The Rightness of Gurney
RODERIC DUNNETT continues his examination
of Ivor Gurney the musician
Part 3: Of earthly and heavenly Beauty
In the first two parts of this article,
I endeavoured to draw together, in a single overview, some of the distinctive
features critics and commentators, whether from a supportive, detached or
detracting viewpoint, have noted in Gurney's song writing. I also dwelt,
perhaps overheavily, on certain doubts and reservations, of which even his
most devoted admirers must take stock. But what about the musical aptness,
or 'rightness', of Gurney? I should like now to offer a more personal view.
Take, by way of a start, 'Severn Meadows' (OUP, 1928: republished in
Songs 5, pp. 10-11) - Gurney's only published setting (to date) of
one of his own poems, and for that reason one perhaps most familiar to Gurney
- 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.
(Poems, p.33: see also Letters, p.189)
The power, the pathos and the conciseness are there, even before one
hears a note of the music. Gurney composed 'Severn Meadows' at Caulincourt,
dating it March 1917, the time of the Gloucesters' push forward towards
Vermand and St Quentin, south-east of the former Somme sector.
For any with even a mild acquaintance with Gurney, song and poem alike
encompass much: Gurney the Cotswold walker, the dreamer and searcher after
beauty ('the exultant traveller wandering without purpose save to find beauty
and to be comrade with the wind': Letters, p.208); the displaced,
exiled Tommy ('But though the trees have long since lost their green | And
I, the exile, can but dream of things | Grown magic in the mind': 'Winter
Beauty', SS, p.41); Gurney the post-war supertramp.
There is more: 'Graces' (grace, like 'joy', is a recurrent Gurney word);
'seeing clear' ('Willy, it's going. Gradually the cloud passes, and Beauty
is a present thing': Letters, p.10); one who 'dwells in shadows'
where silhouette or shadow can spell sudden death ('So the dark horror clouds
us, and the dread | Of the unknown' : Letters, p.206) - not forgetting
those other, more sinister, personal 'shadows', recalling Gurney's student
breakdown of 1913.
Then those 'familiar faces', tinged with a Charles Lamb melancholy (compare
'When we go wandering the wide air's blue spaces, | Bare, unhappy, exiled
souls of men; | How will our thoughts over and over again | Return to Earth's
familiar lovely places, | Where light with shadow ever interlaces.': 'Home
Sickness', SS, p.51; compare also Letters, p.209, with Charles
Lamb's poem, 'The Old Familiar Faces') And that appended, sadly loaded 'quite'
- 'wholly, altogether, utterly' - before 'O Severn meadows' introduces the
final glimpsed, enfolding memory of home ('See Severn valley clouds | Like
banners streaming. | And walk in Cranham lanes': 'Time and the Soldier',
But still in the thick of the advance, and shortly before being wounded
in the right arm ('Here we are seated round a roaring fire in the open air,
waiting to move up into new ground': Letters, p.236, dated 29 March
1917; see also Ordeal, pp.78-80) Gurney then invokes music to match,
'Severn Meadows' (Songs 5, pp.10-11).
Copyright © 2 January 2000, Roderic
Dunnett, Coventry, UK
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