Tag Archives: Ivor Gurney

The Wanderer

The Wagon Magazine is a literary journal, published out of Chennai in India, dedicated to seeking out new and lesser known literary talent from the subcontinent and around the world.

Since last month, the magazine has been publishing a monthly column by yours truly, titled The Wanderer. Each column, I look at five or six extracts from poems on a particular theme, or featuring a particular motif or idea. I wanted to do something different from the articles here on Sweettenorbull, where generally I will focus on a single poem, and, in keeping with the magazine’s remit, I will be featuring some lesser known poets alongside bigger names. My first column is on the theme of wanderers, and looks at some poems and songs from Ivor Gurney, some 10th century Anglo-Saxons, Wordsworth, a nameless cowboy, and the Korean poet Park Mog Wol.

The Wagon Magazine is a print publication, available by mail order. It’s always an intriguing read – please give it your consideration.

It archives old articles online. You can read my first effort here.

The editorial is here.

My fellow blogger and poet John Looker’s article is here.

And here is an example of some of the gems the magazine is capable of uncovering, a lovely selection of translated poems by the Kannada language poet, S. Manjunath, translated and with an introduction by Kamalakar Bhat.

 

 

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Common Things

 

Still life with Kettle,  Paul Cézanne

Still life with Kettle, Paul Cézanne

 

Common Things

The dearness of common things –
Beech wood, tea, plate-shelves,
And the whole family of crockery –
Wood-axes, blades, helves.

Ivory milk, earth’s coffee,
The white face of books
And the touch, feel, smell of paper –
Latin’s lovely looks.

Earth fine to handle;
The touch of clouds,
When the imagining arm leaps out to caress
Grey worsted or wool clouds.

Wool, rope, cloth, old pipes
Gone, warped in service;
And the one herb of tobacco,
The herb of grace, the censer weed,
Of whorled, blue, finger-traced curves.
Ivor Gurney
A great deal of human happiness comes from the kind of “Common Things” that Gurney details here. With all due respect to Buddhists, I’m in no hurry to give up my attachments to earthly things any day before the final curtain. I don’t mean that in a materialistic, greedy, I want loads of stuff kind of a way, just in a more healthy (I think) sort of fondness for the sight and feel of familiar things: a little red kettle, a worn old pair of trainers (so much better than new ones), a brown leather watch I don’t quite feel right going out without. It’s an essential part of being human, this attachment to objects – one of my young son’s first milestones was the smile of joy and recognition that started to appear at about two and a half months old, when I pulled out the first toy he formed an attachment to, the enigmatic Rattlebear.
Painting and photography are the most natural of mediums to embody our appreciation of everyday objects, in particular still life. The Dutch are known for their great attention to the mundane, but they’re kind of gross and realistic for my tastes – you can almost smell the sickly food and fusty wood, and it ain’t pretty. If there’s an artist whose still lifes exude the same sense of familiarity and pleasure as Gurney’s poem, it is those of Cezanne (see above); not as realistic as all that perhaps, but very likeable, making of the inanimate something sympathetic.

Still life with champagne glass, Jan Davidszoon

Still life with champagne glass, Jan Davidszoon

A painter is limited to a single scene of course, and I suppose that is why some will pile up incongruous objects together – ‘What’s that bone pipe doing lying across my clams and what on earth are you doing with those lobsters and pomegranates?’ But a poet can range far and wide in the space of a few stanzas, through all the familiar things he and his readers might hold dear. Gurney starts in the kitchen, a very still life kind of place to start, then moves to the tool shed – this feels very much like my granddad’s shed, with well-worn familiar tools. Is there a more manly, DIY-related rhyme in the English language than ‘shelves /helves’? This is definitely one for our Big Book of Real Men’s Poetry, John.

Like many smokers and coffee-fiends, Gurney’s not much of a foodie: no pomegranates or lobsters for him, not so much as an apple, just a lovely cup of ‘ivory milk’ and ‘earth’s coffee’. That last is a very evocative image – evoking ground coffee in its soil-like guise before you pour hot water onto it and it bubbles and foams gorgeously. Mmmm, good Sunday morning poetry this… Gurney’s idea of the everyday spans the small, even the minute – ‘Latin’s lovely looks’ (and there’s that Hopkins-esque alliteration again) – and the grand, the ‘touch of clouds’ which is a common thing which is wholly imaginary, the imagined, fine combed wool feeling of clouds as he swishes his hand at them through the air.

The last stanza is a gem, and typifies the tendencies that make Gurney such an endearing poet. One final list of mundane items leads to ‘the sacred herb’ of tobacco, at which point he abandons the rhyme scheme and the list like nature of the poem altogether, as he traipsies off on a wee reverie about his favourite common thing at all. The poem ends with whorls of blue smoke, as if disappearing into the semi-darkness of the top of an oil painting. It is a strange and oddly sublime ending. As an ex-smoker, I can appreciate this perfectly. As evil as the stuff undoubtedly is (though Gurney wouldn’t have known this), there are few small pleasures quite as pleasurable as the feel and smell of tobacco as it is rolled into a cigarette or stuffed into a pipe. So much so that Gurney appears to forget what the poem is about as he gets religious – quite literally, using words like ‘grace’, ‘censer’ and ‘sacred’ – about his very favourite common thing.

