dweller in shadows: a life of Ivor Gurney

Kate Kennedy

ISBN 978-0-691-21278-4  Princeton  £30.


In the early pages of this book is a photograph of Gurney playing the piano, presumably at home in Gloucester where his father David ran a tailor’s shop and his mother Florence was a somewhat distant, unaffectionate presence. It’s dated September 1905, when he would have been just fifteen. He’s looking over his left shoulder , his hands on the keys; his hair slicked from a parting on the left; he wears a big, white collar which looks starched, a dark jacket and what appear to be formal trousers. This was long before the creation of the teenager, but Gurney in this iteration could pass for ten. His expression is childlike and guileless. The portrait is posed and  speaks of obedience, delayed maturity, vicarious parental ambition.  

Perhaps there is a small hint here of Gurney’s troubles. In 1922 he was incarcerated in Stone House mental asylum, Dartford, where he stayed for the rest of his life, not his first sojourn in such an institution. The appellation “asylum” is a cruel joke: far from safety and protection, Dartford divorced him from his fulfilments, stripped him of hope and almost certainly worsened his condition. 

Psychiatric diagnosis remains uncertain, in 1922 it was hopeless. Gurney was beset by difficulties from fairly early. He was diagnosed insane. He tried to kill himself, believed he had been inserted into the anus of a policeman, that electrical forces were controlling him, that machines under the floorboards were conspiring. He clearly needed help, but the label “insane” (without lapsing into Laingian anti-psychiatry) was probably more a convenience for those charged with his care than an understanding of his condition. Not to tumble into glib Freudianism either, but his relationship with his mother can’t have helped him to emotional stability. She didn’t attend his funeral claiming “indisposition”. She seems to have been one of those women, probably numerous in her time when the opportunities for her sex were few, who go through the motions of marriage and motherhood without ever feeling connected to either their spouse or children.  

Gurney’s godfather, Alfred Cheesman, remembered him as “so full of joy and beautiful things”, the common view of  friends and acquaintances from childhood and adolescence. He was clearly brimming with life, love, generosity, creativity and imagination. His musical ability was recognised when he was small and he enrolled at the Royal College of Music on 8 May 1911( Kennedy makes a small mistake here; a few pages after recording this date, she has him starting in 1913). Along with him was his organ scholar friend from Gloucester, Herbert Howells. Gurney was taught by Charles Villiers Stanford. Kennedy recounts the composer leading the student from the teaching room by the ear, as Howells looked on in horror. Once again, a suggestion of infantilisation which might suggest why Gurney was so conflicted.  

But for the madness of the First World War ( much easier to diagnose than Gurney’s) he might have found his way through to an artistic life in the capital, in congenial company, in spite of the instability of his moods, his tendency to throw himself into things with exaggerated enthusiasm only to find his resolve fading. He signed up in 1914 under the pressure of insistent propaganda, was rejected because of poor eyesight while his closest friend F.W.Harvey was recruited, but was admitted in 1915, bad eyes notwithstanding. A few months in the trenches and he was to write: 

            If it were not for England, who would bear
This heavy servitude one moment more? 

For England? The war wasn’t fought for the people. It was a battle amongst the rich. 

Gurney warmed to the ordinary soldiers: 

“The less that is said of our musical tastes the better; but in full chestedness and knowledge of ragtime etc we excel…And our talk is rough, a dialect telling of days in the open air and no books.” 

The comment about musical tastes is interesting: Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag was a hit in 1899. By 1915, ragtime was well established. Joplin was classically trained and his work was innovative. Perhaps Gurney was in thrall to the musical snobbery of the time (and the commonplace racism of course) which couldn’t find significant musical value in a popular form like ragtime or jazz. The latter was in its infancy when Gurney joined the forces. Armstrong didn’t start doing his good work till the early 1920s. Perhaps Gurney, the diligent, compliant, clean-behind-the-ears boy at the piano felt too powerful a need to please the arbiters of taste. Today, few serious pianists would dismiss Joplin as a mere crowd-pleaser.  

