Ivor Gurney and the poetry of the First World War
By Tim Kendall
One of the anthologist’s greatest pleasures comes from discovering previously unknown pieces to jostle with the familiar classics. Editing The Poetry of the First World War, I knew that I should need to accommodate ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, ‘The Soldier’, and ‘For the Fallen’. Whatever their qualities, these have become so inextricably part of our understanding that to omit them would be perverse. Yet I wanted to believe that other poems, no less worthy, have been unfairly neglected, either because they tell the kinds of truths which we are unwilling to hear (such as that war can occasionally be enjoyable or exhilarating), or because they have endured the simple bad luck of never having been brought to public attention. This was, after all, a literary War, and poetry was produced in such quantities that the good sometimes sank with the mediocre and the inept.
No war poet better illustrates this fact than Ivor Gurney (1890-1937). Gurney fought in the War with the Gloucesters. He was shot, he was gassed, he was invalidated out, and he spent the last fifteen years of his life from 1922 in the City of London asylum at Dartford, suffering from acute schizophrenia. Gurney was an accomplished composer before he was ever a poet, and his music is regularly performed. He started writing poetry during the War, publishing Severn & Somme in 1917 and War’s Embers in 1919. These were perfectly good books, but with few exceptions they demonstrated no unusual talent. Only after the War, and particularly in the early asylum years, did Gurney become a great poet. Writing with unprecedented intensity—sometimes producing the equivalent of four books of poetry in a single month—Gurney returned to war experiences as a way of escaping the misery of his incarceration. Idiosyncratic and often gauche, these poems were nevertheless stamped with the peculiarity of genius. But publishers showed no interest. Gurney wrote over a thousand poems between 1922 and 1927, the vast majority of which remain unpublished to this day.
I have included several new poems by Gurney in the anthology. One of my favourites, which he wrote in 1925, has languished amongst his papers at the Gloucestershire Archives until now:
The Stokes Gunners
When Fritz and we were nearly on friendly terms—
Of mornings, furtively, (O moral insects, O worms!)
A group of khaki people would saunter into
Our sector and plant a stove-pipe directed on to
Fritz trenches, insert black things, shaped like Ticklers jams—
The stove pipe hissed a hundred times and one might count to
A hundred damned unexpected explosions,
Which was all very well, but the group having finished performance
And hissed and whistled, would take their contrivance down to
Head quarters to report damage, and hand in forms
While the Gloucesters who desired peace or desired battle
Were left to pay the piper—Cursing Stokes to Hell, Montreal and Seattle.
The Stokes Mortar was the latest thing in military technology. Introduced during the second half of the War, it had the great virtue of being portable—a modestly-sized artillery gun which could fire more than twenty rounds per minute. Gurney’s hostility to its arrival in his part of the line can best be explained by his fellow poet Charles Sorley’s comment several years earlier: ‘For either side to bomb the other would be a useless violation of the unwritten laws that govern the relations of combatants permanently within a hundred yards of distance of each other, who have found out that to provide discomfort for the other is but a roundabout way of providing it for themselves’. Small wonder that Gurney should denounce as ‘moral insects’ those form-filling jobsworths who bring down the enemy’s wrath onto the Gloucesters’ heads.
In war anthologies, we have heard little of this humour. Gurney’s is not the voice of heroic derring-do, nor of the officer pleading the sufferings of his men or denouncing High Command as incompetent or callous. Gurney offers us the common private who wants to be no more courageous than strictly necessary in achieving his ambition to survive the War. The poem befits a remark which Gurney made of his fellow Gloucesters when he reported that they sang ‘I Want to Go Home’ while under heavy artillery bombardment. ‘It is not a brave song’, he acknowledged, ‘but brave men sing it’.
Tim Kendall has taught at the universities of Oxford, Newcastle, and Bristol before becoming Professor and Head of English at the University of Exeter. His new book is Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology. His other publications include Modern English War Poetry (OUP, 2006), and The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry (ed.) (OUP, 2007), and he is writing the VSI on War Poetry (forthcoming, 2014). He is also co-editor of the Complete Literary Works of Ivor Gurney, (forthcoming, OUP).
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Image credit: Stokes trench mortar with team. Group of soldiers posing with a trench mortar, Salonika, taken by Capt Philip Rolls Asprey, whilst serving with 2nd Bn The Buffs (East Kent Regiment), nd, 1916 © National Army Museum.