Strange Service – Ivor Gurney

Ivor Gurney’s attachment to the landscape of his native Gloucestershire not only sparked his creativity in poetry and music, but also defined his sense of well-being.

Gurney was born in Gloucester in 1890 at 3 Queen Street, a narrow thoroughfare close to the centre of the City. He sang as a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral between 1900-1906 and became an articled pupil to Dr Herbert Brewer, thereby meeting composer Herbert Howells (another pupil of Brewer’s) and also future poet and friend, Will (F. W.) Harvey (more about their enduring friendship in a later post).(1)

Ivor began composing at the age of 14 and won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1911.  ‘The tousled, bespectacled composition scholar was nicknamed “Schubert”.  He was later declared by his tutor, Charles Stanford, to have been the most highly promising of all the gifted students he had ever taught, but also the least teachable’.(2)  Despite his tormented, chaotic life, Gurney went on to become a composer of distinction, writing more than 300 songs and a variety of instrumental works.

Someone else who immediately noticed the striking, but untidy-looking Gurney was Marion Scott, a musician and registrar of the RCM who was soon to become Gurney’s most trusted friend.  Their correspondence lasted throughout his life, whilst she tirelessly collected and transcribed his manuscripts, making arrangements for his poetry and music to reach publication.

Gurney’s studies at the RCM were to be interrupted by World War 1 when he enlisted in the Gloucestershire Regiment.  Life in London had been difficult away from his beloved Gloucestershire, but now the absence was to become painfully acute.  He turned again and again to the ‘Severn Meadows’ in his poetry and letters of longing ‘the best roads in England, the finest cider, the richest blossom in the most magical orchards, beauty in security…’ he wrote in a letter to Marion (22 March 1916) from the Army Training Camp on Salisbury Plain ‘are not these only of my county, my home?’ (3)

Ivor Gurney - goodreads.com

Ivor Bertie Gurney

Eleanor M. Rawling describes the area in her book Ivor Gurney’s Gloucestershire; Exploring Poetry & Place.  Overall the Severn Vale is a relatively narrow strip of land; the distance from the sandstone heights of the Forest of Dean to the limestone edge of the Cotswolds varies only 6-13 miles.  The Cotswolds present a steep, imposing edge or scarp representing the transition west to east in Jurassic geology from the Liassic sands and clays of the Vale to the Inferior and Great Oolite limestones of the hills. On the bottom of the scarp are the Upper Lias clays, succeeded by a layer of sands before the limestone begins.  The sequence makes for instability and produces the bumpy, uneven lower slopes of the edge, as at Crickley Hill.(4)

In his poem ‘Crickley Hill’ (written later recovering at Warrington in July 1918) Ivor refers back to a moment when he hears another soldier say the familiar name ‘Crickley’ whilst the battalion are at rest near Buire-au-Bois, the sense of kinship is undeniable.

Crickley Hill

The orchis, trefoil, harebells nod all day,
High above Gloucester and the Severn Plain.
Few come there, where the curlew ever and again
Cries faintly, and no traveller makes stay,
Since steep the road is,
And the villages
Hidden by hedges wonderful in late May.

At Buire-au-Bois a soldier wandering
The lanes at evening talked with me and told
Of gardens summer blessed, of early spring
In tiny orchards, the uncounted gold
Strewn in green meadows,
Clear cut shadows
Black on the dust and grey stone mellow and old.

But these were things I knew, and carelessly
Heard, while in thought I went with friends on roads
White in the sun, or wandered far to see
The scented hay come homeward in warm loads:
Hardly I heeded him;
While the coloured dim
Evening brought stars and lights in small abodes.

When on a sudden, “Crickley” he said. How I started
At that old darling name of home, and turned,
Fell into a torrent of words warm hearted
Till clear above the stars of summer burned
In velvety smooth skies.
We shared memories,
And the old raptures from each other learned.

O sudden steep! O hill towering above!
Chasm from the road falling suddenly away!
Sure no two men talked of you with more love
Than we that tendered-coloured ending of the day.
(O tears! Keen pride in you!)
Feeling the soft dew,
Walking in thought another Roman way.

You hills of home, woodlands, white roads and inns
That star and line our darling land, still keep
Memory of us; for when the first day begins
We think of you and dream in the first sleep
Of you and yours –
Trees, bare rock, flowers
Daring the blast on Crickley’s distant steep.(5)

When Gurney worked at Dryhill Farm, beneath Crickley Hill, in the 1918-22 period, he would have laboured on the fields under these cliffs and noted white dust from the crumbling Pea Grit rock on the tracks and lanes of Dryhill and Cold Slad.  The Cotswolds were still a rural and agricultural region, but the economy was no longer focused on sheep.  By the end of the nineteenth century with the drift of people away from the land, life had become very hard for the small farmers and the landless farm labourers.  Yet the physical labour of farming suited Ivor and eased his restless mind.

Transported to the front in France, Gurney wrote his poetry at an urgent pace as if stimulated by the high intensity of life and driven to express his emotions. After some initial patriotic sentiment he settled into a more down-to-earth style, recording the experiences of himself, as a common soldier, or simply remembering his native Gloucestershire. ‘Strange Service’ published in his first collection of poetry Severn & Somme (November 1917) marked the beginning of his disillusionment with the war and reveals he knew that he would now be relying on memory, ‘as fragile at the waterside reeds on the surface of the Severn’, to keep Gloucestershire places fresh in his mind.(6)

Strange Service

Little did I dream, England, that you bore me
Under the Cotswold Rills beside the water meadows
To do you dreadful service, here, beyond your borders
And your enfolding seas.

I was a dreamer ever, and bound to your dear service
Meditating deep, I thought on your secret beauty,
As through a child’s face one may see the clear spirit
Miraculously shining.

Your hills not only hills, but friends of mine and kindly
Your tiny knolls and orchards hidden beside the river
Muddy and strongly flowing, with shy and tiny streamlets
Safe in its bosom.

Now these are memories only, and your skies and rushy sky-pools
Fragile mirrors easily broken by moving airs;
But deep in my heart for ever goes on your daily being
And uses consecrate.

Think on me too, O Mother, who wrest my soul to serve you
In strange and fearful ways beyond your encircling waters;
None but you can know my heart, its tears and sacrifice,
None, but you, repay.(7)

Header image Duotone © Jacky Dillon (Lily pond, Gardens, Hinton Ampner NT)

Image: Ivor Bertie Gurney taken by Richard Hall at Gloucester 1920 – The Ivor Gurney Archive www.gloucestershire.gov.uk/archives

____________________________________________________________________________________________

(1)  http:/www.poemhunter.com/ivor-gurney/biography/

(2) Carol Rumens, The Guardian: Poem of the week; The Mangel-Bury by Ivor Gurney, 27 April 2009

(3) Rawling, Eleanor M., Ivor Gurney’s Gloucestershire: Exploring Poetry & Place, The History Press, Stroud, Gloucestershire (2011) p34

(4) Ibid. p34

(5) “Crickley Hill,” by Gurney, Ivor (1890-1937). First World War Poetry Digital Archive, accessed April 13, 2020, http://ww1lit.nsms.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/collections/document/7472.

(6) Ibid – Rawling, Eleanor M., Ivor Gurney’s Gloucestershire: Exploring Poetry & Place, p49

(7) Gurney, Ivor, ‘Strange Service’ first published in ‘Severn and Somme’, Sidgwick & Jackson, London (1917)  “Strange Service,” by Gurney, Ivor (1890-1937). First World War Poetry Digital Archive, accessed April 11, 2020, http://ww1lit.nsms.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/collections/item/6944.

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