Ivor Gurney: Severn & Somme and War’s Embers
Two titles re-issued in a single volume, Edited by R K R Thornton
Published by MidNAG and Carcanet Press.
1987 hardback (original price clipped off)
Ivor Gurney 1890-1937
This particular publication is probably unavailable except by lucky finds in secondhand bookshops. Various reprints and collections are also around and in progress is a complete OUP volume.
As with many known poets there are innumerable websites offering biography, bibliography, assorted poetry and societies for Ivor Gurney. I will mention this link: The Friends of the Dymock poets website too as it is related in countryside and poets and writings. i.e. Gloucestershire, W.W1 , scenic poetry, Edward Thomas and so on.
Once you have read the poems, of any poet, then is the time to search out details of their life and re-read……. if you like what they have to say.
Ivor Gurney was not purely a War Poet, probably still known as much for his music and settings of music for his poetry and that of others. These days he is ranked with other War Poets, quite rightly, and this collection alone would place him there. The First World War saw his two poetry collections published but much more followed. Born in Gloucester, a chorister, a seriously promising start at London School of Music. His favourite composer was Bach and he had a love of all Elizabethan poetry and song. Writing during the war he admitted that his poetry may be getting published but his greatest love and concern for the future was his music. He composed songs for his and others’ poetry/words even while in the trenches. His life was blotted by depression and heavily so from 1922 when he went into an asylum and then to London Mental Hospital in Dartford, Kent. He stayed there until his death of TB in 1937.
He continued writing poetry throughout this last period but music tailed off in 1926.
This book is a single volume of his two collections published in WW1. It Includes the original introductions but also includes information on the composition of each book and notes from Gurney’s annotation of Marion Scott’s own copies, now in Gloucester library. These notes of when and where the poems were written and details of alterations are so useful if you wish to delve deeper.
His poetry has risen in profile over the last ten, twenty years and especially his later poetry appearing in new editions and anthologies. This collection was primarily written during the war, from camps to second line and front-line trenches, also whilst in hospital during recuperation from wounds and illness. (Bullet wound in right arm).
The Ivor Gurney Society have an image of a manuscript covered in trench mud suggesting writing music and poetry was a way of distracting himself and keeping off the tremors of warfare and no doubt depression too.
His subjects here are limited to variations on war and reminiscence of his native Gloucestershire and area, key subjects throughout his life. Pictures that vary from resting in a town in France to the act of killing a man; the open spaces, views and hills of Gloucestershire, Severn and Cotswolds and Gloucester, his place of birth.
There is a poem dedicated to Edward Thomas in this collection and his widow, Helen, visited Gurney at some time when in the mental hospital. It may just be reciprocation/appreciation of the poet’s work but I like to think that as they walked the same area they must have met.
Gurney’s love of Elizabethan verse and song comes through in many of his poems but his variation in rhyme schemes and length push through too. In line with more modern style and rhythms (of the day) his poetry is usually descriptive but at times with a knock that can change the tone in a phrase part-way or at the last. Modernism creeps into his work, end-rhyming and metre is important and often regular but use of length and language ensures variety. An intriguing writer, nearer Edward Thomas in part but still following his own paths and language.
But then all his poetry whether of calmer time off-duty (in the Estaminet, (small cafe)), sitting and waiting while shells burst all around or of nurses in Hospital, is descriptive and of the moment. The nostalgia, the vision, of his love and memory for the people and especially the scenery of his beloved countryside shines through. His use of language may sometimes trip less easily on first reading where the Elizabethan shades are used but the content and emotion of the poet ring true. His writing and skill may well move on from these war years but take note of To His Love and wonder if it could be bettered.
Poems I have picked out from this collection as today’s favourites are: Strafe, The Estaminet, Sonnets 1917 (2, Pain), The Farm, Hospital Pictures (2, Dust), On Rest.
And the last two as below. The Lock keeper and To His Love
From Severn & Somme :
To His Love
He’s gone, and all our plans
Are useless indeed.
We’ll walk no more on Cotswold
Where the sheep feed
Quietly and take no heed.
His body that was so quick
Is not as you
Knew it, on Severn river
Under the blue
Driving our small boat through.
You would not know him now…
But still he died
Nobly, so cover him over
With violets of pride
Purple from Severn side.
Cover him, cover him soon!
And with thick-set
Masses of memoried flowers
Hide that red wet
Thing I must somehow forget.
From: War’s Embers:
(To the Memory of Edward Thomas)
A tall 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. Able at digging, he
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; sayings his father had,
That worked a twelve-hour day when but a lad.
Handy with timber, nothing came amiss
To his quick skill; and all the mysteries
Of sail-making, net making, boat-building were his.
That dark face lit with bright bird-eyes, his stride
Manner most friendly courteous, stubborn pride,
I shall not forget, not yet his patience
With me, unapt, though many a far league hence
I’ll travel for many a year, nor ever find
A winter-night companion more to my mind,
Nor one more wise in ways of Severn river,
Though her villages I search for ever and ever.