive to sound, to the spoken voice and to the sounds of the natural world, especially the world he loved – the Gloucestershire valley of the River Severn. Here, as a taste, he writes about a lock-keeper (‘No one more wise in ways of Severn river’):
A tall lean man he was, proud of his gun,
Of his garden, and small fruit trees every one
Knowing all weather signs, the flight of birds,
Farther than I could hear the falling thirds
Of the first cuckoo.
There is much that is characteristic of Gurney in these few lines. You are well into the second line before you meet a word of more than one syllable, and the only technical word in the passage is the reference to ‘thirds’: Gurney unselfconsciously expresses the cry of the cuckoo of spring in terms of the musical interval between the cuc- and the koo. Notice too the sprung syntax (showing what Gurney learnt from Gerard Manley Hopkins): the verb ‘knowing’ refers backwards to the fruit trees and forwards to the weather signs and the flight of birds.
His admiration for the lock-keeper is made clear: what the ‘tall, lean’ countryman knows about the natural world far exceeds what the poet-musician (who was not tall) can hear. A little later in the poem he is struck by the way the older man
Smoked his pipe ever, furiously, contentedly,
Full of old country tales his memory was;
Yarns of both sea and land, full of wise saws
In rough fine speech...
For all that the lock-keeper smokes ‘furiously’, he is content, rooted in the traditions and lore of the countryside. Indeed, like several of the figures in Edward Thomas’s poetry (Lob, for instance, ‘shovel-bearded Bob’ or the ploughman in ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’) the lock-keeper embodies the past and present of the country in a way the poet can only envy. His describing the man’s way of talking as ‘rough fine speech’ suggests Gurney’s admiration for the nobility of one of ‘nature’s gentlemen’. He knows he’ll never find ‘A winter-night companion more to my mind’.
This poem, ‘The Lock-Keeper’, was written in 1918 as a tribute to Edward Thomas, who had been killed at the battle of Arras in April 1917 (where Gurney also fought). It’s one of the most striking facts about the war poets that those who survived were tireless in making sure the voices of their colleagues were still listened to, their poems kept in the public eye. Edmund Blunden in particular, who also edited the poetry of Wilfred Owen, did much to promote Gurney’s work. The two men kept up a long correspondence, and Gurney for his part set some of Blunden’s poems to music.
I would say Gurney has – on the whole - been fortunate in his friends and in his editors and biographers, without whom it would have been all too easy to write him off as a minor provincial who lost his way and his wits after the war. But there has always been a sense that much of his work (his music particularly) remains to be discovered. There has often been a sense, too, that accounts of his work have tended to focus either on his poetry or on his music, rarely both/and.
This is changing. Kate Kennedy, the musicologist, broadcaster and literary scholar, is at work on a new biography of Gurney, and this coming weekend is due to present an important course at Madingley Hall. Discovering Ivor Gurney is designed for everyone interested in learning about Gurney’s life and work and, more generally, about the relationship between music and literature. It is also aimed at performers who would like to hear and to learn some unpublished and previously totally unheard songs, violin and piano music by Gurney.
So, for now, if you need a reminder of how war, music and poetry define Gurney, try this:
Bach and the Sentry
Written in October-November 1916
Watching the dark my spirit rose in flood
On that most dearest Prelude of my delight,
The low lying mist lifted its hood,
The October stars showed nobly in clear night.
When I return, and to real music-making,
And play that Prelude, how will it happen then?
Shall I feel as I felt, a sentry hardly waking,
With a dull sense of No Man's Land again?
[photo: Ivor Gurney (1890-1937)
For further information and booking details of the Madingley Hall course Discovering Ivor Gurney, led by Kate Kennedy, please click here.
The Ivor Gurney Society and the Friends of the Dymock Poets are particularly important in promoting the work of the poets who lived and wrote in Gloucestershire and Herefordshire before and during the Frist World War.
ICE has just announced its new Madingley Weekly Programme, to be launched in January 2012.