Ivor Gurney’s Imperfection

Ivor Gurney’s Imperfection IN THE POLITICS OF IMPERFECTION, Anthony Quinton identifies the defining quality of conservatism as a ‘conviction of the radical intellectual imperfection of the human individual, as contrasted with the accumulated political wisdom of the community, as embodied in its customs and institutions’.1 The prevailing conservative attitude is one of pragmatism, against a background of epistemological scepticism, in which human imperfection is radically acknowledged, and government is necessary as ‘a remedy for sin’.2 By this account Ivor Gurney’s work lies at the outer fringes of the conservative tradition, like that of Hilaire Belloc, one of his greatest influences. Rather than acknowledging imperfection as a radical necessity, however, Gurney embraces it as an ideal; and though custom is desirable (as it is desirable as an anti-competitive economic principle for Belloc), the nation’s institutions in the period following the Great War are certainly not – a judgement which shows up in various ways in Gurney’s poetry. Certainly, the idea of government as a ‘remedy for sin’, in Quinton’s formulation, would not have held water with Gurney in, say, 1922, as it did not with many other soldiers returned from the war, poets or otherwise. Gurney remarked in August 1916 that ‘perfection is not a thing I value, but only Truth and Beauty’,3 a statement which, as well as recalling Keats, evokes Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Enquiry, and its chapter ‘Perfection not the cause of Beauty’: ‘Beauty in distress is much the most affecting beauty’.4 Though there is no evidence that Gurney read Burke (although he may have), Gurney’s anti-perfectionism echoes in many respects the conservative tradition of which Burke is an exemplar, a tradition which was transmitted to him, albeit in mutated form, through the work of Belloc. Gurney’s poetry, especially that written after the Great War (the bulk of his oeuvre, unpublished in his lifetime) is driven by the ideal of finding value in imperfection, in defining and exploring the potentialities and realities of the imperfect as a paradigm of both political and literary ideals. Plenty of critics have remarked on his infelicities and eccentricities as a poet; but imperfection plays a more complex role in his writing than merely a proneness to technical misjudgement Gurney’s reputation has largely hinged upon how critics interpret his various imperfections, and to what degree they accept them; my argument is that these imperfections are an essential element of Gurney’s approach to literature as to politics.5 An emerging locus classicus of Gurney’s imperfect poetics is the poem ‘It Is Near Toussaints’, which has attracted two major commentaries in recent times. Tim Kendall has written that the poem ‘embodies in extremis a failure in Gurney’s work to distinguish between the inspired and the incompetent’;6 and Geoffrey Hill has remarked that ‘In certain details of syntax and rhyme it seems “amateurish”’.7 I would not want to replace or usurp such assessments exactly; rather, I want to establish a mode of imperfection which, in Gurney’s work, while its individual instances are not always necessarily deliberate, is certainly deliberated and dwelt upon as a whole cultural politics and a way of writing and being. A poem such as ‘It Is Near Toussaints’, then, may be exhibited not only as a salient example of Gurney’s imperfect writing, but of his writing of imperfection. In December 1937 Ivor Gurney died of tuberculosis in the City of London Mental Hospital, in Dartford, Kent. In the commemorative issue of Music and Letters of January 1938, an issue devoted mainly to his memory, Herbert Howells, a former music teacher and friend of Gurney’s, published the following testimony: Gurney has never achieved a degree of fine finish or acquired an impeccable technique. The songs reveal a fineness of mind out of all proportion to their quality of detailed workmanship. Sometimes the inequalities are a barrier to the listener’s ready approach: a barrier even (one would sometimes fear) between the imaginative and expressive sides of the composer himself. But creative work of all ages is strewn with the signs of the struggle-of-making. In Gurney they measure achievement more than they mark limitations. The struggle-in-making is an integral part of expression.8 Howells’s phrasing here echoes Gurney’s self-testimony in ‘The Sea Borders’ that ‘I musician have wrestled with the stuff in making’, and his statement seems well versed in Gurney’s work in other ways too. His account of the poet’s achievement in music partakes of the idioms of proportion and disproportion, balance and imbalance, in which Gurney was himself deeply invested. Though a testimony to his music (and a eulogy to his late friend) Herbert Howells’s comments throw light on Gurney’s poetry too. A ‘fineness of mind out of all proportion’ might be an apt description of the sensitive, maverick young poet-composer who returned from the Western Front with what was diagnosed as ‘deferred shell shock’, but which may have been bipolar disorder or perhaps schizophrenia; there is, likewise, a profound ambivalence evident in Gurney’s poetry, particularly the post-war work, much of which was written while he was incarcerated in the mental hospital. Howells’s assessment points to features in the forms and diction of Gurney’s poetry, as well as its intellectual contexts. One of Gurney’s characteristic approbatory images is that of immensity: vastness, or hugeness, equates to the vital, the valuable. Of Milton, he remarks that ‘though his mind was huge in some ways, it was limited in others’;9 in ‘Of Cruelty’, he writes of ‘a vast impatience / And anxieties and mixed hopes for a resurrection’ (CP 122).10 And, again, in ‘The Sea Borders’: But because I musician have wrestled with the stuff in making, And wrought a square thing out of my stubborn mind – And gathered huge surge of spirit as the great barriers bind The whole Atlantic… (CP 219) To have ‘gathered huge surge of spirit’ into a ‘wrought … square thing’ is Gurney’s aim; a more conservative version of Whitman, of whom he professed himself a disciple:11 ‘The boundless vista and the horizon far and dim are all here, / And this is Ocean’s poem’.12 ‘Huge’, ‘vast’, and the like are ‘value-words’ for Gurney in the way that Geoffrey Hill argues that ‘common’ is (‘vast’ being a favourite word of Whitman’s in Leaves of Grass also).13 In ‘Mist on Meadows’, Gurney asks ‘How England should take as common their vast endurance’ (CP 173), referring to the veterans of the recent war. England here is indeed a ‘little England’, an entity not ‘vast’ enough to be worthy of the common soldier, Whitman’s ‘common man’, exemplified by the likes of Tim Godding, a soldier of the same battalion, whose honest, knockabout humour led Gurney to see him as a ‘Shakespearian character’.14 As a composer of songs, and as a student of music, Gurney was especially alive (a very Gurneyish word) to harmony, and to harmonic expectation. His poetry, particularly his post-war poetry, works simultaneously within a mode of harmonic expectation and disturbance or thwarting of that expectation. He works both within and against the mellifluous and the sentimental, and so within and against the inheritance both of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as of classicism. Rupert Brooke emerged out of the university tradition of the classics. Gurney did not. But whereas the high modernists (broadly speaking) used discordance – in form, in voicing, and in the disconnection between poet and audience – to lament, expose, and play upon the various discords of Western civilisation, Gurney’s work registers a tension between discord and harmony which bespeaks a deep cultural-political ambivalence in the same historical context. Ezra Pound wrote that ‘To break the pentameter, that was the first heave’;15 Gurney wrote of his desire to have ‘wrought a square thing’ which binds or incorporates that ‘huge surge of