three : I. Gurney – To His Love. Responses.

K: I find this an interesting but a bit of a strange poem, on early reading. It didn’t turn out to be at all as I expected it to be when I first glanced down the words and subject! Maybe that sounds odd, but, to me this is a poem that has to be read and reread aloud to appreciate properly – to hear as Gurney intended it. As with all the poem’s we’ve looked at so far there’s tons more going on than it first appears. So.

K – Phrasing: I didn’t realise until I just read His Love out loud to myself (perhaps the fourth time I’d read it overall) that the poem has the odd, close rhyming pattern it does – ABCBB. I find it quite jarring and difficult to read, almost discordant and definitely awkward. The two B lines are so close together and the rhymes are so blatant – wet – forget, feed – heed – you almost wish you could put another line in there to make it sound less hurried. The phrasing doesn’t roll and develop as one might like it to. This uncomfortable effect has surely got to be an aural illustration of the pain of the poet’s loss. Like someone choking on their words in grief the flow of the lines is faltering rather than undulating and the phrases buck and break. Similarly, the shortness of the lines mimic that same idea since they are undeveloped, restless and peppered with punctuation that alters the speed and emphases with which the poem can be read. The elipses: “You would not know him now…/But still he died” obviously add poignancy and force reflection on the death of the friend whereas the exclamation mark following repetition: “Cover him, cover him quick!” require a quick and urgent reading. I think this variety in speed adds some immediacy to the poem and mirror the erratic nature of grief.

B – I agree fully, I keep re-reading it trying to make it sound right, to make it flow better and agree that it can definitely be associated with the poets own loss and inability or refusal to be beautiful. It almost feels like a forced poem, like a poem is what the situation demands but the poet can only deliver this which feels very hurried or like he is fore-filling a request. A point about the rhyme scheme, ABCBB – “indeed, feed, heed” then “you, blue, through” etc… Is this an established poetic style? I’m not sure but it almost feels, going back to my previous point, that he is shoehorning his words to a pre-existing poetic form and restriction. It is a frustrating poem and I cant decide if I think it is a good poem or not, if it works.

K: Yeah I know what you mean, it definitely does seem shoehorned. I guess rhyming couplets is a very established style but the combination of the couplets with another rhyme earlier on does sound unusual. I really like your point about it refusing to be beautiful, too. I don’t know if that makes me like it more or less…because on the one hand it’s clever and befitting of the circumstances in that sense, but then my instinct is to want something more melodic! I just checked out that great blog, ‘Move him into the sun’ (but only just now, I promise!) and its writer, Mr Griffiths, describes it as a “musical” poem – which is interesting given all we’ve said about it. I guess it is, but pretty clattering music! He also describes its “elusive rhythm”, which I think speaks to our reactions a bit more.

B: Yes I’d read that too and tend to disagree with him on this one. I think this is something we will come back to in the proposed essay but it seems like we may have inadvertently tapped into the very question of Gurnery’s poetry, namely was he a formalist Georgian poet gone mad, limited by his adherence to the norms of such poetry, romantic and sentimental, the rhyming scheme and the “use of assonance and alliteration” which Mr Griffiths highlights. Or was he rather subverting this form from the outset before he rejected it all together, the disjointedness we have highlighted, the run-over mouthfuls and the grasping, violent ending “That red wet/ Thing I must how forget.”

K: That’s so interesting and I think that’s a very attractive reading, especially after having read around his life a bit. It definitely is jarring, the way the violent and angry imagery is set against the natural imagery and constrained within the traditional rhyming scheme. The more I think ponder on it the more fitting that all is.

B – So what do we think he is actually talking about? I suppose I read it as a fellow solider writing to the dead man’s family or friends? So the “our” is them all and the “you” the ones back home. This is confused by the “our boat”, a shared boat? The poem almost feels vindictive and is certainly not pulling any punches; it is angry. The way the poet implores the respondent to “cover him over”, so the responsibilty must lie with them despite the fact that they are only finding out of his death in the poem? The point about the burial being wrapped to the landscape is a great one, an clear and present theme of the poem. I just had a thought that you could perhaps read it as from a jealous lover to his wife, the way it is so snarky and claims that the recieved knows nothing of him anymore, but social norms dictate that it she that must bury. This would also fit with the “plans now useless indeed” and the movement in the poem from descrptions of things done between the poet and the dead man and towards the need of him being buried by “his love”. Basically I am asking what were the sheep taking no heed of?

K – What you say here about the burial being wrapped in the landscape clarifies what I was getting towards thinking above, I fully agree about its “presentness”- something about the continual connection of nature with the body softens the otherwise very hard nature of the poem, but most importantly, it does make his death seem transient and fugitive – something that will be swallowed, covered, shrouded by the landscape and he will “somehow forget”. Seems funny that it took us (well, you, I hadn’t at all!) till this far along to actually address the message of the poem. It seems well established that the poem is directed at the wife of Gurney’s friend (Mr Griffiths says it’s to the fiancé of Willy Harvey, Gurney’s friend, but that Harvey didn’t actually die.  Particularly given the title and the possessiveness of some of the lines, it definitely does seem like a love poem in some ways.  I think the line “You would not know him now…” might be important, it struck me straight away reading the poem that that line points not only to now that he’s dead, but in general – the protagonist knows and loves him better than the fiancé does. It’s incredibly angry, and it seems totally clear that the protagonist feels himself closer to the dead soldier than his family: the plans, the boat, are theirs, not hers.

