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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 8, Number 1, March 2014

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Claire Everett
Northallerton, North Yorkshire, England


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.

The cold corridor, door upon locked door, until it ends with a last jangle of keys, palmed and pocketed.

The first time, he all but staggers before her, a tall, spindly scarecrow of a man in pyjamas and dressing gown. He stares deep into her eyes as if, at once, he recognises that secret place where her sweetest memories are kept.

"You are Helen, Edward's wife, and Edward is dead."

There is nowhere to put the wildflowers she's brought; not a vase, or a jar, nor even a cup, lest it should prove to be a jagged edge. And so he lays them on the grey-blanketed bed, says how lovely they are before remarking on her pretty hat. In bursts, he talks quite lucidly, of this and that. He is denied a fountain pen (perhaps on account of the suicide attempt and so many appeals for Chance of Death written over the years to whomsoever of importance it may concern) although he claims the only one he owns is "wantonly broken," and so resorts to scribbling notes in pencil. He reads Shakespeare, Whitman, Masefield, Houseman, Frost; confesses a violent need of poetry and sings the praises of Schubert's Waltzes. But what poetry, what music rises in him now? When did he last leave Stone House? Such questions Helen asks until something, or someone, pulls him up sharp.

"They are getting at me through wireless," he says, "It was wireless that killed Edward."

Later, he plays piano in the common room, so beautifully, and no less skilfully than in his heyday, while his fellow patients sit stock-still on their benches as if they are deaf and mute.

before rain
the green scent . . .
dust on the nettles
the farm's forgotten corner
of rubble and rust

There are some doors not even the warder can unlock, so the second time she comes, she brings one of Edward's maps. Sheet 216, NW Gloucestershire, the scale, one inch to one mile; in an instant, hill and vale are spread before him like bread and water to a famished man. Tentatively at first, he presses his palm to the centre of it, as if to feel the beating heart between Dymock and the Severn. Soon revived, he begins to wander.

matching his stride
to the memory
that unfolds . . .
a desire path
at his fingertips

Along lane and byway, clambering over stile, trudging the rutted fields, wherever he goes, she follows, until mind and spirit are footsore. Left in no doubt that above all else he longs to go home, Helen speaks to the authorities but is told that he cannot leave the asylum as he is a danger to himself. Then the Malverns must come to Ivor! And so, when she visits, she is never empty-handed.

tracing a line back
he is that restless brook
the waterfall
the run-off from the hills
. . . that drop of rain

"Pushing off from the shallows, another day sets sail. O does some blind fool now stand on my hill to see how Ashleworth nestles by the river? My beloved, whose sky is breath, whose earth is blood, where have you gone? There's a coppice that longs for me tonight as if my name were great. There's talk of a poet, a musician first— I think he died on the wires. It's empty, that cottage now but for the sound of my pen and the long rain, heavy and musical, I must think again to find so sweet a noise, and cannot anyhow. Oh, how I dream of the beeches, and their leaves, a breeze stirring the pages . . . there is a book ended; heart aching.

heat shimmer
the train pulls in with a sigh
and all the birds
of Adlestrop
are singing to his tune

He reels off the villages, his cheeks flushed as if his blood is warming to their names. And like dew to the foxglove, the details come:

"Ah, the rhapsody! Dryhill Farm. Grey stone amidst thorn, ash, oak and elm. And such a view! On a clear, blue day as far as the Welsh hills. There, yes, it was there I helped with the hedge-laying, when the green buds flamed with deft interweaving like a player's showing of Bach's four-stranded thought . . ."

It is true that over time Ivor has claimed to have spoken with Beethoven, Bach and Schumann, but there is comfort in his madness; it is Helen's heart that skips when Edward falls in beside him. Now and then she senses the coolness of another's shadow, as if Frost, too, has joined them awhile. Or perhaps the American was there all along and it is Ivor who has met them on their 'talks-walking.' Either way, now they are three, each in his own distant land, all marching to the same drum, tramping the old tracks as they might have done if life had been kind, leaning on a gate to watch the sunset, long enough for their boots to leave fingerprints.