spirit’, something akin to the Poundian ‘heave’. It is significant in this context that Pound considered himself in league with Walt Whitman, as he wrote in ‘A Pact’; as did Gurney, though the English poet’s allegiance to Whitman is more qualified by the ‘great barriers’ of tradition and form than is Pound’s in The Cantos. Gurney’s ambivalence is indicated by two differing reactions, in his letters, to the war sonnets of Brooke, and hinges on the difference, ostensibly, between music and language. ‘[Brooke] has left us a legacy of two sonnets which outshine by far anything written on this upheaval [i.e. the Great War]. They are as beautiful as music. They are so beautiful that at last one forgets that the words are there and is taken up into ecstasy just as in music’.16 This is written to Marion Scott, the music critic, in May 1915; in a letter to the same correspondent in August of the same year, Gurney writes that ‘The sonnet of R.B. you sent me, I do not like. It seems to me that Rupert Brooke would not have improved with age, would not have broadened; his manner has become a mannerism, both in rhythm and diction. I do not like it’.17 Where Brooke’s music is commendable, from the point of view of language, his poetry is all ‘mannerism’. Gurney’s ambivalence on this point was not restricted to Brooke, however, but extended to literature in general. ‘[T]owards Literature I am slightly contemptuous’, he remarked in a letter, going on to (mis)quote Walter Pater: ‘“All art strives constantly to the precondition of music”’.18 Gurney’s professed contempt for literature is one of the animating tensions of his poetry, and informs his feeling for language’s imperfection, for better and for worse – although his professed (slight) contempt for literature must be weighed against his reverence for Whitman and Shakespeare. In a letter of 1916, Gurney remarked, ‘W.S. is not perfect often, but how much of the greatest things is perfect. Let us leave perfection to Tennyson and William Morris – in lengthy things, I mean’.19 This statement is particularly interesting in that it implies Tennyson and Morris are exemplary, but that in some sense their ‘perfection’ is not; Gurney’s ‘dissatisfaction’ with Shakespeare is, ironically, a recognition of his all-mastering greatness. There may be a faint hint of political sarcasm; Tennyson had his idylls and Morris his utopias. During the war, Gurney expressed a certain anti-utopianism, taking his cue in part from Belloc: ‘I am leader of the Opposition to a Socialist government, next Monday and have ordered Belloc’s book on the Servile State to make things hot for it’.20 Later, his experience of returning to England after the war was, as it was for countless thousands of returning servicemen, a betrayal of the ideals of remaking the world for the better for which the war was fought, and of specific Liberal promises regarding a Britain which was to be a ‘Home for Heroes’. In this context, ‘perfection’ in Gurney’s view may actually be associated with the hypocrisies of power: the ‘civic routine’ of ‘Strange Hells’ (CP 141); the ‘civic decency’ of ‘Blighty’ (CP 123). From as early as January 1916, then – before he was in the trenches – Gurney was committed to the idea of being ‘not perfect often’, a literary judgement with political and existential dimensions, which emerges in the post-war poetry as a writing against the grain of such civic ideals as routine and decency. This letter is telling, too, in that it mentions Hilaire Belloc, a huge figure in pre-Great War English literary and intellectual culture: ‘Belloc was all our Master’, writes Gurney in ‘It Is Near Toussaints’, a retrospective testimony borne out by his trench correspondence. In another letter of August 1917 he writes: As Belloc says somewhere, A man who reads ‘King Lear’ feels as though he had been out all night on the empty uplands in a great storm. Such things must move us more for ever than perfection, a good aim, but a bad desire; and so, it seems to me, a work of Art should never be greatly praised for its perfection; for that should set off its beauty, and its beauty of truth should be the chief impression of the mind. To praise a thing for its faultlessness is to damn it with faint praise.21 Faultlessness, for Gurney, is not a virtue; counterintuitively, to be perfect is to be in some more vital way imperfect. So, as far as Gurney is concerned, beauty, which in Keatsian vein is the same as truth, is at odds with perfection; beauty is akin to the ‘huge surge of spirit’ of ‘The Sea Borders’. ‘Perfection’ is a style, a manner of speaking, which deepens into a political dimension in Gurney’s thinking: it is ‘a good aim, but a bad desire’. This sentiment seems to echo English conservative discourse, at least according to Anthony Quinton, who, speaking of Richard Hooker, argues that ‘Men, [Hooker] believes, always will the good, but are often mistaken about what it is’.22 In traditional conservative thinking, the will, the desire, is by nature imperfect. Belloc, in fact, says this: Again, it is that quality which Voltaire noted, which he thought abnormal in Shakespeare, but which is the most national characteristic in him, that a sort of formlessness, if it mars the framework of the thing and spoils it, yet also permits the exercise of an immeasurable vitality. When a man has read ‘King Lear’ and lays down the book he is like one who has been out in one of those empty English uplands in a storm by night.23 ‘To some perfection that grows, man wills his hand – / Roots rent, crown broken, grub-holed, it is drawn upward’, writes Gurney in ‘Of Cruelty’ (CP 122), in a Lear-like image (‘Roots rent, crown broken’) of form tending towards chaos – with another Shakespearian word, ‘will’, making an appearance, not for the only time. It is the vitality of Shakespeare, Belloc, and of Shakespeare read through Belloc, which appeals to Gurney: they are both ‘greatly healthy, both bombastic, and both nerve on nerve alive’.24 Being vital, ‘nerve on nerve alive’, is Gurney’s great desire;25 it is, for him as for Belloc, the ‘national characteristic’ of England and the English. Moreover, Gurney follows Belloc’s cue in describing Milton as ‘not nearly national enough’; that is, that ‘he wrote the most detestable half-English; sounding more like a Bohn translation than anything else. (But see Belloc on his chief merit – “picturing”.)’26 The English way, according to Belloc (and by extension Gurney), is the pushing back against conventional form, and the forms of convention, with ‘an immeasurable vitality’, even to the point of ‘formlessness’. You might even say that what Belloc is espousing here is that much-vaunted cliché of English eccentricity, trumpeted by the likes of Edith Sitwell in English Eccentrics. It is the ‘lawless exuberance’ which Belloc finds, even, in Milton – and which Gurney seemed to find in Belloc.27 Belloc directs much of Gurney’s thinking on literary tradition and the relationship of modernity to England’s pre-modern history. In ‘On Milton’, Belloc writes a passage which strongly influenced Gurney’s view of the ‘perfection’ of such nineteenth century writers and poets as Tennyson and Morris, suggesting the cultural politics of such an espousal of imperfection: In any one moment of English literary history you may contrast two wholly different masterpieces from the end of the Fourteenth to the end of the Eighteenth Centuries. After the first third of the Nineteenth, first-rate work falls into much more [sic] commonplace groove, and it is perceptible that the best verse and the best prose written in English are narrowing in their vocabulary, and, in what is far more important, their way of looking at life. The newspapers have levelled the writers down as with a trowel; you have not side by side the coarse and the refined, the amazing and the steadfast, the grotesque and the terrible; but in all those earlier centuries you had side by side manner and thought so varied that a remote posterity will wonder how such a wealth could have arisen upon so small an area of