Biographical Outline

by Anthony Boden

Ivor Gurney, 1920.

Ivor Gurney, 1920.

There is nothing for me, Poetry, who was the child of joy,
But to work out in verse crazes of my untold pain;
In verse which shall recall the rightness of a former day.

from ‘The Last of the Book’

So wrote Ivor Gurney during the last fifteen years of his life, years spent incarcerated in a mental hospital. His story was to end in sadness ‚Äď but Gurney was very much a ‘child of joy’ ‚Äď a man with a zest for life, for friendship and for fun, but in the end, a helpless victim of mental instability.

Gurney was that rare being: both poet and composer, the first Englishman to be dually-gifted in these two arts since Thomas Campion in the reign of Elizabeth I, and his output was prodigious. He left us around two hundred songs, several chamber and instrumental works, and over three hundred poems and verse-pieces, the best of which mark Gurney out as a creative spirit touched by genius.

Since the publication in 1978 of Michael Hurd’s excellent biography, The¬†Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, the facts of Gurney’s life have become well¬†known. He was born in Gloucester on 28th August 1890, the second of¬†four children. His father, David, was a tailor whose patron, when he was an apprentice, had been Sir Ivor Bertie Guest, 1st Baron Wimborne (1835-1914). Thus David Gurney gave his¬†younger son the name Ivor Bertie Gurney. ‘Bertie’ was pronounced¬†Bartie, which in turn gave rise to Gurney’s nickname as a young man,¬†‘Bartholomew’. Ivor’s mother, Florence, was a highly-strung, somewhat¬†unstable woman, and life at home was far from placid or easy; as his¬†sister, Winifred, recalled:

Happiness revolved around father. As very small children mother certainly did her best to bring us up well, but when we grew to be more independent it seemed too much for her. She possessed us as babies, but couldn’t do so later and her iron rule led to nagging. Life for us was something akin to a bed of stinging nettles, and to keep the peace father’s efforts had to be applied when and where possible, but taking care to walk warily […] The pity of it was that mother did not seem to enjoy her children, and so far as I could see she did not win their love. Worse still, Father was not allowed to give us as much love as he had for us […].

Gurney was baptised on 24th September 1890 at All Saints Church in Gloucester, where his cousin, Joseph Gurney, was the organist. The service was thinly attended. Apart from Ivor, his parents and the vicar, the only other person present was the curate at All Saints, the Reverend Alfred Cheesman, who, in the absence of any other, agreed to be the child’s Godfather, and this proved to be a stroke of singular good fortune for Gurney. Cheesman, a bachelor, well known in Gloucester for his efforts on behalf of underprivileged youngsters, took his responsibilities as Godfather extremely seriously. As Gurney grew, Cheesman quickly recognised the boy’s artistic sensibilities, gave him free access to his considerable library, and thus introduced him to a world of literature and ideas.

Gurney began his schooling at the National School in Gloucester, but it was Cheesman who encouraged Ivor to try for a choral scholarship at¬†Gloucester Cathedral, acceptance for which would bring with it both a place in the cathedral choir and an education at the King’s School. Ivor was successful, and he entered the King’s School, where F.W. Harvey was already a pupil, in the autumn term of 1900.

Gurney was composing music from 1904, encouraged by two sisters, Emily and Margaret Hunt, family friends who had travelled widely in Europe and who shared a deep love and understanding of German music of the nineteenth century. It was also the Hunt sisters who took young Ivor out of Gloucester to discover for the first time the breathtaking beauty of the Cotswold Hills.

In 1906 Gurney became articled to the organist of Gloucester Cathedral,¬†Herbert (later Sir Herbert) Brewer, with whom he studied music¬†alongside two other young men, Herbert Howells and Ivor Novello, both¬†of whom, in their very different ways, were to make a considerable impact on British music. Gurney forged particularly close friendships¬†with Howells and Harvey, and what Marion Scott, the Registrar of the¬†Royal College of Music, said of Gurney could apply equally to all¬†three. ‘His education’, she said, ‘may be said to have begun with the beauty he saw about him, the lovely countryside, the hills, the Severn¬†River’.

