World and time: discovering Ivor Gurney


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?

Adrian Barlow
4 June 2011

[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.

Information about all residential weekend courses held at Madingley Hall, home of the University of Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education (ICE).

ICE has just announced its new Madingley Weekly Programme, to be launched in January 2012.


# Garry Headland 2011-06-04 21:07 A curious name, Ivor Gurney, recalling Ivor Novello and Peter Barne’s fictitious 14th Earl of Gurney. The New Oxford Book of English Verse has no mention of him and The Penguin Book of English Verse has only four of his poems, my favourite being ‘The Silent One’. ‘To His Love’, included in Adrian’s edition of ‘Six Poets of the Great War’, has a final line which reminds me of a famous poem by Rimbaud, ‘Le Dormeur du Val’ – ‘that red wet / Thing I must somehow forget’, a euphemism for the fatal wound that Rimbaud reserves as a surprise for what he leads the reader to believe is a sleeping soldier – ‘He has two red holes in his right side’. Reading this blog I have discovered another musical poet, Basil Bunting. Gurney, though, must be the only poet I’ve come across who can hear bullets whizzing – and think of music. Ivor Novello’s first big hit was the WWI song ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’, which was still popular as a campfire song when I was in the Scouts. Curiouser and curiouser. Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# Peter Smith 2011-06-06 18:57 SEVERN MEADOWS-A Sequence on the life, poetry and song of IVOR GURNEY narrated by PETER FLORENCE,Actor & Director,Hay Festival, with Marcus Farnsworth, Baritone, James Baillieu, Piano, Winners of the Wigmore Hall International Song Competition. Sunday 2nd October - 3pm The Great Hall, Malvern College. Tickets £12 front, £10 rear. 10% discount on tickets before August 1st. Contact Artistic Director on E Mail above or phone 01684 569721. Part of the Autumn in Malvern Festival. Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# Adrian Barlow 2011-06-10 14:25 I have just watched a DVD of a film made by Bristol-based Redcliffe Films ( Entitled 'Somme and Severn', it is a moving portrait of the life of Ivor Gurney, and I am happy to recommend it. Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# anthea page 2013-06-01 00:06 Dear Adrian. thank you for your kind comments about Severn and Somme.
the film has been booked for major music and arts festival next year, The three Choirs festival, worcester, Cheltenham Music Festiva, Clifton Cathedral Music Festival, St Ives Arts Festival, Truro festival. we are currently inproduction on a documentary about the Cornish composer george Lloyd, centenary this year, featured on the last night of the BBC proms 2013.
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