national soil.28 As well as the devaluing of poetry after the likes of Keats, Shelley, and Byron (a dismissal which would include Tennyson and Morris) we again find in this passage the connection between literary greatness and national soil, both of locale and patria. The ‘perfection’ of Tennyson and Morris is a result of them having been ‘levelled down’ by the press, by mass culture, ‘the masses’ as created by the capitalist class: it is presumably indicative that writers who are quite openly nostalgic, idyllic, about an English pre-capitalist past should be labelled adherents to the ideology and the mannerisms of perfection. Belloc’s ‘levelling down’ goes hand in hand with his description in The Servile State of the development of capitalism from the eighteenth century onward; and Gurney’s ‘perfection’ operates within this ambit. In ‘On Milton’, Belloc describes also the special relationship between poetry and music for the English, and the ‘unmistakeable thrill’ of English poetry for its peculiarly musical quality – a theory which must have appealed to Gurney, despite his contempt for literature as compared to music – observing that ‘Highly accentuated rhythm and emphasis are the marks of that [mystical] spirit’ of the English. ‘Highly accentuated rhythm and emphasis’ is, literally, the antithesis of monotony and the monotone, ‘side by side the coarse and the refined, the amazing and the steadfast, the grotesque and the terrible’, a prosodic analogue of the ideal of the ‘infinite differentiation’ of the ‘vital society’ killed off by capitalism.29 That this may have both instructed Gurney and struck him as truism is suggested by his use of powerful accentuated rhythms, manifested also in his repeated use of repetition. Exemplary in this context is the use of ‘afraid’ in ‘The Silent One’. There is ‘immeasurable vitality’ in the poetic line here and throughout Gurney’s post-war work, but there is also minute differentiation. Gurney’s repetition is at once obtrusively discordant and finely modulated: Till the politest voice, a finicking accent, said: ‘Do you think you might crawl through, there: there’s a hole?’ In the afraid Dark, shot at; I smiled, as politely replied – ‘I’m afraid not, Sir’.     (CP 250) ‘Afraid’ is repeated, with ironically different resonances, in alternate lines, a salient example of Gurney’s sense of imperfection (that clumsy-yet-modulated repetition, so frequent in Gurney’s work) as releasing the ‘vital energies’ of language within the limits of semantic deliberation: the ‘huge surge of spirit’ within the ‘wrought … square thing’. In the morphing connotations of ‘afraid’ – the second instance of which contains and supersedes the previous, rather like the word ‘polite’ in its final manifestation, ‘(Polite to God)’ – the terror of No Man’s Land is absurdly and neatly refracted through the politeness of inter-class cordiality, in a moment which appears, one might propose, as a riposte to Belloc’s vision of such relations in The Servile State, where he writes of ‘the human equality recognised between master and slave’;30 but also, in a moment of strange, pathological candour, that ‘The master might kill the slave, but both were of one race and each was human to the other’.31 Such a view was not isolated in the 1910s. On the introduction of national insurance contributions in 1911, designed to allow workers time off for sickness, The Times published a letter declaring that the measures would ‘weaken the kindly ties between master and servants’. As Selina Todd argues, ‘employers portrayed service as being distinct from other forms of wage labour, though, in reality, servants entered the labour market for the same reason as all other workers: namely, they needed the money’.32 It seems that Gurney, in the post-war period, was alive to the pretences of inter-class politesse, for all Belloc’s arguments against economic slavery, and compares the position of ‘service’ – a recurrent word in his poetry – to the position of the returning soldiery, describing, in ‘Blighty’, ‘A grim faced black-garbed mother efficient and busy / Set upon housework, worn-minded and fantasy-free’ (CP 123). The pun of ‘fantasy-free’ is deeply significant here: instead of ‘footloose and fancy-free’ the servant, like the demobilised soldier, is ‘worn-minded and fantasy-free’, that is, disillusioned, in both senses of that word. Belloc’s blind spot with regard to class politics is undermined here and in ‘The Silent One’, in which the voice of the private soldier refuses when invited, politely, to die by the ‘finicking accent’ of power: ‘“I’m afraid not, Sir”’. But as ever with Gurney the issue is not cut and dried, and elsewhere he expresses the wish that the word of command be the word of God: O for some force to swing us back there to some Natural moving toward life’s love, or that glow In the word to be glow in the State, that golden age come Again, men working freely as nature might show…    (CP 208) This poem, ‘The Golden Age’, written sometime between 1922 and 1925 according to P. J. Kavanagh’s Collected Poems, registers a doomed nostalgia – that optative ‘O’ being always an absence – but is no less earnest for that. The quoted passage has the distinct afterglow of the John Ruskin of Unto This Last, as it reflects also some of the rich effulgence of William Morris’s romances. It is echoed in ‘Tobacco’: ‘Merry England again after four centuries, / Of dawn-rising and late-talking and go-as-you-please’ (CP 139). Though this is as romantic as Morris, or as idyllic as Tennyson, such a phrase as ‘Merry England’ was not, during the war and in the immediate post-war period, as dripping with cliché as we might imagine it today; for example, in the trench-song ‘I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier’: I don’t want a bayonet up my arse-hole, I don’t want my ballocks shot away. I’d rather stay in England, In merry merry England, And fornicate my bloody life away.33 For Gurney, the trench-song, the folk-song, are great and imperfect also. ‘The Golden Age’ is a vision of home from the point of view of the soldier in the trenches, a ‘Home for Heroes’, you might say, and is nostalgic in that self-consciously sentimental manner. However, it is his wistful disappointment in the aureate – the golden age, that ‘glow in the State’ – and in perfectibility which leads Gurney to write one of his most famous lines, in ‘The Silent One’, of a dead comrade, recalling his ‘Infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent’. Gurney does not write ‘Infinitely lovely’: what is infinite is the chatter, not the loveliness. Jon Silkin has remarked that Gurney is interested in the dead man’s ‘vitality’: vitality for Gurney is pitched against the idea of perfection, the infinitely lovely. In ‘The Golden Age’, too, Gurney contemplates the vision of England seen by Belloc, and by the singers of that trench-song, as, precisely, aureate, a position characterised by the speechifying conventions of high sentiment (‘O for some force’) to which Gurney is no stranger throughout his poetry and letters, and which is derived at least in part from the optative gestures of Keats, Shelley, and Whitman, but which here is essentially thwarted, even consciously self-thwarting. However, ‘formlessness’ – Belloc’s assessment of Shakespeare’s modus operandi – goes too far, even as a description of the scene on the heath in King Lear which was so crucial to Gurney’s imagination; although, having said this, at least one critic has remarked on the ‘formlessness and directionlessness of the heath scene’.34 The operative question here is the extent to which ‘lawless exuberance’ tends towards ‘formlessness’, in literary work as in the state. Despite his espousal of lawlessness and formlessness, Belloc also writes in praise of ‘the pace at which Milton rides his verse, the strong constraint within which he binds it’.35 It is this mode, rather than a purer (and more abstract) ‘lawless exuberance’, within which Gurney works. Gurney does not wish to ‘mar the framework’ as such; but his