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Up There

A few miles south of Hadrian’s Wall, running parallel to it through the Tyne Gap, runs the Stanegate (the stone road), or what is left of it, a Roman built road that pre-dates the Wall by a couple of centuries. This road runs right through the centre of the Roman remains of Corstopitum, the garrison and later trading town for the Empire’s northern frontiers, and base for forays into Scotland. Excavated in the 1980’s, the foundations of the town can be seen in their entirety a mere field or two outside of its modern day equivalent, the pleasant Northumbrian town of Corbridge, in one of the narrow, low-lying areas near the Tyne, a far cry (although in reality only a few miles from) the wind-blown crags on which Hadrian’s Wall perches.

The town’s foundations, when looked at in conjunction with a plan, give you a remarkably vivid idea of what the town would have been like. It was surprisingly small – perhaps the size of a modern day care home, and very organised, intersected by the Stanegate east to west, and roughly divided into four quadrants: a large grain storage building with a (once) decorated aqueduct; a sort of great square shopping centre divided into smaller stalls – sort a stone market place – in the middle of which is an empty space, but for a never-completed commander’s tower; the other two quadrants are a mix barracks, workshops, latrines and temples – an impressive four of them for such a small town.

I visited earlier this month, on a warm, dry September day. I looked around the museum a bit, at rusted coins, swords and armour, fragments of Gaulish pottery and Brittonic brooches, and statues from those temples. Then I went outside and and tried to get a sense of the place – but first I was rather distracted by the flock of twites that were pecking around the space around the commander’s house. Twites (which my auto-correct keeps changing to twits – but what is a flock of twits?) are small, likeable ground-feeding birds, somewhat like linnets, but less colourful and favouring slightly colder climes. I mention them only because it was novel to see a flock of birds on a long deserted building – a touch of memento mori and all that – but also because it’s not every day you see twites; since this is a blog about poetry, I’ll have to try and relate them to the poem later.

The atmosphere of my trip to Corstopitum was very much like that of this poem, also about Roman remains in England, albeit down in the Cotswolds, from the pen of the strange and wonderful and occasionally  slightly disorganised talent, Ivor Gurney:

Up There
On Cotswold edge there is a field and that
Grows thick with corn and speedwell and the mat
Of thistles, of that tall kind; Rome lived there,
Some hurt centurion got his grant or tenure
Built farm with fowls and pigsties and wood-piles,
Waited for service custom between whiles.
The farmer ploughs up coins in the wet-earth time.
He sees them on the topple of crests gleam.
Or run down furrow, and halts and does let lie
Like a small black island in brown immensity,
Red pottery easy discovered no searching needed
One wonders what farms were like, no searching needed,
As now the single kite hovering still
By the coppice there level with the flat of the hill.
Ivor Gurney

It is an enjoyable poem, and quite a relief from Gurney’s more battle scarred, often heart-rending war poetry, but as someone who has spent many years teaching English, I can’t help but notice Gurney’s idiosyncratic punctuation. Gurney seems to have neglected it in some parts of this poem, though after some lines throwing in a full stop where a comma would suffice. Some editors have seen fit to tidy this up – with some even adding a pronoun (lets them lie). I can see their point – Gurney obviously did not much care or think of punctuation. I have reproduced his original text, however, and I think it better suits the note-like nature of his poetry, without the addition of semicolons and ellipses, as if these were fresh observations fresh from the mouth or pen of the poet. Even that missing pronoun may have sounded perfectly natural to Gurney, immersed as he was in Elizabethan poetry. The rhyming and rhythm is perfectly organised of course, much more important from a poet’s point of view, whatever his old English teachers would have thought. I do think he might have thought to revise one of the couplets though:

Red pottery easy discovered no searching needed

One wonders what farms were like, no searching needed,

I’m warming to Gurney a lot, but I must admit this couplet lacks any coherent grammar, and is a bit of a lazy rhyme. Even editors aren’t sure what to do with this, but those of us who read poetry for pleasure can let it pass.

I love the casual way that England’s Roman past emerges in this poem, from a coin or fragment of pottery ploughed up from the ground (of course, I’m also glad that these days archaeologists take more care to put them in museums where people like me can peruse them at our leisure). The image is just right too: that black coin – for they are always black – lying atop a mound of fresh earth, or as Gurney puts it:

The farmer ploughs up coins in the wet-earth time.

He sees them on the topple of crests gleam.