Although both Gurney and Harvey had attended the same school, it was¬†not until 1908, when both met on a tram in Gloucester, that their close¬†friendship began. Harvey was, at this time, articled to a local¬†solicitor, but his mind was preoccupied by poetry. He took his friend home to ‘The Redlands’, a large farmhouse at Minsterworth, close to¬†Gloucester, and here Gurney found a ready welcome from Harvey’s family,¬†good conversation, companionship, and a grand piano! He also found a¬†like spirit and a shared love of poetry, music, cricket, football, table tennis, and of sailing their little boat The Dorothy on the River¬†Severn. If Alfred Cheesman had opened Ivor’s eyes and ears to Kipling,¬†Tennyson, Housman and other ‘moderns’, Gurney and Harvey together¬†discovered the Elizabethans: Fletcher, Nashe, Ben Jonson and, above all, Shakespeare.

A turning point for both Howells and Gurney was reached in 1910, a year in which the Three Choirs Festival was held in Gloucester. Howells had asked Brewer if there was to be any new work in the Festival programme. ‘Yes’, Brewer replied, ‘a queer mad work by an odd fellow from Chelsea ‚Äď something to do with Tallis’. The work in question was the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams, a piece so essentially English, so different from anything which they had heard before, that, following the performance, Gurney and Howells spent much of the night walking about Gloucester, talking excitedly about it. From that moment both men were determined to become composers.

In 1911 Gurney won an open scholarship to the Royal College of Music, which he entered in the autumn term of that year. His composition teacher was Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, who famously said that of all his students ‚Äď Vaughan Williams, Arthur Bliss, Gustav Holst, John Ireland and dozens more ‚Äď Gurney was potentially ‘the biggest of them all. But the least teachable’! The Secretary of the RCM Union and editor of the RCM Magazine was Marion Scott, a woman who was to become the most influential figure in Gurney’s life.

Gurney moved into rather shabby rooms in Fulham, and in order to increase his meagre income took a job as organist at a church in High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. Here he was befriended by the churchwarden, Edward Chapman, who had come to live in High Wycombe in 1914. Chapman invited Gurney home to lunch every Sunday. Before long, Ivor was considered very much a part of the Chapman family, enjoying hilarious games of ping-pong and cricket, walks in the country and songs at the piano with the four Chapman children, Kitty, Winnie, Arthur and Marjorie (‘Micky’). All four children clearly adored their new friend, whose sparkling personality, huge sense of fun and energetic enthusiasm for all their games they found irresistible. Before very long Ivor had fallen in love with Kitty and proposed marriage, even though she was still only seventeen years old. It was not to be: she turned him down.

In 1913 Gurney, whose natural exuberance was often blighted by fits of depression, had found himself close to a nervous breakdown. Obliged to take time off from the RCM, he returned to Gloucestershire for a few idyllic weeks, living and working at the Severn-side village of Framilode. But by July 1914 he was back at college and able to write to Will Harvey:

Dear Willy,
It’s going Willy. It’s going. Gradually the cloud passes and Beauty is a present thing, not merely an abstraction poets feign to honour.

Willy, Willy, I have done 5 of the most delightful and beautiful songs you ever cast your beaming eyes upon. They are all Elizabethan ‚Äď the words ‚Äď and blister my kidneys, bisurate my magnesia if the music is not as English, as joyful, as tender as any lyric of all that noble host. Technique all right, and as to word setting ‚Äď models. ‘Orpheus’, ‘Tears’, ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’, ‘Sleep’, and ‘Spring’. How did such an undigested clod as I make them?

But this was 1914, and when war came in August of that year, Gurney tried to enlist alongside Harvey in the 1/5th Glosters. He was rejected due to poor eyesight, but in February 1915 was accepted as a Private in the 2/5th Glosters and sent off to Chelmsford in Essex for basic training.

A month later the men of Gurney’s battalion were taken by train to¬†Tidworth, from where they marched through heavy snow to Park House Camp¬†on Salisbury Plain. They arrived to find that there were no beds, fires¬†or electric light. The men slept on the bare floor through a bitterly¬†cold night of wind and snow. In May he wrote to Herbert Howells:

Dear Howler,
Finis est, or rather, Inceptus est (?). We go tomorrow. Little Howler, continue in thy path of life, blessing others and being blest, creating music and joy, never ceasing from the attempt to make English music what it should be, and calmly scornful-heedless of the critics.