In the trenches, Gurney read the Georgians, Masefield appealing in particular. He set some of his poems, of course, and got to know him. He was fond of Houseman’s work too. Masefield and Houseman are skilled poets and Eliot’s dismissive comment about the Georgians was unfair, but the world evoked by Houseman and Masefield died in the Great War. Kennedy tends to evoke Eliot and Pound as touchstones of poetic modernism. Perhaps Apollinaire is a better example. He was alert to the change in sensibility, and though he fought and was injured in the 1914-18 war, he exhibited neither Pound’s predilection for fascism nor Eliot’s nostalgic monarcho-religiosity. In a note, Kennedy quotes Donald Davie’s view of Gurney as more modernist than the modernists, especially in his ability to bring his everyday experience into his work. Yet it’s hard not to feel that Gurney was in some degree left behind. He set Houseman’s On The Idle Hill of Summer which Kennedy sees as slightly ambivalent about war but still essentially patriotic. Did Gurney, in spite of typifying his military training as “a waste of spirit in an expense of shame” ever become thoroughly cynical about the Great War? Did he retain some of Masefield’s belief that it was “most grand to die”? Cynicism was necessary and has become more prevalent, the wars of the twentieth century unable to conceal their dishonesty and venality beneath a veneer of patriotism. Wasn’t Gurney too much in the camp of the patriots? Wasn’t it a step too far for him to rail against the war as the sacrifice of the common folk for the sake of the wealthy and powerful? What was to come was Prévert, Ferlinghetti, Ginsburg, Adrian Mitchell: poetry at war with war per se. Did Davie believe Gurney adumbrated this?  

Kennedy acknowledges that Gurney had a foot in both camps, but this was surely a terrible tension, a mental conflict which might have collapsed a much more stable mind. He wanted to believe in the sensibility at work in Houseman, Masefield, de la Mare, but it had been murdered: the twentieth century had been born and it was heading for fascism, genocide and totalitarian communism. What use were rural idylls against those?  

The Great War was the seminal event. It was an industrial war made possible by industrialism and it bombed into extinction the notion of a life in harmony with nature. It was a metaphor for the denaturing of humanity. Henceforth, any attempt to “re-enchant humanity (as Murray Bookchin puts it), had to be willing to face down the dishonesty of the money system. Gurney was far too embedded in a retrospective attachment to a blissful old English countryside for that.  

Interestingly, Lawrence shared Gurney’s identification with the beauty of his native county, but he had an edge of cynicism culled from the bitter conflicts of his childhood and a disdain for capitalism native to the thinking son of a miner. Gurney had no such bulwarks. Lawrence destroyed himself physically by refusing to the end to believe his TB was anything but “bronchials”. Gurney was destroyed mentally by overwhelming cultural conflicts besetting a mind which may well have been fragile by nature.  

Kennedy comments about Gurney after the publication of his first two poetry collections: “..he was still a long way from being a recognised establishment figure.” Is that what he wanted ? Perhaps or probably; but it was an ambition devoutly to be doubted. Had he been able to conceive himself as an anti-establishment poet ( ie opposed to the literary as much as the economic and political establishment) he might have discovered a saving hinterland. The literary establishment of the time was deeply conservative in every way while Gurney’s insights and sensibility were pushing him to question. Davie is right to that extent: Gurney was beginning to elaborate a poetry which suggested something was rotten in the State of Britain. Then, as now, this is something the various establishments are determined not to hear and intent on closing down. Of course, it would be absurd to suggest any kind of conspiracy to confine Gurney to an asylum; but conspiracies aren’t necessary to bring about what is convenient. The right kind of subtle nod-and-wink culture will suffice.  

Interestingly, Kennedy writes of Barnwood House Hospital where Gurney was confined in 1922 : “Another major advantage…was that it was privately run, which meant…affluent relatives had an influence on the treatment…”. Yet two pages later she notes: “..doctors were overturning the…recommendations for patients’ releases, in order to maintain high numbers (and thereby high revenues)…”. A major disadvantage from any reasonably dispassionate perspective. The contradiction reveals Gurney’s plight: private or public, the asylums of the time were a cruel disgrace, no place for any distressed person, let alone an artist of high talents. 

Gurney complained of being controlled by outside forces. Kennedy points out that persecutory delusions are common in schizophrenics and “ for a disturbed soldier”. Delusions sometimes have an uncanny correspondence to reality: as Kennedy says, soldiers are supposed to be under outside control, not to think and act for themselves. Armies are dehumanising institutions because it is given in our nature to choose how to act. Gurney was undoubtedly seriously disturbed but his nightmare visions were in keeping with the horror of army life and the despair of war.  