And then, there is a moment of clarity, a slant of light through the clouds.

"No—I came in my army grey and they had gone, the Dymock poets, packed up and gone away!"

into the sun
that shines the team's head-brass
the plough boy
shares a memory
of wild mustard fields

She places her hand on his and soon he has picked up the pace. She rarely knows which season it is, for years pass in the ramblings of an hour.

"Here is the place—no, there—where they used to leave a window open for me so that I could climb in, avail myself of their pantry's fare then curl up on the couch and sleep 'til dawn".

not a single wasp
in the trap that he hung
from the now-dead bough . . .
by night, a jar of stars
and a playful breeze

"Ah, my kindly friends, so the Roman's call still echoes. And the cuckoo's, too! The mill-falls, the sedge pools, all are mine. There, by the river, Spring has her chambers, robing rooms of hawthorn, cowslip . . . Oh, let me climb! There's kindling to gather and here's my fire-steel. Such sunsets and dawns seen from the Edge. Don't you remember, my first time in, when my Welsh comrades sang of the Black Mountains, and I was longing for the Malverns' embers against the afterglow? I took my May Hill with me, and its tiny grove. Orchis, harebells, trefoil . . . are they all war's timber now, my trees?

There was I, cheek to jowl with another Gloster who exclaimed, 'Crickley!' and how I started at that darling name of home! Even there, across the glimmering marsh, the billets, the ruins, all things said Severn, the air was of those dusk meadows. What did I see in the sun-bloodied shoulder of a hill, the moon-shrapnelled curve of a river bend, but autumn Cranham with its boom of colour and the white wold where breathing was loving?"

peering
as if through a monocle
the pupil of his eye
darker than the brambled combe
where once the badger roamed

deeper still
to a time beyond the thorns,
before the hounds . . .
so sings the mistle thrush
beneath a juniper moon

"Little did I dream, England, that you bore me under the Cotswold hills beside the water meadows, to do your dreadful service . . ."

He hangs his head, then starts a little, as if suddenly awakened.

"You are Helen, Edward's wife, and Edward is dead."

"That's right," she says, just as she has so many times before, "He died at Arras, a few days after you were injured—"

"Did I tell you how Riez Baillieul in blue tea-time called back the Severn lanes?"

He is staring through her now, to the room and beyond, just as he did when he superimposed the old haunts of home upon those foreign fields. Then, as if suddenly struck by the yellow pattern of her dress, he exclaims, "Celandines! Why? Is it spring already?"

"No, autumn," she says, gently.

"Ah! Then I should not be reading Housman! It is only Edward Thomas who will carry me through."

He is silent, but his lips move perceptibly as if he is mouthing his favourite lines.

"I have ventured out," he says, "Miss Scott has been so kind. But there are such places dear to me who might call me a stranger now . . . who loves joy as he who dwells in shadows? Do not forget me quite, O Severn meadows!"

"Maybe next time?" Helen ventures.

"Next time. Another time. Or not," says he.

this sea marge
of shifting light and shale
by the cliff-edge
the oak-wood throws its shadow
on the mercy of the tide

that Other
watching him from the far shore
endless symphony!
the ink of Seine, not Severn
in its score

The cold corridor, door upon locked door, until it ends with a last jangle of keys, palmed and pocketed. Until next time. Until the letter comes, as letters are wont to do.

year's end moon
and the darling paths
mistier . . .
the silence of a blackbird
turning upturned soil

stories told
and retold until the map
folds itself . . .
in the round of her belly
she remembers him

spring rain
washing the face
of a stone . . .
Ivor Gurney: Composer,
Poet of Severn and Somme


Author's Notes:

(i) In his biographical outline of Gurney, for the Ivor Gurney Society (details below), Anthony Boden writes:

Gurney was that rare being: both poet and composer, the first Englishman to be dually-gifted in these two arts since Thomas Campion in the reign of Elizabeth I, and his output was prodigious. He left us around two hundred songs, several chamber and instrumental works, and over three hundred poems and verse-pieces, the best of which mark Gurney out as a creative spirit touched by genius.

