Ivor Gurney was born in Gloucester, the son of a tailor. Having demonstrated an early gift for music, he won a position as a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral and an accompanying education at the elite King’s School. In 1911, Gurney won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, but he was unhappy in London and fell ill in the spring of 1913, suffering from depression. When war broke out, he enlisted with the 2/5 Gloucestershire regiment, hoping to swap nervous exhaustion for what he called ‘healthy fatigue’.

Gurney found it easier to produce poetry than music at the Front, and during the war he wrote the only volumes of poetry to appear during his lifetime (Severn & Somme, 1917; War’s Embers, 1919). Having been shot at the Somme and gassed at Passchendaele, he was discharged from the army just before the Armistice in 1918. The rest of his life was blighted with mental illness. He was committed to an asylum in 1922 after several attempts at suicide.

Gurney’s productivity in the early years of his incarceration was unprecented: the single month of March 1925, for example, saw the completion of seven song settings and four volumes of poetry. Gurney’s great subjects were his loved-and-lost Gloucestershire landscapes and his memories of the war. In fact, he considered himself to be ‘the first of the war poets’, but struggled to find editors who agreed. A few individual poems appeared in the London Mercury, but otherwise his work was ignored. It may have been a resultant sense of futility that stopped him writing after 1926, except for one or two stray poems.    

Those circumstances explain Gurney’s unusual publication history and the slow growth of his reputation. On his death, very little of his best poetry (most of it dating from the asylum years) had been published. It is only thanks to the dedication of a few friends that his papers—handwritten, messy, sometimes incoherent—survive at all, and for many decades they were dismissed, unstudied, as the sad product of mental decline. That the vast output of a canonical poet and composer, ever-present in war poetry anthologies and with songs such as ‘Sleep’ and ‘By a Bierside’ established as repertoire favourites, should have been ignored for so long is an extraordinary oversight that has only recently started to be rectified.

Gurney’s poetry is most commonly read in the context of the Great War, and renewed interest in his work was partly prompted by the centenary of that conflict. As he himself believed, his achievement ranks alongside the very best of his soldier-contemporaries. He also belongs among the Georgian poets, and his affinity to Edward Thomas marks an important and still neglected pastoral tradition in English poetry. He is one of the earliest and most profound inheritors of nineteenth-century American verse, writing obsessively about Whitman as well as showing that poet’s influence. His biographical circumstances encourage connections with predecessors like Smart, Cowper and Clare. And his fragmented syntax both partakes of, and resists, the Modernist poetics which are contemporary with his best work.

Gurney died of tuberculosis in the City of London Mental Hospital at Dartford on Boxing Day 1937.

Tim Kendall

Selected Reading

The Journal of the Ivor Gurney Society. https://ivorgurney.co.uk/product-category/journals/

Patrick Kavanagh (ed.), Ivor Gurney: Collected Poems (2004).

Kate Kennedy, Ivor Gurney: Dweller in Shadows (2021).

Philip Lancaster and Tim Kendall (eds.), Ivor Gurney: The Complete Poetical Works, Vol. 1, 1907-December 1918 (2020)