VISIT | The Brilliance of Ivor Gurney | Gloucestershire
Remembering Gloucester's Weaver of Words and Music
Discover a Gloucester legend of note, sound, image and rhyme
Ivor Gurney's life is a lesson of talent, vision, understanding and connection to the landscape
His memory remains in remembrance at Twigworth who take their time to understand the man whose legacy was not just of war poetry, or of musical composition, but of friendship and a sharing of intellectual and emotional place in the Gloucestershire countryside
"...A place to remember a unique and wonderful soul of poetry and music, he loved his Gloucestershire..."
His name lies on the memorial tablet for the War Poets of the First World War that lies in Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey – one of only sixteen names. Alongside others like the immortal Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke of Foreign Field fame, of Laurence Binyon who shall never grow old and many others. But there is one Gloster boy. His name was Ivor Bertie Gurney. No officer just one of the rank and file.
Ivor Gurney – naturally gifted poet and composer. From Gloucester. His great friend and poet F. W. Harvey who came from the little village of Minsterworth outside of Gloucester said that it was only in death that people appreciated the magic of Ivor Gurney, something he himself, Harvey, had been banging on about for years.
The thing that gets lost in the conversation about Ivor Gurney is the man himself. It is often the way when people of natural and special gifts show their fates to the world, that the personality is lost for the art.
Born in 1890 the son of a tailor and a seamstress, young Ivor showed early musical promise and ended up as a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral. An accidental but happy coincidence occurred when a curate that would become Canon Cheesman became his godfather. He encouraged the young Ivor in widening his horizons. He dabbled with the organ and learned more alongside Gloucester Cathedral’s Organist Herbert Brewer with fellow students and friends Herbert Howells and Ivor Davies, now known as Ivor Novello. He played the organ at churches including Whitminster, Hempsted and indeed the Mariners Church in the Docks. He played music. And whilst he played, he was schooled at King’s School. Harvey and Ivor would meet on a tram and became firm friends.
These young men of Gloucester, of music and of art, wandered the by-ways and wild places of the shire. Walking and talking of life, of words, or beauty. It was in many ways the golden air of the Edwardian age, before war and decline.
Life must have become interesting for Ivor. For in 1911, he won a scholarship at the Royal College of Music. To learn alongside some of his heroes of music. Sir Charles Stanford and Sir Hubert Parry where other Gloucestershire musical inspirations were studying including Down Ampney’s Ralph Vaughan-Williams.
Gurney had made ripples in the Gloucester press before he left by writing in anonymously as Crotched Datchet complaining or inciting the musical appreciation of the Gloucester people. His identity was soon revealed. But not before a plethora of letters being published by critics of Gurney and by anonymous Crotched.
Ivor’s life made a sudden turn when in August 1914, like many, many others, the First World War was declared. Britain would go to war.
You could ask the question – what good would a music student be in a time of war? But the time was a moment of proud patriotism, you fought for your country because it was the right thing to do. And many did. Including Ivor.
Aged twenty-four years, he queued up with the rest of the underage boys and menfolk at the enlisting offices, between teachers and lawyers, shopkeepers and postmen.
Formally enlisted into a Gloucestershire Regiment’s Territorial Reserve Battalion based in Britain in February 1915 and then within a couple of weeks was despatched to the 2nd/5th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment.
The 2/5 Glosters saw little of life in the action of the trenches but more the rurality of the Essex countryside around Chelmsford. They marched. They dug and they filled in. They paraded and were trained in route-marching, the use of wagons and the right kind of soldier’s response. Not until May 1916 did Gurney’s battalion head for France.
It was life as a soldier where the tools of his music craft were denied from him that the lyricism of poetry took over. Ivor Gurney began to write poetry. The result of a disconnectedness from the Gloucestershire which he loved and that ground him in familiarity and the experiences of the Western Front with its camraderie: the war environment, the men affected by it and the reaction he experienced from it.
The battalion moved from places like Riaz Bailleul where they first trained in the back trenches of France to Laventie in the frontlines; across to the Somme to Albert; and thence to Ypres and Belgium. And whilst they fought, waited and rested Ivor began to write. In letters he wrote back to a friend he had made back when music was all that mattered – Marion Scott.
