Ivor Gurney considered himself unjustly neglected and “one of Five War Poets.” Both judgments are gradually being accepted by students of early twentieth century literature. His reputation is benefiting from the general recovery in critical esteem and cultural interest of the World War I poets. His work is associated with that of Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Nichols, Isaac Rosenberg, and others, as part of a significant chapter in modern literary history: the terrible interlude in which a conventional Georgian quietism was being replaced by new virtuosities of shock and disillusionment born in the trenches of war-ravaged Europe. Gurney’s own poetry shares in that transformation of thought and technique. In many ways the most enigmatic and inconsistent of those soldier-poets and still the least known, he forged out of his own waywardness innovations in diction, rhythm, and tone that often surpass the others in interest and effect. None evokes more intricately the modernist pathos of “two ditches of heart-sick men;/ the times scientific, as evil as ever, again.”
Gurney is also important as the first twentieth century writer to exhibit strongly the influence of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose vigorous and technically daring verse appeared posthumously in 1916 and 1918. Specific resemblances of theme, language, and style suggest that Gurney responded immediately to the qualities in Hopkins now acknowledged as that Victorian poet’s most energizing contribution to the voice of modern literature.
Since Edmund Blunden’s 1954 edition of the poems, including many previously unpublished pieces of great merit, Gurney has been discussed in several studies of the war poets and represented in anthologies of modern verse. What more Gurney might have achieved were it not for his rapid psychological disintegration is not certain. There is justice, however, in William Curtis-Hayward’s estimate that in Ivor Gurney “what we have is the ruins of a major poet.”