framework is liable to be warped and dilated in the service of that ‘national characteristic’, vitality. In that Gurney associated this ‘immeasurable vitality’ of the poetic line with Walt Whitman, we might imagine that this ‘vitality’ is not a ‘national characteristic’ of the English in particular, but national per se; as with Shakespeare, it is the mark of the writer whose social and literary conventions, whose ‘framework’, struggle to contain or comprehend him or her, whose work reshapes that very framework. That Gurney ‘met’ Beethoven and claimed to be the author of Shakespeare’s plays is symptomatic. He not only emulated ‘national’ artists, he identified with them, more or less pathologically – Whitman being another example. One need only read the poignant, dashed-off note to Howells for a ‘sane’ account of this ambition, written on the eve of his departure for France and the Western Front, in which Gurney exhorts Howells to ‘make English music what it should be’:36 in other words, not merely to make English music, but to remake it. Gurney’s post-war war poems also deal with class relations on the Western Front (an England in microcosm), and the warping of propriety and ‘proportion’, especially in that ‘finicking accent’ which represents English hegemony in ‘The Silent One’. As has been remarked, Belloc, with his assumptions of benevolent oppression, is not an isolated voice in this respect. An editorial of 1910, again in The Times, asserted that ‘democracy, in the arrogance of its newly-asserted power, appears to believe that it can dispense with everything that in the past has made the real greatness and the enduring prosperity of nations’.37 Democracy is perceived here as being ruthlessly utopian, in contradiction to the nostalgic allegiances of conservatives, their roots spreading downward for centuries, represented here by The Times. But it is telling, again, how Gurney refashions Georgian conservative rhetoric, here represented by such words as ‘greatness’ and ‘enduring’ in the Times editorial, for instance in ‘Mist on Meadows’, ‘How England should take as common their vast endurance’: ‘greatness’ is a central Gurneyesque concept, a refashioning of conservative rhetoric which would have been unrecognisable to the writer of that editorial; and the enduring greatness of England is betrayed by its unwillingness or inability to recognise the ‘vast endurance’ of its ‘common’ soldiery. Gurney idealises the ‘common man’, the Tim Goddings of the regiment; Walt Whitman, he writes, was a ‘lover of the common man’ also;38 but at heart Gurney is a tormented conservative, like Belloc himself, for whom the modern world has ‘levelled down’ the organic society of pre-industrial England, a state of affairs lamented by a poem such as ‘The Golden Age’. There is a persistent sense in which England itself, and its landscapes, represents greatness for Gurney rather than the social perfection sought by the nostalgist or the utopian; though again he may have taken his cue in this from his ‘master’ Hilaire Belloc, who writes in ‘The Views of England’, an essay which Gurney recommended to Marion Scott, of ‘disappointed men talking wild talk … expecting impossible or foreign perfections from their own kindred’, prescribing a remedy for their delusions: ‘Let them walk from Dover to Solway’.39 As Shakespeare is essentially English in his greatness of imperfection, so England itself is great and imperfect. Indeed, greatness entails imperfection in these terms, since perfection seems aligned with modern, capitalist orthodoxy. G. K. Chesterton employs the same terms in ‘The Philosophy of Robert Browning’ when he writes of Browning’s ‘hope in the imperfection of man, and … hope in the imperfection of God’, which are ‘great thoughts, thoughts written by a great man’.40 In this idiom, imperfection and greatness are concomitants, an idiom which Gurney, a reader of Chesterton, may have absorbed. It is the inability to recognise the ‘vast’ greatness of its soldiers, and their ‘immeasurable vitality’, which is the object of Gurney’s condemnation. The proper ideal is that of an England not ‘levelled down’ either by the homogenising, pandering press, or capital, or the hand of power. ‘Foreign perfections’ implies ‘native imperfections’, as political, moral, and spiritual as they are aesthetic. One wonders if King Lear and its ‘empty uplands in a great storm’ may have seeped into Gurney’s depiction of No Man’s Land in ‘Pain’, published in 1917’s Severn and Somme: ‘grey mud where goes / An army of grey bedrenched scarecrows in rows / Careless at last of cruellest Fate-sending’ (CP 15) – in which, perhaps, the mercilessly punished naivety of Gloucester at the hands of Cornwall and Regan is matched by that of the Gloucesters (Gurney’s regiment) at the Somme and Passchendaele. The storm in King Lear is a storm alright, but it is also the storm in Lear’s mind, which is in turn the turbulence of the state. It is both a literal storm and turbulence made manifest: a storm which in ‘Pain’ is an artillery barrage, as elsewhere ‘lightning and torrentous strong flying hail’ (‘Friendly Are Meadows’, CP 134). The Fool, too, becomes a model for Gurney’s self-image after the war, the rejected, outcast ‘common man’, who may commune with kings, as in ‘The Storm at Night’:    Me – I shall walk till the rain comes; spates Of straight water, lit with white electricity and amber. Crying ‘King Lear’ out, if it is fine enough, or dumber Than Edgar or blunt Kent – if from magnificence magnificent It fails – or like Poor Tom go read in my lamplit room-corner.    (CP 268) This poem, written in the asylum sometime between 1922 and 1925, contemplates magnificent failure, and the magnificence of failure, as much as it laments the failure of magnificence. This thwarted ‘magnificence’ is echoed in ‘On Somme’: ‘Poets were luckier once / In the hot fray swallowed and some magnificence’ (CP 206). Again, here, the inversion is not simply a Morris-like archaism: it serves to complicate and implicate the sense of the sentence, the magnificence of the patria and its language, and the tragic failure of such ideals and their various forms. It is a registration of the ‘vast energies’ in the language, in the soldier returned to an indifferent or hostile nation, and in the war-poet of immediately post-war England – energies which are ignored or abused. The storm is a continuous symbol in Gurney’s work, in a Lear-like way, of the horrors which the poet finds within and without, often within the context of the ‘finicking accents’ of English poetic form: Horror follows Horror within me There is a chill fear Of the storm that does deafen and din me And rage horribly near.   (‘Poem’, CP 172) A warped ballad, this is an example again of poetry which maintains form yet which contains massive, disrupting energies. It is unconventional in its conventionality; but it avoids, like Belloc’s disproportionate ideal of the English spirit with its ‘lawless exuberance’, making the unconventional conventional, making the eccentric central. Evident here also is the neo-Shakespearianism of ‘the storm that does deafen and din me’; and the contained energy of ‘rage’, which is both noun and verb (thanks to the archaic modality of ‘does’), which is another word from the heath of King Lear: ‘Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!’ (III. ii. 1).41King Lear provides a further context for Gurney’s view of post-war England, and its cruelty, in ‘Mist on Meadows’: But they honour not – and salute not those boys that saw a terror Of waste, endured horror, and were not fearer Before the barrages like Heaven’s anger wanton known…    (CP 173) ‘Heaven’s anger wanton known’ clearly draws on ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to th’Gods. / They kill us for their sport’ (IV. i. 36-7), spoken by Gloucester after the atrocity visited on him, just as this poem is written for the Gloucesters after theirs. This passage is, again, remarkable for its tension between the aureate, even the finicking – ‘But they honour not’ – and the vital and disruptive. ‘Heaven’s anger wanton known’ appears semantically tortuous due to its postpositive inversion of the adjective; ‘fearer’ does not show up in the Oxford English Dictionary as an adjective, nor can I find it as an adjectival dialect word, though it seems to want to be an adjective in this context. If it is a noun, then it should be a plural. Also, we have ‘terror’, ‘horror’, and ‘fearer’ in close proximity, in a very Gurneyesque way making a half-mockery of harmony, as in, also, the self-tangled knots of ‘Tobacco’: Or in those caves of dug-outs, men taking lazily Smoke in luxuriously, of Woodbines easily. For one stroke forgiving Fate and its so mazily Self-tangled knots.    (CP 138) Gurney is working here to remake ‘the glow / In the word [and] glow in the State’. In his work so often, harmony is thickened and hypertrophied into disharmony; here, the machinations, the self-tangled knots, of that very Fate which the smoking soldiers seek to escape are effected in the harmonious stammer of Gurney’s lines, which seem to parody mellifluousness even as they seem to batten on it. This idiom of self-conscious excess is echoed tellingly in a poem about Beethoven, published in 1927, which itself draws on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 135, a poem which (among many other of the sonnets) echoes, or perhaps influences, Gurney’s use of repetition: ‘Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will, / And Will to boot, and Will in overplus’. It is a poem about excess and disproportion, too, in an idiom of excess and disproportion – like Gurney’s: Beethoven I wronged thee undernoting thus Thy dignity and worth; the overplus Of one quartet would our book overweigh.     (CP 133) Beethoven replaces Bach as the exemplary musician in Gurney’s poetry perhaps because Gurney comes to value the ‘overplus’ of Beethoven’s music over the proportion and order of Bach’s. In its sentiment, then, this poem is very similar in spirit to ‘The Sea Borders’, with its ‘huge surge of spirit’ within ‘great barriers’. Beethoven’s ‘overplus’, which is by logic of allusion Shakespeare’s also, would ‘overweigh’ whatever attempted to contain it; but in Gurney’s thinking this overweighing, this overbalancing, is a thing to be privileged over the ‘perfection’ of, say, Bach, or Tennyson. Gurney now perceives his earlier valuing of proportion (in his poetry written in the trenches) as wrong-headed, putting the matter quite consciously in an idiom of disproportion: ‘undernoting’, ‘overplus’, ‘overweigh’, words which take their emphatic places at the end of their lines. It is an idiom of excess and disproportion which is itself excessive and disproportionate; words which take their place among others of Gurney’s, relating an experience of actually talking to Beethoven, during which, also, ‘Bach was there but does not care for me’: ‘you’ll take it seriously [the claim that Gurney had actually spoken to Beethoven], and decide I am not unbalanced or overstrung’.42 While Gurney was indeed unbalanced and overstrung (and, tragically, increasingly so as his life went on), the unbalancing and overstringing of Beethoven’s music, and of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, is, then, desirable not simply for unbalanced and overstrung reasons. Tim Kendall’s diagnosis of Gurney’s inability to tell the difference between ‘the inspired and the incompetent’ must, then, be accepted with certain qualifications.43 For Gurney, the ‘incompetent’ may correspond to his espousal of imperfection which runs throughout his work and informs his thought; in this respect, it is the burden of the reader to distinguish the inspired from the incompetent in his work, or even to discern the inspired within the ‘incompetent’: that is the central challenge of Gurney’s poetry. To return to Herbert Howells’s phrase, the struggle-in-making is indeed an integral part of Gurney’s poetry (as of his music, according to Howells), and should be considered an operative part of his achievement. Edmund Burke writes that ‘deformity is opposed, not to beauty, but to the compleat, common form’:44 and it is precisely this sense of completeness, which is the completeness of the polity as well as the completeness of his defeat at its hands, and of the ‘common form’ which expresses this polity during and after the war, against which Gurney writes. However, to write against the ‘compleat’ and the ‘common form’ from within, as it were, presupposes a relationship of some kind with completeness and form, and some degree of faith in the ‘accumulated … wisdom of the community’ which most poets have to some extent, in literary terms at least, and which in Gurney is given a deeper significance and irony.45 Footnotes 1 Anthony Quinton, The Politics of Imperfection: The Religious and Secular Traditions of Conservative Thought in England from Hooker to Oakeshott (1976), p. 11. 2 Ibid., p. 13. 3 Ivor Gurney, War Letters (1983), p. 100. 4 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. Adam Phillips (Oxford, 1990), p. 100. 5 It is to be hoped that a forthcoming three-volume edition of his complete poems from Oxford University Press, edited by Tim Kendall, will further interest in his work. 6 Tim Kendall, Modern English War Poetry (Oxford, 2006), p. 93. 7 Geoffrey Hill, Collected Critical Writings (Oxford, 2008), p. 444. 8 Music and Letters, 19/1 (Jan. 1938), p. 14. 9 War Letters, p. 49. 10 References to CP are to page number in Ivor Gurney, Collected Poems, ed. P. J. Kavanagh (Oxford, 1984). 11 War Letters, p. 91. 12 Walt Whitman, ‘In Cabin’d Ships at Sea’, in Leaves of Grass, ed. Jerome Loving (Oxford, 1990), p. 10. 13 Geoffrey Hill, ‘Gurney’s “Hobby”’, in Collected Critical Writings, p. 429. 14 War Letters, p. 60. For example, ‘Tim Godding made a remark the other day, which might amuse you. Someone was poking fun at him, and Tim, patient for a time, got all his own back with “Ah mate, I was born too near a wood to be frightened with owls”’. 15 Ezra Pound, ‘Canto LXXXI’, The Cantos (New York, 1996), p. 538. 16 Letter to Marion Scott, 9 May 1915, War Letters, p. 29. 17 War Letters, p. 34. 18 Ibid., p. 53. 19 Ibid., p. 54. 20 Ibid., p. 53. 21 Ibid., p. 183. 22 Quinton, The Politics of Imperfection, p. 28. 23 Hilaire Belloc, ‘King Lear’, in First and Last (1911), p. 267. 24 War Letters, p. 186. 25 Bergson is the tantalising omission from the roll-call of Gurney’s readings in his correspondence, Creative Evolution having been translated into English in 1911. 26 Letter to Ethel Voynich, War Letters, p. 49. Bohn’s Classical Library was a series of translations of the classics published in the late nineteenth century. 27 Hilaire Belloc, ‘On Milton’, in On Anything (1910), p. 143. 28 Ibid. 29 Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State (Constable: London, 1927), p. 127. 30 Ibid., p. 32. 31 Ibid. 32 Selina Todd, The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class (2014), pp. 22-3. 33 Marcus Clapham (ed.), Poetry of the First World War (2013), p. 18. 34 Bruce R. Smith, ‘Speaking What We Feel about King Lear’, in Peter Holland (ed.), Shakespeare, Memory, and Performance (Cambridge, 2006), p. 24. 35 Belloc, ‘On Milton’, in On Anything, p. 147. 36 War Letters, p. 63. 37 Quoted in Todd, The People, p. 14. 38 War Letters, p. 91. 39 Ibid., p. 36; Hilaire Belloc, ‘The Views of England’, in First and Last, p. 46. 40 G. K. Chesterton, Robert Browning (1911), p. 179. 41 Quotations are from the Arden Shakespeare, ed. Kenneth Muir (1972). 42 War Letters, pp. 249-50. 43 Kendall, Modern English War Poetry, p. 93. 44 Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry, p. 93. 45 Quinton, The Politics of Imperfection, p. 11. © The Author(s) [2018]. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Essays in Criticism Oxford University Press

Ivor Gurney’s Imperfection

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Oxford University Press
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© The Author(s) [2018]. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved.