It was to Marion that his words were sent back from the deep and damp trenches of France, from the close quarter burners, from the pencil scribbles of the barns, camps, and backwaters of the land behind the lines. Words that Marion typed and sent for hopeful publishing.
Ivor’s first book of poetry Severn and Somme was published in 1917. His second War’s Embers would be published in May 1919.
His friend F. W. Harvey would appear briefly as a Captain in the 2/5 Glosters before being taken prisoner of war by the Germans after a reconnaissance mission into no-man’s land. Gurney believed his good friend dead. But this was how it was with Ivor. The relationships he had built were in many ways those of the Gloster backbone. Harvey from Minsterworth. Herbert Howells, unfit for military service, from Lydney. And then of course the poets, writers and musicians who had set up shop around and about on Gurney’s doorstep – at Dymock and Ryton.
Ivor served overseas on the Western Front in France and Belgium from the 24th May 1916 until the 23rd September 1917. He was wounded on the 7th April 1917 when he was injured in the right arm. But on September 10th 1917 he was hit by shell gas.
Some say that Ivor had underlying mental difficulties before he went to war. Suffering from emotional or psychological changes. Some might say that he was one of those highly sensitive individuals that felt emotion through his whole burdensome body. A characteristic that was perhaps revealed after his gassing in 1917 and his subsequent hospitalisation back in Britain at Edinburgh War Hospital, Bangour in West Lothian, Scotland.
Private Ivor Gurney was finally discharged from the army in October 1918 on a medical discharge as no longer being physically fit for service. Throughout the previous year he had moved from hospital to hospital with periods of release. His health becoming precarious.
They used many words back then to describe the difficulties Ivor faced. Shell-shocked. Neurasthenic. Troubled. Affected. But the truth was that after being gassed, shell-shocked and spewed out of a warzone without his usual comforts of landscape and lyricism that this young man needed time and care.
Whilst Gurney continued to write music with a return to the Royal College of Music and engage with the landscape in exercise, his behaviour became more scattered. Rather than touching base with the Gloucestershire countryside, he frequently became lost in it, walking for miles in aimless quests. He was placed in Barnwood Asylum on the outskirts of Gloucester in 1922. He hated it and broke out. Then led by Marion Scott and his friends, he was committed to Dartford Mental Asylum in London.
Ivor Gurney would spend the next sixteen years there as a patient until his death in 1937 from tuberculosis. His friends continued to visit him including Will Harvey, Herbert Howells and the widow of the poet Edward Thomas who reminded him of his Gloster home. By all accounts, Ivor was always lucid when these familiar faces appeared, the words and smiles of reminiscences of past and present, to talk of word and melody. Ivor continued to write music although its conventional quality deteriorated, but his words of the war and its impact always spoke of a truth experienced.
In 1928, Harvey wrote a poem entitled “To Ivor Gurney” in which he spoke of their past lives before the war and the prisons they found themselves in because of it, of hawthorn hedges and primroses. The late composer Gerald Finzi worked with Ivor Gurney through the 1930s to decode his work inspired by the man of Gloucester.
On Boxing Day 1937, Ivor Gurney died in Dartford Asylum. Just a few days later he would finally return to his beloved Gloucestershire. In a grave at the foot of his good friend Herbert Howell’s nine-year-old son Michael, they buried him at Twigworth churchyard. Howells played the music of Gurney on the organ at Twigworth. For this was the church that Canon Cheesman held next to the rectory Ivor had ventured to as a younger man and boy. Holly was still decorating the church for Christmas. His friends of old attended his last farewell whilst others thought of him.
“He was so full of joy and beautiful things, because he loved beautiful music and poetry.”
The Canon told the mourners.
“After life’s fitful gleam he sleeps.”
Gloucester Journal 8th January 1938 page 18
Ivor Gurney, a man of Gloucester and its lands – river, hedges and hills – that could speak through words or music, melodies and metaphors but whose appreciated talents were perhaps hidden like the mist of his beloved Severn. But beloved by those who saw him for all that he was; their Ivor.
Directions and Map |
Find the church at Twigworth north from Gloucester on the A38 towards Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire