Tuesday, December 26, 2017

In Memory Of Ivor Gurney

Today is the eightieth anniversary of the death of Ivor Gurney:  he passed away on December 26, 1937, at the age of 47.  We are naturally drawn to Gurney as a person:  his life is compelling, harrowing, and, ultimately, heartbreaking.  Given the biographical facts, it is tempting to caricature him as any (or all) of the following:  a "war poet," a "mad poet," or a "troubled genius" (as both a poet and a composer).  But that would be a disservice both to Gurney as a person and to his art.

His life does attract our attention, and I am not suggesting we should disregard it.  But, in reading his poetry (and in listening to his music), it is perhaps best to think of him simply as a soul who loved life and loved the World.  And that love began and ended with England and with, above all else, his native Gloucestershire.


Only the wanderer
     Knows England's graces,
Or can anew see clear
     Familiar faces.

And who loves joy as he
     That dwells in shadows?
Do not forget me quite,
     O Severn meadows.

Ivor Gurney,  Severn & Somme (Sidgwick & Jackson 1917).

Alfred Thornton (1863-1939), "The Upper Severn"

"And who loves joy as he/That dwells in shadows?"  He knew exactly where he stood.  This is what breaks our heart.  Yet he knew this as well:

        The Songs I Had

The songs I had are withered
Or vanished clean,
Yet there are bright tracks
Where I have been,

And there grow flowers
For others' delight.
Think well, O singer,
Soon comes night.

Ivor Gurney, Selected Poems (edited by George Walter) (J. M. Dent 1996). The poem appears in a notebook that Gurney used between 1921 and 1922. Ibid, page 100.  It was not published during his lifetime.

Looking back, I see that Gurney's poems have appeared here in twenty or so posts over the years.  We owe it to him to never forget, and to keep alive, his "bright tracks" and his "flowers."  Here are a few:  "The Escape;" "The Wind;" "Brimscombe;" "The Shelter from the Storm;" "Soft rain beats upon my windows;" "First Time In."

Parta Quies.  "Sleep on, sleep sound."

Alfred Thornton, "Hill Farm, Painswick, Gloucestershire"


Mathias Richter said...

Dear Mr Pentz,
Thank you very much for this touching act of remembrance.
Both poems impress by their conciseness of form and intensity of expression.
Gurney touches deep feelings without drifting into sentimentality. There is perhaps a touch of Housman in the epitaph-like second poem.
You may know that ‘Severn Meadows‘ is one of the very few of his own poems which Gurney set to music.
There have been other settings as well, most prominent an early one by the young Gerald Finzi who was one of Gurneys first champions.
I cannot resist mentioning Ian Venables‘s ‘The Pine Boughs Past Music‘, a 21st century composer‘s remembrance of Gurney‘s life and poetry.
Your post reminded me of Finzi‘s words: To shake hands with a good friend over the centuries is a pleasant thing, and the affection which an individual may retain after his departure is perhaps the only thing which guarantees an ultimate life to his work.

Thanks again!
I wish you a Happy New Year!

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Richter: I'm delighted to hear from you again. Thank you for your kind words about the post. I felt that I had to do something to remember him on this anniversary. Your quotation of Finzi's words captures perfectly how some of us feel about Gurney.

As is always the case, you have furthered my education on musical matters. I wasn't aware that Gurney only set a few of his poems to music. You have mentioned Mr. Venables here in the past in connection with song settings. As you probably know, he has been active in The Ivor Gurney Society, which has done wonderful working preserving Gurney's musical and poetic legacy. I wasn't aware of "The Pine Boughs Past Music" (a phrase which, coincidentally, appears in one of the poems I mention in the post: "Soft rain beats upon my windows"): thank you for recommending it.

As ever, thank you very much for visiting. I greatly appreciate your long-time presence here. I wish you all the best in the coming year.

Unknown said...

Hello Stephen,
Belated greetings to you. I avidly await your postings and written thanks seem inadequate but millions of good wishes are coming your way.
Your knowledge and insights are greatly appreciated.
Kind regards

Stephen Pentz said...

Bernadette: That's very thoughtful of you to say. Thank you very much.

I'm happy to hear from you again, and I greatly appreciate your long-term presence here. Thank you for the good wishes, and I in turn send you good wishes for the coming year. Happy New Year.