Iliad and Badminton was written between  1925 and 1926. It is quoted in full. Kennedy describes it as a “sweeping spectrum of allusion” and says “It is not  poem concerned with its readership” comparing it in this regard to Pound’s Cantos. That a poem has no concern for its readership is a bizarre conception, even if the readership is no more than Peter Porter’s two or three. Perhaps she is struggling here to find coherence where it is breaking down. The poem is a failure. Poetry is made of externalised language and that, as Chomsky points out, is a mess. The internal capacity, on the other hand, exhibits all the signs of perfection, ie it is perfectly formed to do what it does : make abstract thought possible (to argue the language faculty emerged for abstract thought is a step too far-we play the piano with our fingers but is that what they evolved for ?). Poetry takes the mess of externalised language and by recognising its capacity for rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, allusion and so on, turns it into something organised and beautiful (even when it speaks of ugly things like war or rape). That process makes no sense unless there is a mind, at least one, to receive it. Internal language is far more condensed and rapid than external, which is easy to demonstrate: at the end of the day, try running its events through your mind. Time how long it takes. Then try putting that into externalised language. It will take much, much longer. Between the extraordinary, swift efficiency of internal language and the slow messiness of the externalised form, comes the process of selection and organisation whose sole purpose is to make what we say or write intelligible or pleasing.  

Pound may or may not have been insane. Some believe he feigned madness to avoid the death penalty for treason. What is not in doubt is his support for fascism, his racism, and his admiration for Mussolini. Joyce seems never to have suffered serious mental disturbance, but his daughter did. In their work perhaps it’s possible to detect a disturbance in the processing between internal and externalised language. Maybe this is akin to the disturbance which gets people labelled schizophrenic. All our minds are divided between inner and outer. Maybe a disturbance in the pathway from one to the other can lead to Finnegans Wake or the asylum. 

Gurney was influenced, at least distantly, by Whitman and Hopkins: curious bedfellows. Whitman is often described as the great egotist, but his sense of self-hood is expansive and self-surpassing. Egotism is rather the narcissistic self-obsession characteristic of people whose sense of self is poorly established. Whitman is pleased with himself because he finds life full of miracles. Hopkins existed at the other extreme. His gloom and self-denial (as a young man he went without liquids for a week out of a conviction people over-indulged in quenching their thirst and ended up with a blackened tongue – his conviction defied the evidence: we have a fairly poor thirst response) were pathological. Ricks thinks Hopkins the most original poet of the nineteenth century. That is surely a judgement of technique and Hopkins’s technique is retrospective, sprung rhythm being an attempt to recover the Old English he thought superior to the language of his time. That apart, wherein lies Hopkins’s originality? His world-view evinces not a trace of originality; how could it, being the received wisdom of first the Anglican and then the Catholic Church? Gurney lacked Whitman’s easy-going cockiness, his tilted hat and loafing, casual everyman sensibility. Whitman’s style is this sensibility made manifest (le style, c’est l’homme même, after all). On the other hand, Hopkins’s seeking after ecstasy in the midst of his pathological melancholy is baked into his poetry and can’t have done much good to the ailing Gurney.  

Gurney had a go at writing plays in the mid-1920’s. A Doll’s House premiered in 1879, Sean O’Casey had written The Shadow of a Gunman, yet Gurney wrote in iambic pentameter a play set in 900 AD. Perhaps we can put this down to his crumbling sanity, but it reveals a radical failure to understand what was happening in European drama, and also to intuit how the work of Ibsen and his followers was driven by actual and incipient social changes. Kennedy points out that others, Blunden for example, were evoking “Old England” but all the attempts were failures: they were hopeless responses to, not only advancing industrialism and technology ( radio, air conditioning, aircraft, lightbulbs, tractors, the Tommy gun) but changed social relations. There was no way back to a putative simpler time when people knew their place and there was social peace. The Triple Alliance had shown itself powerful enough to take on not only employers but also government. Looking back to “Old England” was a refusal to see the reality of the twentieth century.  

Gurney left behind a remarkable body of work, much not given the respect it deserves. His musical production was prolific. Kennedy is a musicologist able to open up Gurney’s compositions to readers less schooled in musical theory. That she is capable of both intelligent literary criticism and expert musical comment is impressive. As is her biographical talent. Her book has already stimulated some interest in Gurney’s work which has rescued it from partial obscurity: songs on Radio 3 and an excellent programme on the same wavelength narrated by the author.  

Gurney deserved much better treatment. He deserved a much better society. His work began to give expression to his incipient sense of the need for social change. It’s to be hoped this thorough, sympathetic book will bring him the attention he was denied while he lived, and perhaps also prevent today’s or tomorrow’s Gurney suffering a similar fate.