Go on and prosper, and Au revoir.

Howells, medically unfit to serve, was spared the¬†horrors of the First War. On Gurney’s departure for Laventie on the¬†Somme Howells dedicated his Piano Quartet in A minor: ‘To the Hill at Chosen and Ivor Gurney who knows it’. Chosen Hill in¬†Gloucestershire had been a favourite walking place for the two men. But¬†Gurney, far from Chosen Hill, was soon preparing for the terror of¬†trench warfare in a far flatter landscape. On 25th May 1916 the 2nd/5th Glosters sailed to Le Havre aboard a troopship, marched towards¬†Flanders, rested a few miles north of Bethune, and then went into¬†trenches at Riez Bailleul for a week of instruction under the London¬†Welsh Regiment.

Through the war and the misery of the trenches, Gurney, who was a¬†signaller, turned more and more to the writing of verse, opportunities¬†for musical composition being clearly rare. Many of these early trench¬†poems reflect his longing for Gloucestershire, many his horror and¬†hatred of war. But it was a poem by Will Harvey that inspired one of¬†the few songs that Gurney was able to compose in the trenches. Harvey’s¬†war had begun at Ploegsteert, an experience that drew from him the¬†poem In Flanders, which Gurney saw in the Glosters Gazette. ‘That says everything for me’, Gurney wrote to Marion Scott,’it is the¬†perfect expression of homesickness … that will be in anthologies¬†hundreds of years from now surely. Gurney’s magnificent setting is¬†dated ‘Crucifix Corner, Thiepval, Christmas Day 1916’.

On the morning of 16th August, 1916, Harvey and Gurney met, shared a¬†conversation, and Harvey lent Gurney his pocket edition of Robert¬†Bridges’s The Spirit of Man. Later that day Harvey, by now¬†decorated for bravery and commissioned, went out alone across no-man’s¬†land to reconnoitre the ground in preparation for leading an attack¬†that night. He did not return. Gurney wrote to Marion Scott:

The thing that fills my mind most is, that Willy Harvey, my best friend, went on patrol a week ago, and never came back. It does not make much difference; for two years I have had only the most fleeting glimpses of him, but we were firm enough in friendship, and I do not look ever for a closer bond, though I live long and am as lucky in friendship as heretofore.

But Harvey’s going did make a difference ‚Äď and Gurney distilled his thoughts into a perfect poem. Harvey had found love before the war; he was engaged to marry an Irish nurse, Sarah Anne Kane, and perhaps Gurney’s poem, ‘To His Love’, was written as much with her in mind as with his own profound sense of loss.

However, Harvey had not been killed but captured by the Germans and spent the next two and a half years in seven different prison camps.

March 1917 found Gurney longing for Gloucestershire at war-shattered Caulaincourt, where he sketched out a sublime and rare song-setting of one of his own poems, Severn Meadows. The few other songs which Gurney was able to write whilst in the trenches are, like Severn Meadows, valedictory in nature. They include Sir Walter Raleigh’s farewell to life Even Such is Time, and a superb setting of John Masefield’s By a Bierside.

Gurney, who always considered himself a composer first and a poet second, now, through force of circumstances, turned more and more to verse. Everything he wrote was sent back to Marion Scott, who undertook to type out every poem; she it was, too, who contacted the publishers Sidgwick & Jackson, who, amongst others, had brought the poems of Rupert Brooke and Will Harvey before a wider public in 1916. The result was the publication in October 1917 of Gurney’s first collection of verse under the title Severn and Somme.

On 7th April 1917 Gurney was shot in the arm, spent some time at a military hospital in Rouen, and was then transferred to a machine gun battery at Passchendaele. It perhaps comes as a surprise to discover that he was a crack shot. One month later, on 17th September, he was gassed at St. Julien, invalided back to Britain, and admitted to the Bangour War Hospital, Edinburgh. Clean sheets, good food, comfort and care must have come as a blissful relief, even though the threat of a return to Flanders still remained. There was even a lighter touch to some of the poems that Gurney wrote at Bangour, as in his humorous recollection of a trench comrade, ‘Companion ‚Äď North-East Dugout’.

