Ivor Gurney

Credit: ‘Ivor Gurney Estate/Gloucestershire Archives’

The Poet Who Loved the War documentary presented by Exeter academic

Ivor Gurney, soldier-poet and composer, is the subject of a ground breaking new documentary to be televised on Sunday 30 March as part of the BBC’s programming to mark the centenary of the First World War.

Presented by University of Exeter Professor Tim Kendall, an expert on war poetry, the remarkable BBC 4 documentary calls for a major re-evaluation of the public perception towards this extraordinary Gloucestershire soldier. 

The documentary pays belated homage to Gurney, charting his journey from humble Gloucestershire origins, to a scholarship at the Royal College of Music, to the pain and camaraderie of the First World War,and finally to the City of London Mental Hospital at Dartford where he wrote and composed with feverish intensity.

Incarcerated in a mental asylum for the last 15 years of his life, Gurney was all but forgotten until recently, his poetry largely unpublished and his music rarely performed. Bewildered at his own neglect, he considered himself to be the ‘First War Poet’, complaining bitterly that the ‘honour’ he was owed by his nation would never be paid. When he died of tuberculosis on Boxing Day 1937, only a handful of loyal friends mourned the loss.

‘The Poet Who Loved the War’ directed by Clive Flowers, highlights Professor Kendall’s new discoveries among Gurney’s surviving papers. Walking the Gloucestershire hills which Gurney loved, tracking his experiences across First World War battlefields, Professor Kendall interviews numerous experts in his quest to understand what inspired this most tortured of geniuses.

Gurney dealt with multiple serious mental health issues, beginning before the war as a young man and eventually leading to a breakdown which confined him to Dartford asylum. It would be easy to think that the stresses of war did not help Gurney’s mental state, but it seems that his time at the front was, in fact, the happiest of his life. 

Professor Kendall explained:“The war years were the most stable of Gurney’s adult life, and it was after the war that he broke down completely.  He associated war with all the horror and brutality, but also with the comradeship, that sense of belonging and sense of place instead of the no-place of the asylum.”

He added:“That’s why Gurney thought, when war broke out, ‘This is going to help me, the whole discipline of army life.’ Army life gave him that regimentation and discipline that otherwise he would have lacked.”

Serving at the front, Gurney was shot through the shoulder in Easter 1917, and in September 1917 at Passchendaele he was gassed and shell shocked. In the documentary Professor Kendall is at pains to point out that this was not what caused his committal to the asylum in 1922. 

Gurney continued to write, yet much of that work was undiscovered or ignored, dismissed due to his illness. That was until Professor Kendall and PhD researcher Philip Lancaster combined their efforts to shine a light on his archive, providing a long overdue reassessment of Gurney.

Philip explained:“We’ve actually discovered what he wrote in the asylum is hugely interesting and entirely lucid. I think his best poetry is that of 1926. He wrote 365 poems in that year, one a day, and only 12 of those are so far published. Because his madness is the most media-worthy part of his story, I think it’s easy to forget that he called himself a ‘child of joy’. There is a great joy and love of beauty in his work.”

He added:“He’s a pure artist. He was so fixed on this idea of beauty he’s a grounding influence on war poetry. His contemporary Wilfred Owen is full of horror and striking images and has come to define the war; Gurney sees beyond that.”

This new documentary to be broadcast on 30 March at 9pm on BBC 4 helps to redress a long-standing failure to celebrate one of the most important poets and composers of the period.  


Date: 25 March 2014

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