K: Moving on to the poem’s message, its imagery and Gurney’s language choice, it’s worth noting the poignant simplicity of the words chosen – there isn’t really anything complicated or hidden – and we know that this is going to be the tone of the poem from the opening words: “He’s gone”. The form of the poem is fairly formulaic too – each stanza begins with a war image, then alludes to the Cotswold’s intertwined with the death. The burial ritual is entirely tied up with the landscape, which is as much a part of the protagonist as the dead soldier. Reading Donald Davie’s thoughts on this has been really interesting though. We’ll no doubt discuss this more in the essay, but I think it’s worth mentioning here that Davie insists that Gurney is “far from being a nature-poet”, and that Gurney felt no consolation from the landscape. What do you make of that? I think the idea that the “violets of pride/purple from seven side” are suggested as a shroud for the body is quite comforting, especially with the idea of pride. But perhaps he’s connecting the fragility/fleeting nature of the flowers with that of human life. What do you think?

B : I found a draft of the poem from 1916 which shows that this section, violets of pride, saw the most revision. It is a little hard to make out but it seems that he first had it as “a pride of violets” which gives a slightly different tone, something less striking I feel. As to Davie, I quite strongly disagree. Although perhaps not a nature poet as some where at the time, I think he absolutely found consolation in the landscape, at all of the various stages of his episodic life. That is not to say he thought it benign or something to be simply venerated, but rather he took it seriously, he saw the life of nature and the life of man as intertwined, just as he saw more to be found in common than to divide in rural and urban simple living. One can see beauty or splendour in flowers without reducing them to inactive objects, to polishable images. What Gurney has written is perhaps sanitised by the form, and not revealed until it is fully thought through. What he is asking for is the a wet, bloody, mutilated corpse, perhaps with shrapnel lodged and limbs missing, be covered over by purple petals. Hundreds would be needed, maybe thousands, all ripped up from “Seven’s side” leaving it bare. And what would be left? A purple tomb, which in weeks and months would turn to brown and then white as the dead flowers and dead man rotted. Leaving a skeleton by the river. This is not a poem of sentiment nor romance but as you say of fragility of pain and desolation.

K: Yeah I’m happy you said you disagreed with Davie on that one – I was definitely inclined to just accept what he said but, you’re right, it’s deeper than that. About the draft, it seems like Gurney originally went for a lot more flower imagery – I think I can see “daffodils in grace from most tender musings” and something else about bluebells. Seeing that there underscores the intertwining of nature and man you mention – but keeping those lines would have taken out a fair bit of the pain and anger, so I can understand the edit. Also, slightly off tangent but I wondered about how he’d changed “violets of pride” from “pride of violets” and wanted to check the definition of pride – because the latter almost sounds like the plural for violets. Anyway, the OED includes two really interesting entries, in addition to the standard one. Firstly: Pride: “n. Any of various body organs, esp. the spleen or a sexual organ.” The examples given date from middle English to the 1950s so it’s possible Gurney was aware of this meaning – I mean, I don’t expect he’s really making anything like a blatant reference to organs in the lines but it could be a knowing coincidence. Even if it wasn’t at all, knowing it now makes the line even more spine tingling for me! Secondly: “v.trans. To ornament or adorn magnificently. Obs.” This one’s interesting in light of the revisions.  I also think perhaps it’s more likely to have been part of Gurney’s thinking, too. This definition suggests Gurney chose the word not so much meaning pride in terms of the dead love’s valiant death (or, not only in that sense), but as a more explicitly tender reference to the veneration he feels to the man’s character and the flowers’ capacity to suitably adorn him.

B: Those meanings are so wonderfully apt, and I’d not thought of it in these terms at all. Saving his pride (his shredded body, dismembered) with a pride of violets. Gurney! Well I think that will do. Excellent.

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three : I. Gurney – To His Love

B –  While the first two poems – Heaney’s and Thomas’s – have a clear connection, this next choice of Gurney requires a little more explanation. I recently re-read a Geoff Dyer essay on the death of his uncle,  in response to my own Grandfathers death (Dyer was one of my Grandfather’s favourites in the genre). The essay is an exposition on the works of Ivor Gurney as well as a meditation on funerals, families and coming home – it ends with some lines from this poem. Home for Dyer, as it was for Gurney, is Gloucestershire and it is here that the link the Thomas can be made. Thomas was a member of what became known as the Dymock Poets, based around Dymock in Gloucestershire. It was here that Thomas met his great friend and mentor Robert Frost who, as mentioned below, encouraged him to write poetry. Thomas and Frost used to go out on what Frost called “talks-walking“, long, map-free rambles during which time topics such as “marriage and friendship, wildlife, poetry and the war” were digested. Given this primacy of the countryside, it is with Gloucestershire and the war in mind that we move on to Gurney.

I. Gurney – To His Love (1917)

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.