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Review of Ivor Gurney's Collected Poems - Virginia Rounding, Sunday Telegraph, 14th March 2004
Ivor Bertie Gurney was born in 1890 in Gloucester where he became a choirboy and an organ scholar, imbibing that rich tradition of anglican choral music and psalmody which had such an effect on his own work. He went on to study at the Royal College of Music where his composition tutor considered him one of the finest students he had ever had, surpassing in potential even Vaughan Williams.Previous review of 'Collected Poems'... To the 'Collected Poems' page...
Ivor, however, was an unstable character, prone to bouts of depression, eating disorders and generally odd behaviour. His experiences in the First World War, in which he served as a private; exacerbated these problems; he returned from the front incapable of holding down any kind of employment or of maintaining normal relationships.
He was never dangerous, though; he loved walking long distances at night, he was sometimes convinced he was being attacked by radio waves, he gave up sleeping and some of his poems betray an obsession with washing (which he called 'laving'). His family could not cope with his peculiarities - or his need for money - and in 1922 he was committed to an asylum. He remained confined the rest of his life, dying of TB on the last day of 1937.
By summarising Gurney's life thus, I have already disappointed his editor P. J. Kavanagh, who writes: 'my dearest wish would be for the reader to approach him first with no knowledge at all of his medical history.' Gurney himself often seemed able to ignore that medical history - the poems he wrote while confined rarely mention hs surroundings - just as he was earlier able to imagine himself back in his beloved Gloucestershire while sitting in a trench, and to compose poems and songs in the English pastoral idiom against the din of exploding shells. He maintained a sort of detachment in order to write- except for those moments of awful lucidity where he recognised himself as 'wasting in one/ Packed ward, where ceiling flat-white is for heaven'.
The fruits of Gurney's life are some exquisite song-settings, and a collection of admittedly uneven poetry, some of which is as lyrical and heartrending as his best songs. Sometimes
he combined his two talents, setting a number of his own lyrics to music - most notably 'The Wanderer', whose concluding lines ' Do not forget me quite,/ O Severn meadows' are quoted in a memorial to him in Gloucester Cathedral.
Gurney's Collected Poems were first published in 1982; in this revised and corrected edition the poems have been ordered differently to present a clearer picture of the poet's progress, the gradual disintegration of his mind shot through with flashes of clarity.
Even people who do not normally read poetry will be touched by the story of Ivor Gurney, as portrayed in his own words - for he is not as 'detached' as he may at first appear. Many of his war poems include details about the life of the common soldier missing from the works of officer-poets, while his best short poems, as the darkness began to close around him, are unassuming, direct and memorable in their sorrowful simplicity:
The songs I had are withered
Or varnished clean
yet there are bright tracks
Where i have been,
And there grow flowers
For others' delight.
Think well, O singer
Soon comes night.
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