Monday, November 11, 2013

Remembrance Day: "The Silver Thrush No More Crying Canada -- Canada For The Memory"

For all of the heartbreaking personal anguish evident in Ivor Gurney's war poetry, what moves me most deeply in the poetry is his compassion for, and his ever-enduring memory of, those who were with him.  On this Remembrance Day, the following poems by Gurney seem appropriate.

Cecil Constant Philip Lawson, "Moving Up" (c. 1916-1918)

We marched, and saw a company of Canadians
Their coats weighed eighty pounds at least, we saw them
Faces infinitely grimed in, with almost dead hands
Bent, slouching downwards to billets comfortless and dim.
Cave dwellers last of tribes they seemed, and a pity
Even from us just relieved (much as they were), left us.
Somme, what a desolation's damned land, what iniquity
Of mere being.  There of what youth that country bereft us;
Plagues of evil lay in Death's Valley we also had
Forded that up to the thighs in chill mud almost still-stood
As they had gone -- and endured day as night without sun.
Gone for five days then any sign of life glow
As the notched stumps or the gray clouds (then) we stood;
Dead past death from first hour and the needed mood
Of level pain shifting continually to and fro.
Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, Stewart White ran in
My own mind; what in others?  These men who finely
Perhaps had chosen danger for reckless and fine chance
Fate had sent for suffering and dwelling obscenely
Vermin eaten, fed beastly, in vile ditches meanly.
(Backwoods or clean Quebec for defiled, ruined, man-killing France
And the silver thrush no more crying Canada -- Canada for the memory.

Ivor Gurney, Selected Poems (edited by George Walter) (J. M. Dent 1996).

"Death's Valley" (line 9) (also referred to as "Death Valley") was the name given to a terrain feature on the Somme battlefield.  The punctuation (or lack thereof), including the lack of a closing parenthesis at the end of the last line, reflect Gurney's typescript. The poem was not published during his lifetime.

Cecil Constant Philip Lawson, "Arras" (c. 1917-1918)

                           First Time In

After the dread tales and red yarns of the Line
Anything might have come to us; but the divine
Afterglow brought us up to a Welsh colony
Hiding in sandbag ditches, whispering consolatory
Soft foreign things.  Then we were taken in
To low huts candle-lit shaded close by slitten
Oilsheets, and there but boys gave us kind welcome;
So that we looked out as from the edge of home.
Sang us Welsh things, and changed all former notions
To human hopeful things.  And the next days' guns
Nor any line-pangs ever quite could blot out
That strangely beautiful entry to War's rout,
Candles they gave us precious and shared over-rations --
Ulysses found little more in his wanderings without doubt.
'David of the white rock', the 'Slumber Song' so soft, and that
Beautiful tune to which roguish words by Welsh pit boys
Are sung -- but never more beautiful than here under the guns' noise.

Ivor Gurney, Ibid.

The tenderness is touching, especially as contrasted with the harrowing circumstances.  "A Welsh colony/Hiding in sandbag ditches, whispering consolatory/Soft foreign things" is very lovely and affecting.  "David of the White Rock" ("Dafydd y Garreg Wen") and "Slumber Song" ("Suo Gan") are traditional Welsh songs.  Gurney the musician and composer would likely have been beguiled by the singing.

Cecil Constant Philip Lawson, "Somme" (c. 1916-1918)

Finally, there is this sonnet, which is one of Gurney's best-known poems.

                              Strange Hells

There are strange Hells within the minds War made
Not so often, not so humiliatingly afraid
As one would have expected -- the racket and fear guns made.
One Hell the Gloucester soldiers they quite put out;
Their first bombardment, when in combined black shout
Of fury, guns aligned, they ducked lower their heads --
And sang with diaphragms fixed beyond all dreads,
That tin and stretched-wire tinkle, that blither of tune;
'Apres la guerre fini' till Hell all had come down.
12 inch -- 6 inch and 18 pounders hammering Hell's thunders.

Where are They now on State-doles, or showing shop-patterns
Or walking town to town sore in borrowed tatterns
Or begged.  Some civic routine one never learns.
The heart burns -- but has to keep out of face how heart burns.

Ivor Gurney, Ibid.

The final two lines are, of course, remarkable -- and devastating.  First comes: "Some civic routine one never learns."  On a first reading, this could possibly have a hint of wryness about it.  Possibly.  But then comes this: "The heart burns -- but has to keep out of face how heart burns."  One would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved.  There are things that we will never come close to fathoming because we were not there, but which can still bring a tear to the eye.

Cecil Constant Philip Lawson, "Sanctuary Wood" (c. 1916-1917)


John Ashton said...

