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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 devotees:

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', Poems, p.34).

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).


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Copyright © 2 January 2000, Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK



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