Sunday, April 24, 2016

Sunday Poetry - Ivor Gurney

Tomorrow is Anzac Day & I've been reading this new anthology of First World War poetry edited by Tim Kendall so I wanted to feature a war poet in Sunday Poetry today.
Last week I watched this excellent TV program about Ivor Gurney, one of the soldier poets of the Great War (George Simmers's blog is a wonderful resource about the Great War, by the way). Gurney survived the war but spent the last 15 years of his life in an asylum. He was a wonderful poet & musician. He studied at the Royal College of Music & wrote some beautiful songs. Here's a link to Bryn Terfel singing Sleep, one of Gurney's five Elizabethan songs.

One of the poems featured in the program was this one, The Silent One. It was written long after the war, when Gurney was in the asylum. His war experience was central to his life & he revisited it in his poetry during the first years in the asylum. His failure to get his poetry published depressed him further & he seems to have stopped writing after the mid 1920s. He died in 1937.

Who died on the wires, and hung there, one of two  -
Who for his hours of life had chattered through
Infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent:
Yet faced unbroken wires; stepped over, and went
A noble fool, faithful to his stripes  - and ended.
But I weak, hungry, and willing only for the chance
Of line- to fight in the line, lay down under unbroken
Wires, and saw the flashes and kept unshaken,
Till the politest voice - a finicking accent, said:
‘Do you think you might crawl through there: there's a hole.'
Darkness shot at: I smiled, as politely replied –
‘I'm afraid not, Sir.' There was no hole, no way to be seen
Nothing but chance of death, after tearing of clothes.
Kept flat, and watched the darkness, hearing bullets whizzing –
And thought of music - and swore deep heart's oaths
(Polite to God) and retreated and came on again,
Again retreated a second time, faced the screen


  1. Thank you for that link: I have just had an hour of pure joy learning about Ivor Gurney. I knew a little about his life and works, but this put it into perspective and I am glad that his illness had a name - he wasn't just "mad". There are definite parallels between him and Edward Thomas, and they knew one another. It was SO kind of Helen Thomas to visit him (despite her own breakdown following ET's death) and to take him that map of Gloucestershire which - for a while - took him out of what must have seemed like a prison cell. Off now to read the one slim volume I have of Gurney's poetry.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the doco, I thought it was excellent. Poor Ivor, such a sad life yet he managed to produce so much poetry & music. I thought the map episode was very poignant. I could imagine him reliving his walks & remembering happier times.