Ivor Gurney was born in Gloucester on 28th August 1890, the second of four children and the son of a tailor. At the behest of Alfred Cheesman, his Godfather, Gurney won a choral scholarship at Gloucester Cathedral and with it, a place in the choir and an education at the King's School. In 1911, Gurney earned a place at the Royal College of Music alongside such future 'giants' as Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Arthur Bliss, and many more. It was at the Royal College of Music that Gurney established his lifelong friendship with Marion Scott, secretary of the Royal college of Music and Editor of its magazine. It is thanks to Miss Scott that Gurney's letters and unpublished poetry from the asylum years were archived.

From 1913, Gurney began to suffer from depression. In 1915 he enlisted in the Glosters. While in the trenches, opportunities for musical composition were rare, so Gurney moved more towards poetry. The poems from that time express his longing for his beloved Gloucestershire and his abhorrence of war. By spring 1917, during his time at the decimated Caulaincourt, Gurney had set one of his own poems, Severn Meadows, to music. Other compositions from his time in the trenches include Sir Walter Raleigh's farewell to life, Even Such is Time, and a setting of John Masefield's By a Bierside.

On 7th April 1917 Gurney was shot in the arm, and from a military hospital in Rouen, was then transferred to a machine gun battery at Passchendaele. Weeks later, he was gassed at St. Julien and invalided back to Britain. From then on, Gurney began to suffer from profound depression and mental instability, which included delusions and psychosis, but still managed to remain creative and from 1919-1922, made the transition from a minor to a major poet. From Barnwood House mental hospital in Gloucester, where he first began to write his many letters of appeal for release, or death, to police, universities, American States, friends and acquaintances, he was transferred to City of London asylum in Dartford, Kent, where he was to remain until his death from tuberculosis on Boxing Day, 1937. He was buried in Twigworth cemetery, Gloucester on the last day of the year.

From 1926, the quality of Gurney's musical compositions gradually diminished, but his poetry became more skilled and some of his finest war poems were written during the asylum years.

Gurney largely coped with incarceration because his mind dwelled in the past. Friends such as Marion Scott and Will Harvey, visited regularly and in 1932, Helen Thomas, the widow of the war poet, Edward Thomas, visited Gurney, having heard of his fondness for her late husband's poetry. Upon seeing how Gurney longed for his beloved Gloucestershire, Helen decided to return and bring with her one of Edward's old maps. That visit was recalled by Helen Thomas in an article for the Royal College of Music's magazine in 1960. It is not known how many times Helen returned and no details of her subsequent visits are available. The tanka prose above is based on Helen's description of that first visit, but is otherwise, a fictional account.

(ii) The title, epigraph and italicised excerpts are taken from Collected Poems of Ivor Gurney (1890-1937), Kavanagh, P. J., Ed., Oxford University Press, 1984.

(iii) Many of the tanka are based on the poetry of Edward Thomas, in keeping with Gurney's admiration for the former and the fact that Gurney set 19 of Thomas' poems to music. For a full list of these, Gurney Blogspot.

( iv) Since August 2010, interest has increased in the music and poetry of Ivor Gurney and this has resulted in several concerts; see Gurney concerts.

The Ivor Gurney Society has a wealth of information and links.

Ivor Gurney's music.

References: In addition to those cited above:

Ivor Gurney's Gloucestershire, Exploring Poetry & Place, Rawling, Eleanor, M., The History Press, Gloucestershire, 2011.

Ivor Gurney Correspondence

Ivor Gurney WWI Poetry

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