Something about Ivor

Ivor Gurney

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 He was known to be gregarious and friendly but could also be odd and withdrawn or aggressive.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

This entry was posted in Charity, Chippenham, Homelessness, Mental Health, Poetry, Wiltshire and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Something about Ivor

  1. calneeagle says:

    A beautiful piece. By complete coincidence, I am reading a book at the moment about map making and obsession, called ‘Map Addict’ by Mike Parker (given to me as a present, as I confess to such an obsession myself). I only two days ago read the part which describes how Ivor Gurney, when in his asylum in Kent, would often only respond to an Ordnance Survey map of the part of Gloucestershire where he had grown up; he would pore over the map for hours. This is to my mind a testament, not only to his sense of what the French call ‘terroir’, but how certain troubled minds take comfort in the details of mapping and listing – often found in those on the Asperger’s spectrum.

    J and yourself have inspired me to discover Ivor Gurney – thank you both! And lovely poetry by J.

    • iambwotiamb says:

      Thank you for your nice comments. I wasn’t sure me writing about Ivor Gurney was going to appeal to anyone, although I am aware of how interesting and pertinent his story still is. He wasn’t a rough sleeper in the strictest sense but when he was in the grip of his mental illness he did do a lot of roaming about the countryside and sleeping under the stars. Excercise and manual labour did ease his symptoms to some extent, but there’s also something quite desperate about his restlessness as if he was trying to out run his demons, but of course he never could. Could I also add a correction here? IG was a student at the Royal College of Music, rather than the Royal Academy.
      I was interested in what you had to say about maps. I love them too. If I had to be marooned on that mythical desert island I’d take maps of GB to look at rather than a book. I love place names and topographical features such as old paths and tumuli. I’ve just started reading The Old Straight Track by Mr Watkins (forgotten his first name–might be Arthur) so shall be able to blog about ley lines soon. I agree about J’s writing, he’s very good. He inspired me to write some lyrics recently but they turned out like something S Club 7 might have sung on a bad day. But I suppose as with many arts and crafts much of it is practice…

  2. And of course, the cliche about genius and madness becomes less cliche with each example. I think the more important point though is that although chemical imbalances exist, they don’t necessarily have an impact on intellect.

    • iambwotiamb says:

      Hi Abe, sorry I haven’t replied sooner. I can’t do quick replies because I don’t think very quickly and I did have to think about how to reply to your interesting point. Well, I suppose the genius/madness cliche is a cliche because of its apparent prevalence. Personally, I am more interested in creativity and mental illness which may be a step down from genius / madness because generally humans are by their very natures creative but very few would be called geniuses. Certainly I believe there is evidence that the mutations that occured in early humanoid DNA that resulted in us becoming a creative species also made us prone to mental illnesses i.e. we can’t have one without the other (as a species rather than an individual). We can all think of creative people who have suffered from mental illness such as Spike Milligan and Virginia Woolf, but I also think there is evidence that in a great many cases people known for their creativity (artists, writers, musicians etc) will not have a mental illness but have a close family member who has.
      As for chemical imbalance and intellect, you are right. I think it very much depends on the severity of the mental disturbance and whether it has been treated. In Ivor Gurney’s case he lived at a time when psychiatry was in its infancy – not much in the way of medication or effective treatments. He was also from a working class background so had no easy access to doctors, clinics, specialists and so on, I do think that eventually his intellect was destroyed by his bi-polarity.
      In my own extended family we have a coterie of schizophrenics (and dyslexics, another interesting mutation) some of whom have functioned for long periods without any discernible problem (other than being a bit odd) whilst others have really had their potential severely curtailed despite treatment with the latest drugs.
      I have only a little tentative knowledge of these things so all of the above is probably riddled with inaccuracies and sweeping generalisations (I could work for a tabloid newspaper), and please excuse if this comes over as a lecture. I feel I should be aiming for brevity but hit long winded (and quite boring) more often.

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