Monday, 13 July 2009

War Poet

The Cambridge conference was hugely enjoyable. I've been to one or two conferences lately where the standard of papers was jaw-droppingly poor. What sort of service do scholars think they're providing when they read their talks, head down, in a mumbling monotone? Or at top speed to cram in as much as possible? To add insult to injury, the worst papers always overrun.

Although train timetables and parallel panels conspired against me, the sessions that I did manage to see in Cambridge were excellent. Subjects ranged from Great War childrearing attitudes, to discussion of musical activities at Ruhleben concentration camp. There were strong poetry talks from Pamela Coren (whose lively determination to dismiss the entire accentual-syllabic tradition at least had the virtue of promoting debate) and John Melillo (on the representation of sound and noise in Great War poetry).

My own talk featured general speculation about the term 'war poetry' and its rise to common usage after 1917, Lord Flashheart's opinions on the war (from 8:05 to 8:20 here), and eventually, a focus on Ivor Gurney's gradual self-designation as 'war poet'.

Above is an envelope from a letter Gurney sent in 1923, the year in which he first applies the phrase to himself. On the back, as you can see, he has written 'War poet'. (What looks like an 's' is in fact a full stop.) According to Philip Lancaster, with whom I'm editing a 3-volume Complete Gurney for Oxford English Texts, this seems to have been an unlikely ruse to get Royal Mail to deliver his unstamped post. It also acts as a seal, pledge and proof of his identity. The war poet is exiled from his republic not (as Plato has it) because he lies, but because he tells a truth which exposes the founding fictions of his society. The more that Gurney calls himself 'war poet', the more he explains the reasons why his nation has betrayed him. By 1925, he is 'First War Poet' -- the pioneer and the exemplar.

Postscript: At the conference the First World War Poetry Archive announced the launch of its Ivor Gurney Collection. This newly available material includes unpublished poems, correspondence, photographs, etc., from the period up to (about) 1921. Highly recommended.


  1. The Gurney Collection of the First World War Poetry Archive is a long-awaited addition to Gurney scholarship and, as one who trawled through the Gurney Archive in the years before it was organized properly, I welcome it. However, the biography of Gurney contains a serious error that perpetuates out-dated, incorrect information about his illness that needs to be corrected. The author of the piece states that "in 1922 he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia." Gurney was never diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic during his life -- that erroneous diagnosis dates to the 1970s. Gurney suffered from bipolar illness, a mood disorder. The differentiation between the two illnesses is very important because had Gurney been schizophrenic, he would have been quite a different man and that would have made a difference in his art as well. Also, the author states that "his experiences there [in the war], and notably his injuries from gas may simply have worsened his condition." What worsened his condition was his untreated bipolar illness that he could not control although he tried. Like any untreated illness, it got worse and his episodes of imbalance increased. There were no drugs in Gurney's day that could help control his illness. I thought the days when we would see Gurney erroneously labeled "paranoid schizophrenic" were over. I am sorry to see that an important resource like the First World War Poetry has recycled out-dated information that misrepresents Gurney and sets scholarship back instead of moving it forward.

  2. Thanks, Pam. A good point. I notice, as well, that there's some uncertainty about the effect of the war on Gurney:

    "Many people have assumed, therefore, that Gurney was a victim of shell-shock or ‘neurasthenia’ but it is generally accepted now that his illness predates the War, and his experiences there, and notably his injuries from gas may simply have worsened his condition. At the same time, the ordered life provided by the Army may have provided him with a period of longed for stability."

    So the war made him worse and better 'at the same time'!

    Invaluable though the resource is, of course it doesn't replace the need to visit the archive in Gloucester: most of Gurney's best poetry (published and unpublished) falls outside the period represented.

    At the conference I was handed a flyer for the Ivor Gurney society which claimed that 'the next two years [after 1919] were Gurney's most creative and successful period'.

    In January 1925 Gurney composed numerous songs, and wrote a collection of poetry. During February he wrote The Book of Five Makings (eventually published in 1995). March produced seven song settings and four collections of poetry. April saw two collections and four song settings. And so on. I can't speak authoritatively about the music, but 1925 was the annus mirabilis for his poetry, in terms of quantity and quality.

    I wonder whether an attempt to avoid morbid interest in the asylum years is driving these wayward claims? Judging by the way that the argument continues, I suspect so: 'However, his mental condition worsened and in September 1922 he was admitted first to an asylum in Gloucetser and then to the City of London Mental Hospital in Dartford.' You wouldn't know from the description that Gurney had written or composed anything at all in the asylum. Entry to the asylum is made to sound like the end of his creativity.

  3. I have contacted the WWI Poetry Archive about the paranoid schizophrenia claim and I also brought up the point about the effect of the war on Gurney as well. The war wasn't a factor in his illness and decline while it did help him find the level ground he sought (the letters tell us as much).

    I agree with you about the asylum years. I believe that Gurney found his true poetic voice during the asylum years and that his best and most original poetry came from that period. While he was highly productive and creative from 1919 to 1921, I would not say that he wrote his best poetry then. He was working in a white heat, juggling music and poetry with music gaining the edge. He was successful in terms of performances, publication and recognition ("one of the most promising men of his generation") but he was struggling hard to keep himself afloat even during those two years.

    Turning to the asylum -- with bipolar illness he would not have been ill all the time and would certainly have enjoyed periods during which he was quite well ("so sane in his insanity") and functional ("normal"). Even when he was not well that doesn't mean he was incapable of working, quite the opposite. Gurney's asylum music is not up to the poetry although there are a few exceptions.

    An aside to file away for the time being until we can learn more -- the late asylum poem (1929) "The Wind" (All night the fierce wind blew...") that appears in the Collected Poems and in George Walter's Everyman edition might not have been written by Gurney. If you recall it is signed "IG 'Valentine Fane'" and is dated 6 March 1929. It might appear that Valentine Fane was another of Gurney's pseudonyms but Fane was in fact a real person and poet. He was born in 1893 (Epping) and died in 1977 and published poetry in magazines as early as 1916. It is possible that Gurney saw "The Wind", copied it out and wrote his initials next to Fane's name or that he imitated his style. But I have long had doubts about the poem as being by Gurney because by 1929 he was not producing much of anything. In his 2004 edition of the Collected Poems, Kavanagh referred to its "uncharacteristic style". I am trying to track down more of Fane's poetry -- it appeared in publications like the Windsor Magazine but you undoubtedly have better resources at hand than I do (I need to run over to our local college to do that kind of research).


  4. Well, my chapter on Gurney ends with 'The Wind', arguing that it is a kind of farewell to memory and (therefore) to art. So I hope it's by Gurney! I know that is says 'Valentine Fane', but then, Gurney also ascribes his own poems to Patrick MacGill and others. It's a very strong poem, whomever it's by. In a way, if it comes to modern attention through misattribution, it's a happy mistake. At least, that's my get-out!

  5. Many thanks Pam and Tim for your points re. the Gurney Online Collection. We'll look into it and make necessary changes asap. I don't seem to have recieved an email from anyone though. Could you let me know which route you contacted us via? We want to be sure we are getting everything we should!

    Kate Lindsay, Project Manager (First World War Poetry Digital Archive)

  6. Kate,

    I attempted to contact you about the Gurney Collection by going to About to Contact to Feedback and to Report an Error and to Suggest a Resource -- I used both for different purposes. If you can't find these items, please contact me directly or can I contact you directly through the main email address?

    Thank you for your attention to this.