A new biography of Ivor Gurney, review



Scott was Gurney’s literary executor, and before and after his death she tried, for reasons of decorum and convenience, to attribute her suffering to the shock of the shells. We can hardly blame her; how much more consoling it was to group him with tens of thousands of other men, in shared misery, than to address the brutal idea that Gurney’s troubled mind was his own. Scott was, in any case, infinitely nicer than Gurney’s brother, Ronald, who was totally of the opinion that Ivor, being “rather an unworthy person”, needed no more than “a good conversation. “. (Ronald’s threatening comment, when confronted with the manuscripts of his late brother’s poems, was “Maybe I’ll get tough and need fuel to warm myself up.”) Kennedy is able to measure his subject matter. from a distance, at a quieter distance, without blurring. out of prejudice. His cautious assessment is that Gurney’s condition “falls broadly into the category of schizoaffective disorder.”

If you are tempted, even now, by the lingering romantic illusion that there might be greatness, or finesse, in the prospect of a besieged creative mind, Ivor Gurney’s ordeal will set you right. The details of its collapse, as presented by Kennedy, are acrid, capricious and desperate. The four years that have passed between what Gurney has called the “thud, clatter, belching of war” and his permanent confinement have been the most unruly of his life. His appearance deteriorated; he alternated between starving and gorging on cakes; and he veered between London and various rural retreats. Unable to endure the tensions of his parental home (his father died in May 1919), he rented a dilapidated cottage, alone, or stayed with other families, who had to face his eccentric regime. One of them, Kennedy tells us, “got into the habit of leaving a window open through which he could come and go, as if he were some sort of nocturnal pet.” The night march was a custom of Gurney, and some of his finest works are intensely alive in the birth and death of daylight: “The Dawn Stained in Military Colors”; “The sunset dies in a choking of something like love, / With dew and stars hanging from elm and half-witted owl cries.” Beauty is never indifferent.

Yet nothing about Gurney is more moving than the courage he displayed during this capricious time. Despite his difficulties, he resumed his studies at the Royal College of Music and was fortunate to be taught by the newly appointed Ralph Vaughan Williams, who would become a mentor to his art and a source of emotional support. It is to this period that we owe Gurney’s “Gloucestershire Rhapsody”, an orchestral work which, as Kennedy says, “never seems to focus on a single theme: dances and a march past, before ‘they have not really been recorded’. She also investigates “Ludlow and Teme”, a setting to music of seven poems by AE Housman for tenor, piano and string quartet, noting, in one song, “a surprising and unsettling violence; much more than what is present or requested in Housman’s text. We are at the heart of Gurney’s enigma: where does musical ingenuity end and where does mental volatility begin? So many of his songs are like interrupted idylls, taking us on the wrong foot with their surprising harmonic shifts, as if we had gone from grass to brambles. Should we revere such an instinct for the unforeseen, or pity the anxious grief that lurks beneath?

Gurney endured his conflicts, as a free agent, until 1922. In September of that year he was declared insane and taken to Barnwood House Asylum in Gloucester. The cause of his condition was attributed to his military service, and the symptoms were ominously repetitive. “Gurney believed he was bothered by the wireless and was being fed electric meals,” Kennedy wrote, adding, “He felt like his brain was ripped out.” He heard voices claiming they came from the police, “but he never disclosed the crime he was accused of committing and which resulted in his punishment.” Some of the voices were secular, and we learn of a specific fantasy – “that it had somehow been inserted into a policeman’s anus” – that is unprecedented in its mix of carnal obsession. , of shame and fear of authority.

Gurney didn’t last long at Barnwood. He was placed under suicidal surveillance and fled twice, once to a railroad tracks, where he could not muster the will to jump. (“No trains at the critical time.”) In December he was transferred to the City of London Mental Hospital, which was not, in fact, in the city but in Dartford, on the south bank of the Thames, in halfway to the sea. The building was known as the Stone House, “a place where one cannot be happy”. After ten days, according to Kennedy, Gurney lost track of time. He had had enough. But he would stay at Stone House for fifteen years and die there.

Is it frivolous or wrong to delve into “Dweller in Shadows” in search of light? No, not only because the poet set such a brave example, delving into his memories and recovering old glimmers of bliss, but also because of the compassion that was shown by his most curious doctors, as well as the assurance – the glow of undeterred friendship – that was brought by the people who loved him. Howells found the hospital unbearable, but Edward Thomas’ widow, Helen, visited Gurney at least twice, and the most distinguished visitor was Vaughan Williams, “often bringing a troupe of Royal College musicians with him” . Scott, too, has always been loyal in his attentions, although it seems from Kennedy’s devastating account that when a plan has been incubated for the release of Gurney, under the care of a sympathetic professional, it is Scott who opposes it. Could it be that, having committed to nourishing and cradling another soul, she could no longer imagine her freedom?

The miracle is that out of Gurney’s imprisonment there arose a wave of inventions. In 1925 alone, by Kennedy’s calculations, he wrote fifty-seven songs, five choral works, two organ pieces, five violin works, eleven string quartets, a piano sonata and a prelude. The flood wasn’t just about music either; two volumes of Gurney’s “Complete Poetic Works” will be needed to account for his writings of 1925 and 1926. It was not until the following year that the waters began to recede, although even then he sought new ones. companies, rewriting Shakespeare to his liking, and in his own distressing idiom: “Lose my power overnight, go overseas, hidden, stowed under,” exclaims Gurney’s Prospero. To some extent, Gurney seemed to think he has been Shakespeare, and also that, as his medical notes say, “Beethoven and Haydn never existed, Patient having composed all their music. Much more obscure in the sometimes completely incomprehensible speech. The past decade has been marked by retreats into silence, outbursts of aggression, frantic letter writing and physical decay. On Boxing Day 1937, Gurney succumbed to tuberculosis. His body resembled that of an old man.

His biography, on the other hand, is stimulating and robust. A reading of “Dweller in Shadows” forces you to ask yourself: Gurney was not a modernist, but in what capacity do we treat his rushing and hurrying effusions as the testimony of inner disarray, while the deposition of fragments, in the hands of TS Eliot, is seen as a strategy of great deliberation and cunning? Is Gurney a poet of nature, a poet of war, or the two linked tightly together with unprecedented strength? (“Merry drifts of leaves rumble under the January stars.”) And what can we learn from what Kennedy calls crossing creative boundaries – “letters that were poems, poems that were letters, a transmission between shapes ”?

The deepest impression of his book, however, is that it becomes the portrait of a hero. To be assailed as Gurney was, to realize that roadblocks would persist in peacetime, and yet insist on reporting back, in music or in verse, is not evidence of surrender but of mastery and quiet magnificence. When I read a poem like “The Not-Returning”, it is I who collapses. Ivor Gurney keeps order, albeit narrowly, and the soldiers on:

Now never comes the clear right through
Fatigue of the body on crispy straw lying down,
Neither the tired thing said
Content before clean sleep closes its eyes,
Or never ascent without resistance
Images of distant countries to the west, to the west as far as the eye can see.
No more fun comes from the lighted dark roof
With a twinkle under the candles nor a rich darkness above,
Faces clarified and moving hands shuffling the cards,
Good conscience, free spirit on the march towards
Poetry, friends, the old earthly rewards.
They don’t come anymore. No more.
Only restless research, hard work,
Go out to watch the stars, blindly stumble through the difficult door. ♦


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