Thursday, 1 October 2009

Ivor Gurney: 'Pain'

Ivor Gurney collected 'Pain' as the second of five sonnets, under the title 'Sonnets 1917 (To the Memory of Rupert Brooke)'. The sequence appeared in his first collection, Severn & Somme, published the same year. In a letter to his great friend, the music critic Marion Scott, Gurney called 'Pain' the 'blackest' of the five, and told her that the poems were 'intended to be a sort of counterblast against [Brooke's] 'Sonnetts 1914' [sic], which were written before the grind of the war and by an officer (or one who would have been an officer.)' Gurney described his sequence as 'a protest of the physical against the exalted spiritual; of the cumulative weight of small facts against the one large.' 'Old ladies won't like them', he ventured, 'but soldiers may.'


Pain, pain continual; pain unending;
Hard even to the roughest, but to those
Hungry for beauty...Not the wisest knows,
Nor most pitiful-hearted, what the wending
Of one hour's way meant. Grey monotony lending
Weight to the grey skies, grey mud where goes
An army of grey bedrenched scarecrows in rows
Careless at last of cruellest Fate-sending.
Seeing the pitiful eyes of men foredone,
Or horses shot, too tired merely to stir,
Dying in shell-holes both, slain by the mud.
Men broken, shrieking even to hear a gun.---
Till pain grinds down, or lethargy numbs her,
The amazed heart cries angrily out on God.

This comes early in Gurney's writing career, but it works because it takes risks similar to those found in his later and stronger poetry. There is a precariousness about Gurney at his best. So, 'scarecrows in rows' is the phrase of a poet too ambitious to worry about perfection. ('To praise a thing for its faultlessness is to damn it with faint praise', Gurney told Scott.) That Germanic construction, 'Fate-sending', is similarly reckless, but it prepares the way for that brilliant word 'foredone', which OED gives as 'put out of existence', 'ruined' or 'annulled'. '[T]oo tired merely to stir' is somehow better than the more conventional 'too tired even to stir', because it stresses that even a tiny hint of movement might save the men and horses from their fate.

The last line is astonishing. 'God' joins alliteratively to 'gun', but its horribly apposite rhyme is with 'mud'. ('I, too, saw God through mud', Owen writes the following year in 'Apologia pro Poemate Meo'; and in another strange coincidence, his 'Futility' has limbs 'too hard to stir'.) The amazed heart cries out on God, not to God. The phrase is caught between accusation, imprecation and supplication. Is God the cause of this suffering, or the hope for redemption from it? Either way, the angry outburst requires an energy which pain and lethargy will soon defeat. Pain brings about acceptance --- not just of suffering but of purposelessness and grey monotony. It leads to the defeat of the human and the bestial alike. Everything is returning inexorably to mud.


  1. Foredone. It's heartbreakingly precise. And the last line, of course. But it's interesting how much this feels like one of the later, Asylum pieces. You see the continuity of poetic consciousness, as with Clare.

  2. Is it Ivor or Iraq? the Alsace or Afghanistan? Hearts and mud, death and God, poets and war... foredone all. The world drinks bitter, this life.

  3. 'An army of grey bedrenched scarecrows in rows'... anyone who has spent time with the exhausted infantry will recognize this instantly. I'm wondering if the bedrenched might also be read as bed-wrenched, because that was my first image, that of soldiers being woken up at 4 a.m., in the rain, exhausted, hungry, in constant physical pain (they pop Advil like Smarties), depressed to find themselves doing it all over again.

    One point of comparison between wars though, is that the Canadian soldier left for WWI and WWII unable to return for years, whereas our soldiers now have 6-7 month deployments with a 3 week leave somewhere in the middle. Still, the monotony, the 'hunger for beauty' remains, and ultimately, pain is the soldier's constant.