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Abstract

IN THE POLITICS OF IMPERFECTION, Anthony Quinton identifies the defining quality of conservatism as a ‘conviction of the radical intellectual imperfection of the human individual, as contrasted with the accumulated political wisdom of the community, as embodied in its customs and institutions’.1 The prevailing conservative attitude is one of pragmatism, against a background of epistemological scepticism, in which human imperfection is radically acknowledged, and government is necessary as ‘a remedy for sin’.2 By this account Ivor Gurney’s work lies at the outer fringes of the conservative tradition, like that of Hilaire Belloc, one of his greatest influences. Rather than acknowledging imperfection as a radical necessity, however, Gurney embraces it as an ideal; and though custom is desirable (as it is desirable as an anti-competitive economic principle for Belloc), the nation’s institutions in the period following the Great War are certainly not – a judgement which shows up in various ways in Gurney’s poetry. Certainly, the idea of government as a ‘remedy for sin’, in Quinton’s formulation, would not have held water with Gurney in, say, 1922, as it did not with many other soldiers returned from the war, poets or otherwise. Gurney remarked in August 1916 that ‘perfection is not a thing I value, but only Truth and Beauty’,3 a statement which, as well as recalling Keats, evokes Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Enquiry, and its chapter ‘Perfection not the cause of Beauty’: ‘Beauty in distress is much the most affecting beauty’.4 Though there is no evidence that Gurney read Burke (although he may have), Gurney’s anti-perfectionism echoes in many respects the conservative tradition of which Burke is an exemplar, a tradition which was transmitted to him, albeit in mutated form, through the work of Belloc. Gurney’s poetry, especially that written after the Great War (the bulk of his oeuvre, unpublished in his lifetime) is driven by the ideal of finding value in imperfection, in defining and exploring the potentialities and realities of the imperfect as a paradigm of both political and literary ideals. Plenty of critics have remarked on his infelicities and eccentricities as a poet; but imperfection plays a more complex role in his writing than merely a proneness to technical misjudgement Gurney’s reputation has largely hinged upon how critics interpret his various imperfections, and to what degree they accept them; my argument is that these imperfections are an essential element of Gurney’s approach to literature as to politics.5 An emerging locus classicus of Gurney’s imperfect poetics is the poem ‘It Is Near Toussaints’, which has attracted two major commentaries in recent times. Tim Kendall has written that the poem ‘embodies in extremis a failure in Gurney’s work to distinguish between the inspired and the incompetent’;6 and Geoffrey Hill has remarked that ‘In certain details of syntax and rhyme it seems “amateurish”’.7 I would not want to replace or usurp such assessments exactly; rather, I want to establish a mode of imperfection which, in Gurney’s work, while its individual instances are not always necessarily deliberate, is certainly deliberated and dwelt upon as a whole cultural politics and a way of writing and being. A poem such as ‘It Is Near Toussaints’, then, may be exhibited not only as a salient example of Gurney’s imperfect writing, but of his writing of imperfection. In December 1937 Ivor Gurney died of tuberculosis in the City of London Mental Hospital, in Dartford, Kent. In the commemorative issue of Music and Letters of January 1938, an issue devoted mainly to his memory, Herbert Howells, a former music teacher and friend of Gurney’s, published the following testimony: Gurney has never achieved a degree of fine finish or acquired an impeccable technique. The songs reveal a fineness of mind out of all proportion to their quality of detailed workmanship. Sometimes the inequalities are a barrier to the listener’s ready approach: a barrier even (one would sometimes fear) between the imaginative and expressive sides of the composer himself. But creative work of all ages is strewn with the signs of the struggle-of-making. In Gurney they measure achievement more than they mark limitations. The struggle-in-making is an integral part of expression.8 Howells’s phrasing here echoes Gurney’s self-testimony in ‘The Sea Borders’ that ‘I musician have wrestled with the stuff in making’, and his statement seems well versed in Gurney’s work in other ways too. His account of the poet’s achievement in music partakes of the idioms of proportion and disproportion, balance and imbalance, in which Gurney was himself deeply invested. Though a testimony to his music (and a eulogy to his late friend) Herbert Howells’s comments throw light on Gurney’s poetry too. A ‘fineness of mind out of all proportion’ might be an apt description of the sensitive, maverick young poet-composer who returned from the Western Front with what was diagnosed as ‘deferred shell shock’, but which may have been bipolar disorder or perhaps schizophrenia; there is, likewise, a profound ambivalence evident in Gurney’s poetry, particularly the post-war work, much of which was written while he was incarcerated in the mental hospital. Howells’s assessment points to features in the forms and diction of Gurney’s poetry, as well as its intellectual contexts. One of Gurney’s characteristic approbatory images is that of immensity: vastness, or hugeness, equates to the vital, the valuable. Of Milton, he remarks that ‘though his mind was huge in some ways, it was limited in others’;9 in ‘Of Cruelty’, he writes of ‘a vast impatience / And anxieties and mixed hopes for a resurrection’ (CP 122).10 And, again, in ‘The Sea Borders’: But because I musician have wrestled with the stuff in making, And wrought a square thing out of my stubborn mind – And gathered huge surge of spirit as the great barriers bind The whole Atlantic… (CP 219) To have ‘gathered huge surge of spirit’ into a ‘wrought … square thing’ is Gurney’s aim; a more conservative version of Whitman, of whom he professed himself a disciple:11 ‘The boundless vista and the horizon far and dim are all here, / And this is Ocean’s poem’.12 ‘Huge’, ‘vast’, and the like are ‘value-words’ for Gurney in the way that Geoffrey Hill argues that ‘common’ is (‘vast’ being a favourite word of Whitman’s in Leaves of Grass also).13 In ‘Mist on Meadows’, Gurney asks ‘How England should take as common their vast endurance’ (CP 173), referring to the veterans of the recent war. England here is indeed a ‘little England’, an entity not ‘vast’ enough to be worthy of the common soldier, Whitman’s ‘common man’, exemplified by the likes of Tim Godding, a soldier of the same battalion, whose honest, knockabout humour led Gurney to see him as a ‘Shakespearian character’.14 As a composer of songs, and as a student of music, Gurney was especially alive (a very Gurneyish word) to harmony, and to harmonic expectation. His poetry, particularly his post-war poetry, works simultaneously within a mode of harmonic expectation and disturbance or thwarting of that expectation. He works both within and against the mellifluous and the sentimental, and so within and against the inheritance