Friday, 20 March 2009


I spent Wednesday at the University of Leicester, proselytising to staff and MA students on behalf of Ivor Gurney. Driving back to Devon yesterday, I stopped off at the Gloucestershire Archives to see Philip Lancaster and Sebastian Field. Philip is creating a digital catalogue of Gurney's papers, while simultaneously writing a Ph.D. on Gurney. All the work will eventually go towards our 3-volume edition of Gurney's Complete Poetry and Prose, which should appear in or around 2013. We estimate that not much more than a quarter of Gurney's surviving poetry has been published to date, so it's a huge undertaking. Perhaps uniquely for such a major 20th-century writer, the best of Gurney's unpublished work is at least as good as the published. On which subject, more later.

The Gloucestershire Archive also holds the papers of John (or 'Jack') Haines. Haines became what archivists call a 'hub'. He knew all the important people, and they knew each other through him. Haines was a solicitor, a poet and poetry-lover, and a keen amateur botanist, and he and Robert Frost struck up a close friendship during 1914, wandering the Gloucestershire countryside together in search of rare flowers. Frost continued to correspond with Haines after returning to the States, and visited Haines in England in 1928 and 1957.

Haines serves as the bridge between Frost and Gurney. Those two poets never met; unknowingly, they lived just a few miles apart in Gloucestershire for a year. The closest Gurney came to any of the Dymock poets was when he walked to Dymock to call unannounced on Lascelles Abercrombie. Abercrombie, as it happens, was away in Manchester working at a munitions factory, so Gurney passed a few hours chatting to his wife before continuing his walk.

Haines considered Gurney 'the most dynamic creature [he] ever met'. Pamela Blevins quotes Haines's description of Gurney: 'a remarkable figure, tall, handsome, powerful, crammed with vitality, excessively opinionated and somewhat violent in his critical views.' Gurney was 'a rebel who hates being a rebel and worships the order and discipline he finds so incompatible with his nature.' Reading Haines on Gurney, it is impossible not to wonder why he didn't bring Frost and Edward Thomas and Gurney together in one room; and impossible, as well, not to speculate about what might have happened at such a meeting.

Gurney was introduced to Thomas's poetry through Haines, who had written an essay of appreciation after Thomas's death. Haines remained a loyal friend to Gurney during the asylum years, although there is some evidence that Gurney turned against him around 1928. For reasons which aren't clear, Haines never brought to publication an edition of Gurney's poetry which he had been planning.

I was glancing through Haines's papers yesterday when I came across an unpublished letter from Robert Frost. The date given is June 1914, when Frost was living at Liddle Iddens in Ledington, just outside Dymock. Many other of Frost's letters to Haines have been printed in Selected Letters; if the editor, Lawrance Thompson, knew about this one, it is odd that he didn't include it. Frost talks candidly about the relative merits of poems in his first book, A Boy's Will, comments that the 'second paragraph' of 'My Butterfly' was the first time that he had succeeded in capturing 'the speaking note', and wishes that he had left other poems out of the book for their lack of that 'note'.

Which leads me, as I wind down this most peripatetic of postings, to wonder why there is no Collected Letters of Robert Frost. The Selected was published in 1964, and is long out of print. The past few years have given us Frost's Notebooks and his Collected Prose. I believe that his selected lectures are on their way. Time for some young American scholar to produce a thorough and scholarly edition of the letters.

Update: for more on Haines and Gurney, see Philip Lancaster's blog here.


  1. Further to your remarks about Gurney and the Dymock poets, there are three surviving letters from Gurney to Catherine Abercrombie written during the war, following their meeting. There is also, in private hands, a written note from Gibson to Gurney, and I suspect that the paths of these two may have crossed, probably at The Poetry Bookshop, over which Gibson lived for a time (if I remember rightly), and where Gibson also met his future wife.

  2. Further to my previous, I had forgotten that there are a few letters from Gibson to IBG are held in the archive dating from November-December 1920, as well as the item in private hands.

  3. Robert Moreland25 March 2009 at 13:10

    Jack Haines was my mother's uncle.
    Jack Haines was quite a "bringer together " of people and did quite a bit of entertaining. I suspect that the answer about not bring Frost Gurney Thomas together is quite simply that they were never in the same place together eg Frost and Thomas actually only met for a short time in 1914.
    As for the question of Haines and the publication of Gurney poems I suspect the answer is simply time. Haines was quite experienced in getting poems published. He had his own Published and he was involved with Thomas and Frost getting published. During the 1940s he was very busy as a solicitor as he was stripped of partners who were off fighting(like his son Robin). He kept on working until well into his seventies and it can be argued only retired because his eyesight virtually disappeared and was certainly very busy. Remember he had lots of other literary/artistic clients/friends like Cecil day Lewis, Gerald Finzi,W.H. Davies, herbert Howells

    Robert Moreland

  4. Thank you, Robert. Yes, you're right about the timing. Late 1913 or 1914 would have provided the 'window of opportunity', but as Pamela Blevins says, '1914 is the lost year in Ivor Gurney's life'. She assumes that he was in London for most of the year, because there is no correspondence with Marion Scott. (I.e. he didn't need to write to her because he was on the spot.) Gurney made arrangements to meet Haines in Gloucestershire and didn't show up.

    It is easy to see with hindsight that Frost and Gurney were two of the finest poets of the last century; but in 1914 that wasn't at all obvious. Frost was publishing only his second book, North of Boston, and Gurney hadn't started writing seriously.

    However, the question of why Haines (and others) didn't do more for Gurney's poetry from the 1920s onwards is not so easily answered. I suspect that Haines did not fully appreciate what kinds of materials he was dealing with. Gurney wrote most of his best poetry between 1922 and 1926. His war poetry from the period stands alongside the best of Owen, and above all others. I don't think that Haines realised that; nor did Blunden, Scott, or Finzi. I can't help but wonder what Frost would have made of Gurney's work. Gurney has had to wait a long time, and is still waiting. Frost's backing would have accelerated the process.