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The poet who loved the War

Ivor Gurney, the war poet who loved war, is the subject of a groundbreaking new documentary to be shown this weekend as part of the BBC’s programming to mark the centenary of the First World War – and it all started in a meeting hosted by the AHRC and the BBC.

Professor Tim Kendall of the University of Exeter was one of the guests invited to talk about his current research interests at a joint seminar in London two years ago. After his four-minute presentation, he got talking to BBC editor Michael Poole, and between them, they planned this programme.

“The AHRC and the BBC put out a call for people who were working on World War One,” explains Kendall. “The BBC were occupied with questions like ‘How do we mark the centenary of the First World War? What programming should we have? Are we missing something obvious?’ To some extent they were wanting to move away from ‘Tommy on the Western Front’. I stood up and talked about Ivor Gurney.”

Poole had always wanted to do a programme on Ivor Gurney, who was, like himself, originally from Gloucestershire.

“He’s buried quite near where I live,” says Poole. “I had this interest in him over the years and had never really done anything with it.

“Then I was doing a number of programmes about the First World War, some literary and some historical, and was invited to this seminar part-organised by the AHRC. When Tim spoke, I saw my way into making this programme.”

Poole was excited to find an expert so keen on bring Gurney’s story to a television audience. He explains: “When we make programmes, we reach out and use expertise — that’s how we find out about things that are worth doing — but sometimes it can be quite hard. So to go to something like that and sit down for a morning and just have 12 people stand up and talk about what they’re doing is fantastic.”

The documentary, directed by Clive Flowers with Kendall as presenter, highlights Kendall’s new discoveries in the repertoire of Gurney’s poetry and music composition. “He was a composer before he was a poet,” explains Kendall. “He’s one of those greedy people who’s a genius at two things.”

Yet Gurney also dealt with multiple serious mental health issues, beginning as a young man and eventually leading to a breakdown which confined him to Dartford asylum for the 15 years prior to his death in 1937.

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.

“The way that he self-cured was through physical labour,” says Kendall. “Before the war, when he had his first breakdown, he came back from the Royal College of Music to Gloucestershire, and worked at digging fields. He was a great walker – he thought nothing of walking from one end of the county to another to see someone, and slept under hedgerows on the way. He hated London, he hated the city — he found reengagement with the natural world sustaining, and it helped him to recover.

“That’s why he then thought, when war broke out, ‘This is going to help me, the whole discipline of army life.’ Army life gave him that sense of regimentation and discipline that otherwise he wouldn’t have.”

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

“The shellshock was overtaken by schizophrenic episodes after the war,” he says. “The war years were pretty much the most stable of his adult life, and it was after the war that he broke down completely.”

Indeed, he argues that Gurney’s nostalgia for the war actually helped him while confined.

“He associated war with, yes, all the horror and brutality, but also with the comradeship, that sense of belonging, that sense of place instead of the no-place of the asylum,” says Kendall.

Gurney continued to write, yet much of that work was undiscovered or ignored, dismissed due to his illness. That was until Kendall and PhD researcher Philip Lancaster combined their efforts to shine a light on his archive — and in Lancaster’s case to produce a navigable catalogue.

“He was writing and composing feverishly for about four or five years and then there’s ten years of blankness at the end,” says Kendall. “Either the work was destroyed, by him or someone else, or he just fell silent.”

“We’ve actually discovered what he wrote in the asylum is hugely interesting and entirely lucid,” says Lancaster. “Personally, 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. In late 1922 when he entered the asylum, and in 1923, 1924 1925, he was concerned with his predicament, and he was writing for freedom, but by 1926 he seems to have become resigned to his fate.”

Gurney’s story may seem to be a sad one, but Lancaster has a strikingly positive attitude towards his life and work.

“It is easy to get bound up in the tragedy,” he admits. “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 a great love of beauty in his work. 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 is a grounding influence because he sees beyond that.”

’The Poet Who Loved the War’ will be shown on BBC4 on Sunday 30th March at 9pm.

Find out more about AHRC research into WW1.

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