both of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as of classicism. Rupert Brooke emerged out of the university tradition of the classics. Gurney did not. But whereas the high modernists (broadly speaking) used discordance – in form, in voicing, and in the disconnection between poet and audience – to lament, expose, and play upon the various discords of Western civilisation, Gurney’s work registers a tension between discord and harmony which bespeaks a deep cultural-political ambivalence in the same historical context. Ezra Pound wrote that ‘To break the pentameter, that was the first heave’;15 Gurney wrote of his desire to have ‘wrought a square thing’ which binds or incorporates that ‘huge surge of spirit’, something akin to the Poundian ‘heave’. It is significant in this context that Pound considered himself in league with Walt Whitman, as he wrote in ‘A Pact’; as did Gurney, though the English poet’s allegiance to Whitman is more qualified by the ‘great barriers’ of tradition and form than is Pound’s in The Cantos. Gurney’s ambivalence is indicated by two differing reactions, in his letters, to the war sonnets of Brooke, and hinges on the difference, ostensibly, between music and language. ‘[Brooke] has left us a legacy of two sonnets which outshine by far anything written on this upheaval [i.e. the Great War]. They are as beautiful as music. They are so beautiful that at last one forgets that the words are there and is taken up into ecstasy just as in music’.16 This is written to Marion Scott, the music critic, in May 1915; in a letter to the same correspondent in August of the same year, Gurney writes that ‘The sonnet of R.B. you sent me, I do not like. It seems to me that Rupert Brooke would not have improved with age, would not have broadened; his manner has become a mannerism, both in rhythm and diction. I do not like it’.17 Where Brooke’s music is commendable, from the point of view of language, his poetry is all ‘mannerism’. Gurney’s ambivalence on this point was not restricted to Brooke, however, but extended to literature in general. ‘[T]owards Literature I am slightly contemptuous’, he remarked in a letter, going on to (mis)quote Walter Pater: ‘“All art strives constantly to the precondition of music”’.18 Gurney’s professed contempt for literature is one of the animating tensions of his poetry, and informs his feeling for language’s imperfection, for better and for worse – although his professed (slight) contempt for literature must be weighed against his reverence for Whitman and Shakespeare. In a letter of 1916, Gurney remarked, ‘W.S. is not perfect often, but how much of the greatest things is perfect. Let us leave perfection to Tennyson and William Morris – in lengthy things, I mean’.19 This statement is particularly interesting in that it implies Tennyson and Morris are exemplary, but that in some sense their ‘perfection’ is not; Gurney’s ‘dissatisfaction’ with Shakespeare is, ironically, a recognition of his all-mastering greatness. There may be a faint hint of political sarcasm; Tennyson had his idylls and Morris his utopias. During the war, Gurney expressed a certain anti-utopianism, taking his cue in part from Belloc: ‘I am leader of the Opposition to a Socialist government, next Monday and have ordered Belloc’s book on the Servile State to make things hot for it’.20 Later, his experience of returning to England after the war was, as it was for countless thousands of returning servicemen, a betrayal of the ideals of remaking the world for the better for which the war was fought, and of specific Liberal promises regarding a Britain which was to be a ‘Home for Heroes’. In this context, ‘perfection’ in Gurney’s view may actually be associated with the hypocrisies of power: the ‘civic routine’ of ‘Strange Hells’ (CP 141); the ‘civic decency’ of ‘Blighty’ (CP 123). From as early as January 1916, then – before he was in the trenches – Gurney was committed to the idea of being ‘not perfect often’, a literary judgement with political and existential dimensions, which emerges in the post-war poetry as a writing against the grain of such civic ideals as routine and decency. This letter is telling, too, in that it mentions Hilaire Belloc, a huge figure in pre-Great War English literary and intellectual culture: ‘Belloc was all our Master’, writes Gurney in ‘It Is Near Toussaints’, a retrospective testimony borne out by his trench correspondence. In another letter of August 1917 he writes: As Belloc says somewhere, A man who reads ‘King Lear’ feels as though he had been out all night on the empty uplands in a great storm. Such things must move us more for ever than perfection, a good aim, but a bad desire; and so, it seems to me, a work of Art should never be greatly praised for its perfection; for that should set off its beauty, and its beauty of truth should be the chief impression of the mind. To praise a thing for its faultlessness is to damn it with faint praise.21 Faultlessness, for Gurney, is not a virtue; counterintuitively, to be perfect is to be in some more vital way imperfect. So, as far as Gurney is concerned, beauty, which in Keatsian vein is the same as truth, is at odds with perfection; beauty is akin to the ‘huge surge of spirit’ of ‘The Sea Borders’. ‘Perfection’ is a style, a manner of speaking, which deepens into a political dimension in Gurney’s thinking: it is ‘a good aim, but a bad desire’. This sentiment seems to echo English conservative discourse, at least according to Anthony Quinton, who, speaking of Richard Hooker, argues that ‘Men, [Hooker] believes, always will the good, but are often mistaken about what it is’.22 In traditional conservative thinking, the will, the desire, is by nature imperfect. Belloc, in fact, says this: Again, it is that quality which Voltaire noted, which he thought abnormal in Shakespeare, but which is the most national characteristic in him, that a sort of formlessness, if it mars the framework of the thing and spoils it, yet also permits the exercise of an immeasurable vitality. When a man has read ‘King Lear’ and lays down the book he is like one who has been out in one of those empty English uplands in a storm by night.23 ‘To some perfection that grows, man wills his hand – / Roots rent, crown broken, grub-holed, it is drawn upward’, writes Gurney in ‘Of Cruelty’ (CP 122), in a Lear-like image (‘Roots rent, crown broken’) of form tending towards chaos – with another Shakespearian word, ‘will’, making an appearance, not for the only time. It is the vitality of Shakespeare, Belloc, and of Shakespeare read through Belloc, which appeals to Gurney: they are both ‘greatly healthy, both bombastic, and both nerve on nerve alive’.24 Being vital, ‘nerve on nerve alive’, is Gurney’s great desire;25 it is, for him as for Belloc, the ‘national characteristic’ of England and the English. Moreover, Gurney follows Belloc’s cue in describing Milton as ‘not nearly national enough’; that is, that ‘he wrote the most detestable half-English; sounding more like a Bohn translation than anything else. (But see Belloc on his chief merit – “picturing”.)’26 The English way, according to Belloc (and by extension Gurney), is the pushing back against conventional form, and the forms of convention, with ‘an immeasurable vitality’, even to the point of ‘formlessness’. You might even say