Simply wonderful Mr Pentz. For me Ivor Gurney wrote some of the most moving and truly heart- wrenching poetry about the First World War, you can almost feel the pain in his writing. I know there are other poets of the period whose names are probably more well known to many people, but for me Gurney is one of the finest. I'm sure you know this poem, but I though it worth including in this post for others who might come by and not be familiar with it. The impact of the final lines never fails to strike home.

To His Love’ - Ivor Gurney

He’s gone, and all our plans
Are useless indeed.
We’ll walk no more on Cotswolds
Where the sheep feed
Quietly and take no heed.

His body that was so quick
Is not as you
Knew it, on Severn River
Under the blue
Driving our small boat through.

You would not know him now…
But still he died
Nobly, so cover him over
With violets of pride
Purple from Severn side.

Cover him, cover him soon!
And with thick-set
Masses of memoried flowers-
Hide that red wet
Thing I must somehow forget.

Bovey Belle said...

A wonderful choice of poetry, as always. If the words don't move you to tears, then listening to the music will . . . Living in the Welsh heartland as I do, the songs pull at my heartstrings and to think of them being sung softly and melodiously in the trenches, it is easy to see how they must have bonded those Welsh soldiers together and given them courage - whichever words they sang to Suo Gan. A little Welsh colony and Gurney obviously never forgot their kindness and the comfort they gave him.

Again there are some phrases which pluck at the senses "And there but boys gave us kind welcome"; "the Slumber Song so soft" - only Welsh tenors can carry "soft" in such a telling way.

I am reminded of the large photographs of young men sent away to War - boys so many of them - in Uniform, we have bought just for the frame, but cannot bear to part with the photo either - someone's father, brother, son - who lived on in memory in a photograph . . .

Anonymous said...

"There are things that we will never come close to fathoming because we were not there, but which can still bring a tear to the eye."

Thank you for provoking tears!

Such a moving memorial to that terrible war.
I was particularly touched by the 'international' ground in your choice of poems.

My maternal great uncle fell during the Somme. He and his brother were of English parents who had emigrated to the USA, but the family had moved back to Somerset in time for him to become one of the 12,840 men of the King's Royal Rifle Corps killed during World War I. It was a fitting choice of regiment for Ernest, as the KRRC was a British regiment originally raised in 18th century America from North American colonists His older brother Harry was also present on the Somme but, having emigrated just before the war to Australia, he served in the Australian Army. Being a baker he was stationed behind the front line, although only a few miles from where his brother fell, and survived to enlist again in World War II.

The poem that moved me to tears in your selection was that which spoke to my paternal Welsh blood. It evoked, softly yet powerfully, those voices of the brave men of the valleys and it also reminded me of Georgian friends telling me of the many times during their beautiful country's challenging history that male voices raised in harmony kept insanity at bay. If you have heard Georgians in song, you will know that the Welsh share much of great vocal beauty with them.

May the global village that we are becoming (thanks in part to the power of Internet exchange) mean that my own young great nephews and nieces will never have to commemorate their forebears' passing in such a way.

Thank you for introducing me to a poet whose work I had not read.

Sending you warm fall sunshine from Southern California.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: thank you for the comments about Gurney, and for "To His Love" -- it is one of my favorites by him.

I agree with you about the emotional impact of Gurney's war poetry. The experiences of, for instance, Owen, Sassoon, Blunden, and Graves in the war were as horrific as those of Gurney, but I agree with you that -- for some reason -- Gurney's poetry does, as you say, feel to me to be "the most moving and truly heart-wrenching."

I don't know quite how to put it, but perhaps the writing of the others seems to have a little bit of distance in it (although less so with Owen, I think). Whereas in Gurney (at the risk of sounding over-dramatic) his very soul seems to be exposed. No doubt this has something to do with his psychological state, which always seems to have been precarious. But I wouldn't wish to go too far with that explanation: as far as I am concerned he is usually perfectly lucid.

As always, thank you very much for your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: I was hoping I might hear from you about "First Time In," given your location. A touching poem indeed.

In addition to the parts you mention, I also think this is wonderful: "Sang us Welsh things, and changed all former notions/To human hopeful things." From reading about the War, I am always amazed at the small things they did to maintain their humanity, and their connection with home. Gurney's poem captures this perfectly.

Thank you very much for your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: thank you very much for sharing those wonderful memories of your family. Now you have provoked me to tears!

When one thinks of it in terms of individual lives -- as described by you -- the reality of it begins to hit home: each life has its own story, which often gets lost in "history." It really wasn't that long ago. And they haven't been forgotten.

I'm pleased to have introduced you to Gurney's work. And it is wonderful that your Welsh connection makes "First Time In" particularly moving to you. I have no Welsh background, but having listened to "Dafydd y Garreg Wen" and "Suo Gan," the poem is heartbreaking and beautiful for what it says of the Welshmen who sang for Gurney and the other Gloucestermen.

Again, I greatly appreciate your taking the time to share your family's memories. I hope you will return.