After First Time In by Ivor Gurney 1890 – 1937
You should have heard
those four Welsh lads from the valleys
singing in the trenches:
David of the White Rock, the Slumber song.
All pals together.
You should have seen them
welcome me with food, candles,
kindness; sharing parcels from home.
Me trembling at the newness of it all
listening to the colony of pit-boys
in sandbag ditches, their voices
breaking my heart; novice colliers
who’d swapped coal dust for mud.
That first evening, I held their faces
lit by the glow of soft light,
watched them mouth Welsh lullabies
under the sound of the guns;
words learnt in their cradles.
Sleep my child and peace attend thee
All through the night.
Guardian angels God will send thee,
All through the night.
Nothing could blot out
my beautiful entry to that sacred trench,
nor take away that moment of hope.
I carried it with me all through the war.
Ivor Gurney – Poet and Musician 1890 – 1937
By Contributor Denise Bennett
The inspiration for my poem ‘Welcome’ came after reading Ivor Gurney’s World War 1, poem First Time In. In his poem he describes the kindness he received from a welsh colony of singers in the first trench he entered. He tells how they shared their rations and sang their beautiful native songs even when under gunfire. I wanted to echo the generosity of the men who didn’t brutalise him, as he had feared might happen, but made him welcome. Gurney was particularly moved by their singing, even in the face of great danger.
Ivor Gurney was born in 1890 in Gloucestershire and was a musician and poet. When he was twenty-one, he was awarded a scholarship to the Royal School of Music, but his studies were interrupted by the Great War. He tried twice to enlist, the first time being turned down due to his poor eyesight. However, on the second occasion he was accepted and saw action in Ypres, The Somme, Paschendale and Arras. He was shot in the arm at the Battle of the Somme and 1917 he was gassed which ended his war career. He returned to the Royal School of music to continue with his studies alongside Ralph Vaughan Williams. Here he met Marion Scott who was to be a great friend to him particularly during his confinement at the Dartford Asylum.
Although they never met, Gurney had long admired the work of Edward Thomas and began setting some of his poems to music in 1918. He was greatly interested in the Dymock Poets which included Wilfred Gibson, Rupert Brooke, Lascelles Abercrombie, Robert Frost, John Drinkwater and Edward Thomas. The poets had set up home in Dymock a village a few miles from the market town of Ledbury, Gloucestershire, a landscape familiar to him, between the years of 1911 – 1914. In 1916 Ivor Gurney wandered the paths the poets had taken while living in this district and came across Catherine Abercrombie playing with her two young children and asked the way to Abercrombie’s home. By then the poets had disbursed. Abercrombie was preparing to leave and Brooke was dead. However, for the rest of his life he continued to be interested in the route the poets had walked in this area.
Ivor Gurney’s mental health had always been fragile and at Lord Derby Military hospital his was diagnosed with shell shock. In 1922 he was certified and admitted to Barnwood House, a mental institution just outside Gloucester and later transferred to the City of London mental hospital at Dartford in Kent, where he remained until the end of his life in 1937. It was here that Helen Thomas, Edward Thomas’s widow, visited him. She had been invited to do so by Marion Scott, Gurney’s friend from the Royal School of Music who believed that her presence could help him.
In Time and Again – Memoirs and Letters of Helen Thomas edited by her daughter Myfanwy, Helen says:
I think it was about 1932 that I had a letter from a woman whose name was strange to me. She was Marion Scott…. and was the champion and friend of a young musical genius named Ivor Gurney. This young man had lost his reason in the war and was in a lunatic asylum. He passionately loved my husband’s work and was deeply interested in anything to do with him.(1)
When Helen first visited Ivor Gurney he said – ‘You are Helen, Edward’s wife and Edward is dead.’ And I said, ‘Yes, let us talk of him.’ They spoke about the countryside which both Edward and Ivor had loved, particularly that of Gloucestershire. On subsequent visits Helen took Edward’s well-worn ordnance survey maps of the places he had walked. This seemed to cheer Ivor who spread them out on his bed so that they could pour over them, tracing with their fingers the paths and byways over which Edward had walked. He knew the lanes and fields so well. Helen knew that she had hit on an idea that gave him more pleasure than anything else. For both Helen and Ivor, her visits brought Edward back to life; they each found happiness through the maps – and in remembering the countryside that Edward had loved so much.
Denise has kindly contributed two poems to the England Remembered Book; ‘Edith Silvester’ and ‘Letter to…’.
Header image © Jacky Dillon (Lilys on Pond at Hinton Ampner NT )
(1) Thomas, Myfanwy, Ed., Time & again: Memoirs and letters, Carcanet New Press, Manchester (1978).