At Bangour, Gurney was nursed by a pretty little V.A.D. nurse, Annie Nelson Drummond, and promptly fell in love again. But this time he had every reason to believe that his feelings were fully reciprocated. In a letter to Howells he wrote: ‘Erbert, O Erbert…. I forgot my body walking with her; a thing that has not happened since … when? I really don’t know’. By November he was fit enough to leave hospital and was sent on a signalling course to Seaton Delaval in Northumberland, where he found life cold and meaningless. Depression began to haunt him once again, as it had in 1913. In February 1918 he was returned to hospital, this time in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and from there to Brancepeth Castle, County Durham. By May his mental condition had worsened and he was sent to Lord Derby’s War Hospital at Warrington for treatment of a ‘nervous breakdown’. At about this time, Annie Nelson Drummond severed her correspondence with Gurney and his mind turned to black despair.

On 19th June he wrote a good-bye letter to Sir Hubert Parry, Principal of the Royal College of Music, and another to Marion Scott: ‘I know you would rather know me dead than mad’. He was found wandering by the canal at Warrington, but the courage to end his life failed him. Comradeship, love and hope, seemingly all had deserted him.

On 4th July he was transferred to the Middlesex War Hospital at Napsbury, and there he remained until his discharge from the Army in October 1918 with a pension of twelve shillings per week. The war ended in November.

Back in Gloucester, Gurney faced a seemingly hopeless future: instability and depression had descended into a profound mental collapse. Life at home was as fractured as ever, and Ronald Gurney, his elder brother, was far from sympathetic with Ivor’s plight. However, friends rallied round. Edward Chapman visited; he even offered to adopt Ivor, a generous gesture that was rejected by the Gurney family. But gradually the clouds parted. A good pre-war friend, the poet Jack Haines, took Ivor for a restorative walking holiday in the Black Mountains; and then in December 1918 he was invited by the novelist and musician Ethel Voynich to join her and some of her friends on a Cornish holiday. Whilst walking at Gurnard Head, the creative spirit was reawakened, resulting in the composition of Desire in Spring, a joyful setting of a poem by Francis Ledwidge.

In February 1919 Will Harvey at last returned from his long years of captivity. He was wasted and ill, but nonetheless within four weeks he and Gurney were able to give a recital together in Stroud, Harvey singing and Gurney playing the piano. On 10 May 1919, David Gurney, Ivor’s father, died, and Ivor went to stay with the Harveys at ‘The Redlands’. By the autumn he was fit enough to return to the Royal College of Music where his composition teacher was now Ralph Vaughan Williams. In 1919, too, a second volume of verse, War’s Embers, was published by Sidgwick and Jackson, and in November of that year the poet John Masefield, invited Gurney and Harvey to visit him at his Oxfordshire home. Recognition was beginning to come. Gurney resumed his post as organist at Christ Church in High Wycombe and with it his close friendship with the Chapman family, finding with them, as he put it, ‘the home-life which is so strong and sweet a stimulant to any sound art’. 1920 and 1921 proved to be the two most productive years of his life. Dozens of songs poured from him. ‘Words, I want words!’, Gurney told his friends and, inevitably, poems by Jack Haines and Will Harvey were amongst the many that he set to music.

Throughout the years 1919 to 1922 Gurney was driving himself hard, physically as well as creatively. We find him walking by night from London to Gloucestershire. He had been, he once wrote, ‘a night-walker from age sixteen’. In 1921 he took a job on a Gloucestershire farm (Dryhill Farm), where his labours included digging, delving and felling trees. It seems that physical exertion was essential to settle his nerves; to quiet the imagined voices and radio waves with which he now felt himself to be bombarded. Also, following exertion came inspiration. In his essay, The Springs of Music, he wrote: ‘Visions of natural fairness were more clearly seen after the excessive bodily fatigue experienced on a route march, or in some hard fatigue in France or Flanders – a compensation for so much strain. One found them serviceable in the accomplishment of the task, and in after-relaxation. There it was one learnt that the brighter visions brought music; the fainter, verse, or mere pleasurable emotion.’

