Something about Ivor

Ivor Gurney (from Oxford WW1 Digital Archive)

A few weeks ago J lent me a book of poems by the Gloucestershire poet Ivor Gurney. He’d come up in conversation during one of our writing sessions when we found we had him in common. J is Gloucestershire born and bred and knew Gurney’s work and I had come to him through his music. Gurney’s one of a rare breed being both a successful poet and composer (you’d probably have to go back to Thomas Campion in Elizabethan times to find one of the same calibre). He’s known especially for his song settings of poems, although he rarely put his own verse to music. If you’d like to try him out I’d recommend the CD Severn Meadows and Other Songs by Ivor Gurney, sung by Paul Agnew accompanied on piano by Julius Drake (the wonderful Julius Drake), which is a selection of the most popular. It’s not exactly groovy music but I love it—so English, breath and bone.

I suppose what endears Gurney to me and others is his story. It’s not a happy one, though. He was dogged by mental health problems from an early age and although his talent for music won him scholarships to the Cathedral School in Gloucester and then the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied composition, he was a difficult (challenging??) pupil. He had periods of intense creativity juxtaposed with periods of anxiety in which he could not work. He was known to be gregarious and friendly but could also be odd and withdrawn or aggressive. He served in the army during The Great War (even writing poems and composing in the trenches) but suffered a breakdown towards the end, during which he was plagued by strange thoughts and voices in his head. He was able to return to the Royal Academy and had a few productive years both as a poet and composer but gradually his fragile mind disintegrated. In his teenage years he’d found that exercise or hard physical work had helped to control his symptoms, so once he could not compose he spent a very restless time roaming about Gloucestershire trying to find work on farms or in factories. Luckily he had made a small group of very loyal friends who tried to look out for him (even when it was difficult for them to do so) but eventually he was committed to an asylum near London where he dwindled away the last fifteen years of his life, never returning to his beloved Gloucestershire, that had been his muse.

I think it was popularly thought that Gurney suffered from shell shock and this blighted his after-war years, but today biographers, who have studied his life in the light of modern psychiatry, are more inclined to think that he was bi-polar and this was exacerbated by the trauma of war (and no effective treatment). He continued to write poetry as his mental health declined and when in the asylum, and some of it was published, but an anthology of late poems that he thought good enough for publication never found an outlet (although individual poems were included in later anthologies) until 1997 when it was reassembled under the title ‘80 Poems or So’ (published by MidNAG/Carcanet), and this is the book that J has lent me. So it has come as a real find and I’m grateful for the chance to have a look at it.

 It’s also given me inspiration in another direction. I’m on the lookout for short story material and a note in the book that says Gurney took a job playing piano in a cinema in Bude in 1921 but was retained for only a week, has got me plotting and planning as well as imagining. I’ve promised J a look if I manage to come up with anything worthwhile.    

From all of this it wouldn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that not very much happened at the creative writing session today. Well, creativity isn’t on tap so a blank session’s no bad thing; I think of it as fallow, just waiting for the seed. I was able to type up some of J’s lyrics so they can be published on the blog. He’s pretty sure they are finished but perfectionist that he is (and I fully support this trait in a writer) he may want to polish more as the weeks go on. I’ve told him we can change them as required. Indeed it might be interesting (or not) to compare versions of the same song thus witnessing the writing process in action. Perhaps we could have vote on which one we prefer…

 T has been busy too, intent on writing about his 2005 run from Chippenham to London and back again. He’d like to get it published but I’ve had to curb his enthusiasm somewhat by pointing out that it’s not as simple as that… if only it was! Perhaps he will let me share some of it on the blog for starters.


(by J)

Down digging down

          Under the ground

Where the sap is seeping

Voles and mice are creeping

When the breath is lost

          The heart rescues

Lost in the landscape

Leaving no clues


You know

I think

          I’m going



Misty ice shadows round my head

Twigs and leaves make my bed

Wind and rain come again

Filling the ditch by the muddy lane


Find me a place

Under the tree

Deep in the earth

Just the roots and me

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