Thursday, September 13, 2012

"Before Their Death Trees Have Their Full Delight"

The sudden shifts in mood and imagery in Ivor Gurney's poetry (both between poems and within a poem) can sometimes be disconcerting and puzzling.  It is tempting to ascribe these shifts to Gurney's struggles with mental illness.  But one should be wary of this temptation.  I do not think that it is helpful to classify certain of Gurney's poems (e.g., those that seem calm or lucid) as "sane" poems and others (e.g., those that seem manic or disjointed) as "insane" poems.

For a while, I attempted to make such a distinction.  But I gave it up.  First, I realized that it was both futile and speculative to try to deduce Gurney's mental state at the time when he wrote a particular poem.  Second -- and more importantly -- I decided that it was unfair to Gurney.  He is what he is, and we owe it to him to accept him as he is.  (I have reached the same conclusion when it comes to John Clare, whose fate was remarkably, and sadly, similar to Gurney's.)

Thus, here is a poem about summer-into-autumn.  We can say about it what we can say about all of Gurney's poems:  they came from his heart (and from Gloucestershire).

                                            Bertha Ridley Bell (1898-1955)
                  "Interior of a Cottage at Brockhampton, Gloucestershire"

                      Quiet Talk

Tree-talk is breathing quietly today
Of coming autumn and the staleness over --
Pause of high summer when the year's at stay,
And the wind's sick that now moves like a lover.

On valley ridges where our beeches cluster
Or changing ashes guarding slopes of plough,
He goes now sure of heart, now with a fluster
Of teasing purpose.  Night shall find him grow

To dark strength and a cruel spoiling will.
First he will baffle streams and dull their bright,
Cower and threaten both about the hill --
Before their death trees have their full delight.

P. J. Kavanagh (editor), Collected Poems of Ivor Gurney (Oxford University Press 1982).

                                                 Bertha Ridley Bell
                  "The Artist's Cottage, Brockhampton, Gloucestershire"


Bob said...

As an Ivor Gurney admirer, you probably know his beautiful musical setting of Yeats' poem "Down by the salley gardens."

Stephen Pentz said...

Bob: thank you very much for the link. That is one of my favorite Yeats poems. I hadn't heard Gurney's setting of it before: unfortunately, I haven't explored Gurney's musical side as much as I have his poetry. It is a deficiency that I need to rectify!

I greatly appreciate your thoughtfulness in providing the link. Thank you for stopping by.

Philip Lancaster said...

Stephen: You are very right that we should not by-and-large read Gurney's poetry through the lens of any apparent 'madness'. Such reception has in my view done much to limit the reception of Gurney's poetic voice, his occasional knottiness being at times excused and attributed to 'madness' rather than endeavouring to accept and understand his mode of expression as a valid and unique style which has nothing to do with his sad fate.

This poem dates from September 1920, which was a time of stability and great productivity for Gurney, including - by chance - the writing of the setting of W.B. Yeats to which another has drawn attention, 'Down by the Salley Gardens', which song was composed in September-October 1920.

In other sources the poem bears the title 'Late September', with (amongst other differences) the first lines more plainly given as 'The trees are breathing quietly today / Of coming autumn and the summer over'.

I don't believe there to be any subtext to the poem, merely (if such a thing can be said to be merely anything) telling - as you say - of the arrival of the autumn winds and the swift effect of those winds on the summer landscape.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Lancaster: I greatly appreciate hearing your views on Gurney, given your expertise on his work. Thank you for stating the case much more articulately than I can.

I'm glad that you mentioned his "occasional knottiness" and its relationship to an unfortunate tendency to ascribe his style to his "madness." I made this mistake when I first encountered Gurney. I read his poems in anthologies and committed the error that you refer to: I attributed his "difficulty" to his mental state. But I was wrong. To me, this became evident when I began to read him chronologically: I realized that the "knottiness" is simply (maybe not so simply!) a part of Gurney, and not evidence of "madness."

And thank you very much for the background information on "Quiet Talk." I particularly appreciate learning of the alternate title (I was only guessing that it was a late summer/early autumn poem) and seeing the alternate version of the first two lines (which are lovely). And thank you as well for the information that there is not necessarily any "subtext" to the poem: I wasn't certain whether there was something happening in his life at the time that prompted the poem.

As I have said before, I wish you well on your continued (and greatly appreciated!) work in the Gurney archives. Receiving your comment once again makes me look forward to your and Tim Kendall's future edition of the poems.

[For interested readers, I highly recommend a visit to Mr Lancaster's blog relating to his work in the Gurney archives:]