For a poem about Roman remains, there is something very Anglo-Saxon about that couplet. First there is the phrase “the wet-earth time” which is very reminiscent of the old, very literal Old English names for months, such as woedmonad (weed month) or drimilcemonad (month of three milkings). The phrase ‘on the topple of crests gleam’, with that verb used as a noun, and those onomatopoeic consonant clusters, could have come from the pen of Gerald Manley Hopkins, who loved the rhythms and sounds of Old English verse, and brought them into his own poetry. You could imagine him getting a bit carried away with that coin in the mud:

He sees them on the topple of clod-clumped crests

God-given glimmerings gleaming on earth-turned crusts etc.

Recently, I read the fascinating The King in the North by Max Adams, a history of the golden age of early medieval Northumbria, focused around the great figure of Oswald. In an aside, he repeats the complaint of historians of the dark ages against archaeologists who dig up Roman ruins, that in their enthusiasm to reach stone foundations and rusted armour, they dig up the – admittedly addled – remains of the Brittonic or Anglo-Saxon buildings that were built on or around them, once the Romans had departed. It was some centuries after their departure that buildings of stone and mortar again appeared in the British Isles (except for some monasteries in the west of Ireland) – those heroes of the dark ages we hear about lived, ruled and worshipped in buildings of wood, sometimes built on or around Roman ruins. Once they had got the hang of building with stone, the British would take stones from the Roman sites – in the case of Corstopitum, it was mined for stone for Corbridge’s parish church, and for the impressive Hexham Abbey, four miles down the Stanegate. But enough remained to give the sense of much of Britain having been built on a Roman infrastructure, with the occasional structure, like Gurney’s field on Cotswold edge, left to the side and never reoccupied. I do wonder what became of that “hurt centurian” Gurney mentions. Did he stay in the Cotswolds, marry a local lass and eventually blend into the British gene pool? Or did he up sticks and head back to Italy or Byzantium with the Roman retreat?

That, I suppose, we’ll never know, but I will have to leave off such speculations, because earlier in this post I promised I would come back to those twites. If they provided my visit to the Stanegate with a chirpy touch of memento mori, then what of their rhyming cousin, the kite, who hovers over the hill in the final couplet? Last year I speculated on the meaning of this creature in the Russian poet Alexander Blok’s The Kite. In that poem, circling over a war-torn village, it seemed to signify the ever-presence of the threat of death, with vague connotations of aristocratic cruelty. Gurney’s kite also signifies something that is ever-present, but in a much more positive sense. We don’t need to strain our imaginations to wonder what life was like when the retired Roman lived here – he was surrounded by the same scenes as Gurney: the kite, the coppice, the flat of the hill. A nice ending… although we could reflect with some melancholy, reading the poem some ninety-odd years after it was written, that such scenery seems a lot less eternal than it may have appeared at the beginning of the twentieth century. But that’s taking us into Philip Larkin territory, and I’m really not in the mood, what with all these pleasant thoughts about Roman Britain, Anglo-Saxon alliteration, couplets and coppices, Corstopitum and the Cotswolds, kites, twites and farms in the wet-earth time.

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Photographs (To Two Scots Lads)

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.

Ivor Gurney

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.

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All Night Under the Moon

Last post, I said that we would be posting on a poet who could show the lover of Conversation Galante a thing or too about how to melt a woman’s heart. In fact, I thought about posting on Byron’s last poem, ‘Love and Death’, before realising that it wasn’t really any kind of wooing poem at all. The clue was in the title I suppose. So, not for the first time, I have fallen back on the Georgian poets. This week’s poem is quite simply a lovely little lyric to celebrate the lovely month of June, and I’ve no doubt it could melt a heart or two as well.

I first came across this poem as the lyrics to a song, by Ivor Gurney no less, and I thought that he had written the words too. But it is actually by another English poet, Wilfred Gibson, who, like Gurney, found fame as a First World War poet, but survived the war and wrote poetry about as peaceful as you could imagine:

All Night under the Moon

All night under the moon
Plovers are flying
Over the dreaming meadows
of silvery light,
Over the meadows of June
Calling and crying
Wandering voices of love
in the hush of the night.

All night under the moon
Love, though we’re lying
Quietly under the thatch,
in the dreaming light
Over the meadows of June
Together we’re flying
Wandering voices of love
in the hush of the night.

Wilfred Gibson

Gibson, like myself, was born within spitting distance of the Tyne, although in his case somewhat to the west, in Hexham a medium-sized, very old town in rural Northumberland. Long ago, Hexhamshire was a county of its own. And it does have a feeling of its own – where English rolling hills and wooded dells meet the windswept fells and moors of the North Pennines.

I would wager that landscape helped inspire this poem. Some of the moors just west of Hexham are chock-full of lapwing (a kind of plover too, you know), and once, while by Derwent Reservoir just to the south, I saw a flock of golden plover wheeling overhead towards the sunset.

The poem’s imagery, focusing on these plovers over their dreaming night meadows, repeats and varies subtly across the two stanzas. In the first, it is the plovers who are flying, but in the second, the poet and his lover, though lying ‘under the thatch’ are transported into the birds’ place, or so he assures her.

And that, Mr conversational gallant, is how you enjoy a nice view with a lady friend!

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Requiem

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.

 

Ivor Gurney

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.

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