24 April 2014
By Emmeline Burdett
The arresting title of this documentary about the First World War poet Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) was chosen because, by the time war broke out in 1914, Gurney had already had one mental breakdown. He hoped that the physical and mental exertions, as well as the camaraderie, of army life would help to keep his mind on a more even keel.
Having initially been rejected for army service on the grounds of poor eyesight, Gurney successfully reapplied a few months later, when the high casualty rates meant that entrance requirements had become less stringent.
He was finally accepted in February 1915, and arrived at the Western Front in early June 1916. Gurney’s war experiences resulted in a huge archive of poems, many of which were written whilst Gurney was incarcerated in the City of London Mental Hospital in Dartford, Kent, where he spent the last fifteen years of his short life.
After Gurney’s death, his archive was preserved by his friend and correspondent Marion Scott and the composer Gerald Finsey. It is now housed in Gloucester County Archives and, having previously been dismissed as ‘the sad product of mental decline’, it is belatedly beginning to receive the attention it deserves.
The presenter of this documentary – the writer Tim Kendall – argues that the Great War ‘made Gurney a poet’, and there are a number of reasons for this. Unlike Owen, Sassoon, etc., Gurney had never written poetry before becoming a soldier. He had, however, studied at the Royal College of Music, and was an accomplished composer with a lot of experience of setting other people’s poetry to music.
In his poetry, Gurney also sought to find a new grammar to express the terror of his war experiences. This tendency first made its appearance in the poem ‘To His Love’, Gurney’s tribute to his friend F.W. Harvey, who was missing presumed killed during the Battle of the Somme. The poem begins in a conventional pastoral fashion, before becoming more urgent and idiosyncratic, as evidenced by the repetition of the phrase ‘Cover him’. Happily, Harvey actually survived.
The vast canon of poetry, which Gurney wrote during the final fifteen years of his life, also showed marked idiosyncrasies, and failed to find a publisher. This only heightened Gurney’s despair and sense of isolation.
This was a fascinating and timely documentary about an under-appreciated but important poet. Nevertheless, it did leave some questions unanswered – to say nothing of my nagging feeling that there was at least one other documentary inside this one!
The questions I had related mainly to the nature of the post-WW1 reactions to Gurney as someone who had mental health problems. A recurring theme of the documentary was the importance of Gloucestershire in Gurney’s life. His first published collection of poems, ‘Severn and Somme’, was full of poems lovingly describing Gloucester landscapes, and this love affair remained a constant throughout Gurney’s life.
After being declared insane in 1922, Gurney was initially placed in the asylum at Barnwood House near Gloucester but, following repeated bids for freedom, he was transferred to the aforementioned City of London Mental Hospital, where he remained until the end of his life. This, says Tim Kendall, broke Gurney’s spirit.
Indeed, Gurney, who had always been a keen rambler, refused to go out of the asylum, and only brightened when the widow of his fellow war-poet Edward Thomas brought him an Ordnance Survey map of Gloucestershire. Together, they pored over it, and Gurney was able to revisit his old haunts, if only in his imagination. This being so, it strongly suggests that once Gurney was declared insane, his humanity was quietly forgotten.
It would be interesting to compare the reactions to Gurney’s mental health problems whilst he was in the army – when he was sent away from the front line to the Belgian town of Albert – to those after the war, in which he seems to have been regarded as merely the physical manifestation of a disordered brain, whose personality and preferences could be ignored with impunity.
As this tendency has been shown to be such a hallmark of institutionalisation, it surely raises wider questions about how returning soldiers with physical and mental impairments were regarded and treated.
In addition, it seems likely that there is a correlation between the dismissal of evidences of Gurney’s individuality (such as his love of Gloucestershire), and the attitude that the poetry he wrote whilst in the City of London was ‘the sad product of mental decline’. Both attitudes entail the rejection of any idea that Gurney could have anything to say that was worth listening to.