To many people’s surprise, one of the most electrifying moments of the recent Scottish independence referendum was the eleventh hour speech by our former prime minister, Gordon Brown, in which he stood up for the union against the separatists of the SNP. It may well have helped some wavering voters decide, and contributed to the ‘no’ campaign’s 5 point victory. It went some way towards repairing his reputation after his difficult time as Prime Minister four years ago. It was one of the best British political speeches in living memory – partly because of the passionate and sincere delivery, and partly because of its eloquence and the force of the argument. This bit got me good:
And let us tell the undecided, the waverers, those not sure how to vote, let us tell them what we have achieved together.
We fought two world wars together. And there is not a cemetery in Europe that does not have Scots, English, Welsh, and Irish lying side-by-side.
And when young men were injured in these wars, they didn’t look to each other and ask whether you were Scots or English, they came to each other’s aid because we were part of a common cause.
And we not only won these wars together, we built the peace together, we built the health service together, we built the welfare state together, we will build the future together.
And what we have built together by sacrificing and sharing, let no narrow nationalism split asunder ever.
Amen to all that. The speech put me in mind of the Great War. I remembered that at least one of the war poets of the wrote a poem about or referring to his Scottish colleagues. I may have been thinking about another poem altogether – I guess more than one of the poets would have been struck by the way the war brought together men from all corners if our islands (and further afield) – but a quick look around brought me this quietly beautiful poem by Ivor Gurney. Gurney, himself strongly associated with a particular part of England – Gloucestershire, and the River Severn in particular, dedicates his poem ‘Photographs’ to two (unnamed) Scots lads. The lads appear, fleetingly, I think, at the beginning of the poem, and one of them, perhaps, again at the end. They are the soldiers joking and laughing in the midst of war, keeping their spirits up, and Gurney’s too, as shells are ‘eerily Singing’ overhead, this being the first in a series of the poem’s poignant counterpoints.
Photographs (To Two Scots Lads)
Lying in dug-outs, joking idly, wearily;
Watching the candle guttering in the draught;
Hearing the great shells go high over us, eerily
Singing; how often have I turned over, and laughed
With pity and pride, photographs of all colours,
All sizes, subjects: khaki brothers in France;
Or mother’s faces worn with countless dolours;
Or girls whose eyes were challenging and must dance,
Though in a picture only, a common cheap
Ill-taken card; and children – frozen, some
(Babies) waiting on Dicky-bird to peep
Out of the handkerchief that is his home
(But he’s so shy!). And some with bright looks, calling
Delight across the miles of land and sea,
That not the dread of barrage suddenly falling
Could quite blot out – not mud nor lethargy.
Smiles and triumphant careless laughter. O
The pain of them, wide Earth’s most sacred things!
Lying in dugouts, hearing the great shells slow
Sailing mile-high, the heart mounts higher and sings.
But once – O why did he keep that bitter token
Of a dead Love? – that boy, who, suddenly moved,
Showed me, his eyes wet, his low talk broken,
A girl who better had not been beloved.
Like Edward Thomas’s, Ivor Gurney’s poems can sometimes look and sound deceptively like mere descriptions or mere lists, sometimes even like notes, though this belies their complexity and their deliberate, sometimes profound, effect. Gurney’s poetry is perhaps is looser, less well-defined than that of his contemporary, Thomas. Although it is aurally and thematically coherent, I can’t quite pinpoint the setting of this poem – it is called ‘photographs’, and much of the poem describes and reflects on a series of photos that men have carried to the front, as if Gurney is looking through them at his leisure, or in his memory; but then theres that first stanza, with its image that stays with us through the poem, of men laughing together in the trenches as shells scream overhead – unless he is describing a (remarkably well turned out, given the lighting conditions) newspaper photograph, it seems unlikely that this section describes a photograph, nor that the men in this section could be themselves looking through photos. Gurney’s poetry is also more changeable, and less compact than Thomas’s, with more space for the incidental detail or the aside (as in those bracketed comments about the child’s game), and more shifts in tone or subject. I suspect that Gurney, though obviously talented, was no great reviser of his own poetry. Perhaps he had other things to deal with – the war, and his long recovery from its horrors, or his other career as a composer – or perhaps he thought his poetry more authentic in its earlier, imperfect state. Despite its (arguable) shortcomings, however, this is a lovely, affecting poem.
The poem starts with that image that stays with us through the poem, of comrades sitting in a trench talking and laughing, with shells ‘eerily Singing’ overhead. Obviously, Gurney is juxtaposing the comradeship of the men with the grave danger that they face, but it is interesting that he uses the word ‘singing’ to describe the flight of the shells – perhaps they really did sound that way, but he also uses the word ‘sailing’ in a later stanza. It is as if the giddy joy of the men’s comradeship is extended even to the weapons of destruction aimed at them- not in any way to glorify war (which is a million miles from Gurney’s purpose), but for quite another reason…
It is a poem of strange contrasts and ironies, some obvious, some less so. There is the very cheapness and poor quality of the photographs being described, and their great value, for example. There is the photograph of the mother ‘with countless dolours’, of which war is perhaps just one, and a young girl challenging the looker – it could be the very same woman just a few years earlier. There is the deadly seriousness of war, contrasted with the playfulness of some of the pictures, especially the one with the child and ‘birdie’ – at which point the tone of the poem itself becomes playful (I must admit, I was slightly perplexed by that reference to a birdie, until a poem – a rather good one, incidentally – on Cynthia Jobin’s website reminded me that photographers use such toys to make children look at the camera).
But the central contrast of the poem is the laughter of men sheltering in mud, as shells fly overhead. There is an eery moment in the fifth stanza when the poem slows down with 3 lone syllables: ‘great shells slow’ – but this is answered not by terror but by rising joy, ‘the heart mounts higher and sings’. This is the surprising triumph of the human spirit against dehumanising technological war.
As with so many Gurney poems, Photographs ends with a sharp, horrible pain – that the woman ‘better had not been beloved’ can only mean that she has, by the time the poem was written, been bereaved. Gurney suffered terrible ptsd and survivors guilt, that exacerbated pre-existing mental conditions, and this is reflected in his war poetry in which the anguish is quite raw, and even much of his later poetry. Nevertheless, I still feel that the dominant note in this poem is the near-irrational, exuberant sense of triumph over adversity, the core of which is the comradeship – love and friendship really – of Gurney and his fellow soldiers.
You will have noticed, I guess, that in the poem itself there is no mention at all of the soldiers nationality, English, Scottish or otherwise, just because, as Gordon Brown said, it simply didn’t matter.