Pour out your light, O stars, and do not hold
Your loveliest shining from earth’s outworn shell –
Pure and cold your radiance, pure and cold
My dead friend’s face as well.
I read this poem last week and thought it rather lovely, so read it to my wife (she has to suffer this kind of thing occasionally). On the last line, she uttered a quite shocked ‘ugh’. This was, I suppose, an ‘ugh’ that Gurney would have understood. His poetry is beautiful indeed, but the horror, the palpable shock of violence and war is often close beneath the surface, most famously in ‘To His Love’, but even in many of the poems he wrote long after the First World War, in which he served and suffered. Gurney was mentally fragile even before the war – with symptoms that might now be diagnosed as ‘bi-polar’, but this was exacerbated dramatically by his experiences in the war, and he suffered accutely from something like post-traumatic stress disorder.
This short, lyrical poem, throbs with the pain and loss of the war. First there is the description of the earth as an outworn shell, which suggests the devastated landscape of Northern France and perhaps also the mental landscape of Gurney himself. Perhaps too – at least aurally – it carries the unpleasant suggestion of a bombshell (which, being ‘outworn’, must have gone off). But the real bombshell is at the end of the poem – where words used to describe the beautiful light of the moon ‘pure and cold’ take on an altogether more tragic connotation applied to the face of a friend.
It’s so very sad, but very beautiful.
There’s something else quite beautiful in the poem, though, something quite intriguing too. Gurney is at least as famous a composer as he is a poet, and can be quite revelatory to look at his poetry from an aural point of view. Just as it is a poem resounding with the echoes of war, the sounds within the poem echo subtly. Of course, there is the rhyme of the ends of each line – hold/cold and shell/well, but there is also a rhyme in the first words of lines 1 and 2 – pour/your, a consonance between the first words of line 1 and 3 – pour/pure, and a semantic parallel between the word at the beginning of lines 2 and 4 – your/my. Of course there is the echo of the phrase ‘pure and cold’ in line three too, with a particularly haunting effect in the context of the poem.
More subtle still, and as much a part if the poem’s effect, is the repetition and the effect of the vowels used in the words relating to light. Each of the first three lines includes one word related to light: light/shining/radiance. The last line, doesn’t have any. But look at the vowel sounds in the words about light: ‘ay’ in the first two word and ‘ey’ in the last. These are what we used to call light vowels, that is vowels pronounced with the mouth wide open. Most of the other vowel sounds in the lines are ‘dark vowels’ – ‘ou’, ‘au’ vowels pronounced with the mouth less open. Linguists nowadays use the less poetic terms ‘open and closed’, or ‘front and back’ vowels, but I think some singers use the old terminology. Why ‘light’ and ‘dark’? This seems to be an example of a kind of natural synaesthesia – a conflation between qualities belonging to entirely different senses. And yet, to me it seems an entirely appropriate one, although it is difficult to explain why. As a songwriter , Ivor Gurney must have been aware of light and dark vowels- and it is entirely possible that he consciously and deliberately, or else with an unconscious instinct, used the vowels for a deliberate effect in the poem.
In the first three lines these ‘light’ words, with their light vowels among dark vowels, suggest light in darkness. The last line has no word for ‘light’, and yet all of its vowel sounds are light vowels, and the sounds ‘ay’ and ‘ey’ are repeated in ‘my’ and ‘face’, respectively. It is as if the light, the shining and the radiance have alighted on the friend’s face, just as their vowels too have stopped, drawing our eyes, through our ears, to the face of Gurney’s friend.