As the years passed, however, he found that ever more exertion was necessary to induce both his visions and his ability to relax. Modern physiologists would probably explain Gurney’s ordeal by pointing out that the brain releases endorphins in response to exercise, or pleasurable experiences, such as listening to music. The natural ‘high’ that individuals experience from running, for instance, is an example of endorphin-enhanced pleasure. Gurney seems to have been unwittingly making use of this naturally induced stimulus, which he had first noticed during the rigours of army life. Additionally, he was torn between the discipline and structure of his studies under Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music and his need for the inspiration that only Gloucestershire could satisfy, for, although Gurney is undoubtedly a poet and composer of national and international importance, he knew absolutely that he belonged to and was possessed by a particular place. Through all of this, between 1919 and 1922, Gurney made the transition from minor poet to major.

In 1922 Gurney gave up his studies in London and went to live with an¬†aunt at Longford on the outskirts of Gloucester. He had tried to earn¬†his living in various ways: church organist, cinema pianist, farm¬†labourer, tax clerk, but all attempts eventually failed, as did his¬†relationship with his aunt. He then arrived, uninvited and less than¬†welcome at his brother’s house in Gloucester city, announcing that he¬†intended to live there. Ronald took Ivor in but the experiment was a disaster. Ivor continued to live erratically. His eating habits were¬†dramatically irregular. He would often come into the house at dead of¬†night following long nocturnal walks and, in searching for candles and¬†food, disturbing Ronald and his wife Ethel. He would leave mud on their¬†furniture and alarm them with his terrified conviction that the police¬†were torturing him, bombarding him with radio waves. Medical help was¬†sought, and in September 1922 Gurney was certified insane and admitted¬†to Barnwood House mental hospital in Gloucester. Here he began to write¬†the first of dozens of letters of appeal to the great and the good, to¬†the police, to universities, to American States, and to friends and¬†colleagues, crying out for release or death.

Gurney made a desperate night-time escape from Barnwood, smashing a window and cutting his hands in the attempt, and running off in his pyjamas. He was recaptured by the police, but it was now decided that he must be confined somewhere well away from Gloucestershire. With the help of Marion Scott and other London friends, including Vaughan Williams, Walter de la Mare and Arthur Benjamin, arrangements were made to transfer Ivor to the City of London Mental Hospital at Dartford in Kent. On admission he pleaded only to be allowed to return to farm work.

Gurney coped with asylum life by blotting it out; his body was¬†imprisoned but his mind was elsewhere. He received visits from friends:¬†Marion Scott, Will Harvey, Herbert Howells and Helen Thomas, the widow¬†of Edward Thomas, among them. Helen Thomas discovered that Ivor refused¬†to go into the asylum’s grounds because ‘it was not his idea of the¬†country at all ‚Äď the fields, woods, water-meadows and footpaths¬†he loved so well, and he would have nothing to do with that travesty of¬†something sacred to him’. His mind inhabited the past. He continued¬†writing songs until 1926, but their quality diminished; his poetry, on¬†the other hand, gathered quality and strength. Gurney’s best war poems¬†belong to these asylum years; they have such immediacy it is as if, in¬†his mind, the war carried on.

Ivor Gurney died of tuberculosis on Boxing Day, 1937. He was 47 years¬†old. Only then was he permitted to return to his beloved¬†Gloucestershire to be buried at Twigworth on the last day of the year. ¬†His godfather, Canon Alfred Cheesman, officiated at the service and¬†Herbert Howells played the organ. Will Harvey, by now a rather shabby¬†figure, walked from his home in the Forest of Dean; as Ivor’s coffin¬†was lowered into the ground, he dropped a final tribute to his friend¬†into the grave: a small sprig of rosemary. To it was attached a tiny¬†card upon which Harvey had written, ‘Rosemary for Remembrance’.

However, in the congregation was a young man who was to ensure that¬†Gurney’s reputation did not fade into oblivion. Gerald Finzi had heard¬†the soprano Elsie Suddaby singing Gurney’s song Sleep in 1920 and¬†felt it to be one of the finest things of its type. With his friend¬†Howard Ferguson and his wife Joy, Finzi set out to gather Gurney’s¬†poems and songs from every source possible, including, of course, from¬†Marion Scott’s unique collection. Without the immense efforts of these¬†four, it is unlikely that we would know anything of Gurney’s work today.

© Anthony Boden, 2007