Ivor Gurney’s most interesting poetry falls generally into three types or styles. In two of these his accomplishment is often of the highest quality. To some extent, the three modes represent a development in his manner and technique, though the trend toward increasing originality, urgency, subjectivity, and disruptiveness is far from consistent. If there is any chronological pattern, it perhaps reflects the emergence and then the fragmentation of a unique artistic personality.
The first category of poems consists of lucid lyrics notable for a spare and laconic modernity of expression. Usually short, these terse, cool pieces demonstrate a precise control of form and tone. Typical verses in this sardonically beautiful vein include “The Love Song,” “Generations,” “Old Tale,” “The Songs I Had,” “When I Am Covered,” “To His Love,” and even the sinister “Horror Follows Horror.” As some of these titles suggest, Gurney’s style here is songlike—a reflection of his strong musical talents and disposition. His thought, however, almost always has an elusive quality.
In the Blakean parable “Generations,” for example, “The plowed field and the fallow field” alike sing a “prudent” song of fatalistic indifference to life’s vicissitudes. The method of this poem is both unromantic and economical, with a disarmingly steady naturalness of idiom. Its amoral vision nevertheless seems to be slyly undermined by the poet’s use of ambiguous connotative diction (“prudent,” “reckoning,” “power,” and “brooding”), together with shifting values of the word “best.” Rhythmic regularity reinforces this ambivalence of tone, and of course the relation of inanimate to human destinies remains an unasked question. Gurney’s other poems of this type have much the same redolent simplicity. He achieves on these occasions the ironic distance that has since been considered the predominant perspective of twentieth century verse.
“To His Love”
One of the finest war poems of this sort is the elegiac “To His Love,” addressed with subtle but bitter irony to a dead comrade’s beloved. It is ostensibly a nostalgic reminiscence and a conventional tribute to the commemoration of patriotic sacrifice. This poem too, however, is discreetly ambivalent. The phrasing and imagery actually signal bleak indignation at the untruths about war and death that are perpetrated by sentimental attitudes and rituals. In particular, attention is increasingly focused on the soldier’s shattered body itself (“You would not know him now . . .”) and on the significance of burying as quickly as possible (“Cover him, cover him soon!”) what is left of their friend (“that red wet/ thing”).
The real meaning of those sickeningly dehumanized remains is obviously not what the state and customary sentiment demand. Hence the compulsion to conceal the ghastly evidence under “violets of pride” in memorial rites that transmute the soldier’s memory into a romantic glorification of war. Without openly offending the bereaved, the sustained ironic potential of words such as “pride” illustrates Gurney’s ability to let tone control the fury underlying a placid surface. A similar duality is expressed in the off-handedness and coy enjambment of “But still he died/ Nobly.” Here the tone captures and undermines the cavalier outlook of those who pass over the ugliness of death in battle by summarily glamorizing it. The same effect is achieved in the brusque logic of the immediately following clause (“so cover him over/ with violets . . .”), which dismisses the victim by automatically according him the standard “poetic” formalities of interment amidst royal purple violets. Burial deep under “thickset/ Masses of memoried flowers” removes and idealizes a gruesome reality that, the poem implies, should in fact be confronted. Moreover, habitual sentiments and ceremonial gestures tend to supplant authentic personal expression of grief and dissipate any sense of official responsibility. The flowers must be especially “thick-set” in “Masses” (a pun on the eucharistic service) to conceal sufficiently the horror beneath from anyone who might rightly be angered or disillusioned by it. The unusual adjective “memoried” is richly connotative, hinting that the violets bring memories of happier days, are commemorative of military honor, reminding one of death, and perhaps capable themselves of remembering generations of other soldiers misrepresented and exploited even in death for the sake of pride.
Memory is indeed the poem’s dominating idea. What impression of the dead should be retained? One possibility is the pastoral image of blithe youth in Gurney’s opening stanzas, but that seems “useless indeed.” Likewise, to make the soldier’s death an instrument of nationalistic propaganda or romantic self-delusion is to perpetuate falsehoods that have, as his embittered fellows know, no connection with what really happened to him. The poem’s final irony is the realization that even those aware of the truth yearn to escape it. A better use for a profusion of memorial flowers, it is urged, would be to hide from the poet himself “that red wet/ Thing I must somehow forget.” It is nevertheless strongly implied that such immediate, excruciating knowledge cannot, and hence must not, be forgotten or betrayed. This complex and poignantly developed theme, found in other Gurney poems too, suggests the unsettling insights that England was being afforded by the war poets.
The second strong vein in Gurney’s verse is much more personal, tumultuous, and distinctive. The poems of this sort tend to be descriptive narratives that powerfully realize scenes, events, or sensations—usually stirring impressions connected with battle or with nature. Emphatic irregular rhythms and densely packed language show the influence of Hopkins and, to some extent, of Walt Whitman. Gurney first read these poets in the trenches, where, inevitably, his own manner was already being reforged into a more vigorous utterance.
The result was the emergence of a dramatic diction and syntax suited to the emotions and violent physicality of his new experiences: “wading/ Three feet of water past fire to the bones/ For Hell cold east of snow-sleeting Chaulness.” The language energetically struggles with and...
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