that what Belloc is espousing here is that much-vaunted cliché of English eccentricity, trumpeted by the likes of Edith Sitwell in English Eccentrics. It is the ‘lawless exuberance’ which Belloc finds, even, in Milton – and which Gurney seemed to find in Belloc.27 Belloc directs much of Gurney’s thinking on literary tradition and the relationship of modernity to England’s pre-modern history. In ‘On Milton’, Belloc writes a passage which strongly influenced Gurney’s view of the ‘perfection’ of such nineteenth century writers and poets as Tennyson and Morris, suggesting the cultural politics of such an espousal of imperfection: In any one moment of English literary history you may contrast two wholly different masterpieces from the end of the Fourteenth to the end of the Eighteenth Centuries. After the first third of the Nineteenth, first-rate work falls into much more [sic] commonplace groove, and it is perceptible that the best verse and the best prose written in English are narrowing in their vocabulary, and, in what is far more important, their way of looking at life. The newspapers have levelled the writers down as with a trowel; you have not side by side the coarse and the refined, the amazing and the steadfast, the grotesque and the terrible; but in all those earlier centuries you had side by side manner and thought so varied that a remote posterity will wonder how such a wealth could have arisen upon so small an area of national soil.28 As well as the devaluing of poetry after the likes of Keats, Shelley, and Byron (a dismissal which would include Tennyson and Morris) we again find in this passage the connection between literary greatness and national soil, both of locale and patria. The ‘perfection’ of Tennyson and Morris is a result of them having been ‘levelled down’ by the press, by mass culture, ‘the masses’ as created by the capitalist class: it is presumably indicative that writers who are quite openly nostalgic, idyllic, about an English pre-capitalist past should be labelled adherents to the ideology and the mannerisms of perfection. Belloc’s ‘levelling down’ goes hand in hand with his description in The Servile State of the development of capitalism from the eighteenth century onward; and Gurney’s ‘perfection’ operates within this ambit. In ‘On Milton’, Belloc describes also the special relationship between poetry and music for the English, and the ‘unmistakeable thrill’ of English poetry for its peculiarly musical quality – a theory which must have appealed to Gurney, despite his contempt for literature as compared to music – observing that ‘Highly accentuated rhythm and emphasis are the marks of that [mystical] spirit’ of the English. ‘Highly accentuated rhythm and emphasis’ is, literally, the antithesis of monotony and the monotone, ‘side by side the coarse and the refined, the amazing and the steadfast, the grotesque and the terrible’, a prosodic analogue of the ideal of the ‘infinite differentiation’ of the ‘vital society’ killed off by capitalism.29 That this may have both instructed Gurney and struck him as truism is suggested by his use of powerful accentuated rhythms, manifested also in his repeated use of repetition. Exemplary in this context is the use of ‘afraid’ in ‘The Silent One’. There is ‘immeasurable vitality’ in the poetic line here and throughout Gurney’s post-war work, but there is also minute differentiation. Gurney’s repetition is at once obtrusively discordant and finely modulated: Till the politest voice, a finicking accent, said: ‘Do you think you might crawl through, there: there’s a hole?’ In the afraid Dark, shot at; I smiled, as politely replied – ‘I’m afraid not, Sir’.     (CP 250) ‘Afraid’ is repeated, with ironically different resonances, in alternate lines, a salient example of Gurney’s sense of imperfection (that clumsy-yet-modulated repetition, so frequent in Gurney’s work) as releasing the ‘vital energies’ of language within the limits of semantic deliberation: the ‘huge surge of spirit’ within the ‘wrought … square thing’. In the morphing connotations of ‘afraid’ – the second instance of which contains and supersedes the previous, rather like the word ‘polite’ in its final manifestation, ‘(Polite to God)’ – the terror of No Man’s Land is absurdly and neatly refracted through the politeness of inter-class cordiality, in a moment which appears, one might propose, as a riposte to Belloc’s vision of such relations in The Servile State, where he writes of ‘the human equality recognised between master and slave’;30 but also, in a moment of strange, pathological candour, that ‘The master might kill the slave, but both were of one race and each was human to the other’.31 Such a view was not isolated in the 1910s. On the introduction of national insurance contributions in 1911, designed to allow workers time off for sickness, The Times published a letter declaring that the measures would ‘weaken the kindly ties between master and servants’. As Selina Todd argues, ‘employers portrayed service as being distinct from other forms of wage labour, though, in reality, servants entered the labour market for the same reason as all other workers: namely, they needed the money’.32 It seems that Gurney, in the post-war period, was alive to the pretences of inter-class politesse, for all Belloc’s arguments against economic slavery, and compares the position of ‘service’ – a recurrent word in his poetry – to the position of the returning soldiery, describing, in ‘Blighty’, ‘A grim faced black-garbed mother efficient and busy / Set upon housework, worn-minded and fantasy-free’ (CP 123). The pun of ‘fantasy-free’ is deeply significant here: instead of ‘footloose and fancy-free’ the servant, like the demobilised soldier, is ‘worn-minded and fantasy-free’, that is, disillusioned, in both senses of that word. Belloc’s blind spot with regard to class politics is undermined here and in ‘The Silent One’, in which the voice of the private soldier refuses when invited, politely, to die by the ‘finicking accent’ of power: ‘“I’m afraid not, Sir”’. But as ever with Gurney the issue is not cut and dried, and elsewhere he expresses the wish that the word of command be the word of God: O for some force to swing us back there to some Natural moving toward life’s love, or that glow In the word to be glow in the State, that golden age come Again, men working freely as nature might show…    (CP 208) This poem, ‘The Golden Age’, written sometime between 1922 and 1925 according to P. J. Kavanagh’s Collected Poems, registers a doomed nostalgia – that optative ‘O’ being always an absence – but is no less earnest for that. The quoted passage has the distinct afterglow of the John Ruskin of Unto This Last, as it reflects also some of the rich effulgence of William Morris’s romances. It is echoed in ‘Tobacco’: ‘Merry England again after four centuries, / Of dawn-rising and late-talking and go-as-you-please’ (CP 139). Though this is as romantic as Morris, or as idyllic as Tennyson, such a phrase as ‘Merry England’ was not, during the war and in the immediate post-war period, as dripping with cliché as we might imagine it today; for example, in the trench-song ‘I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier’: I don’t want a bayonet up my arse-hole, I don’t want my ballocks shot away. I’d rather stay in England, In merry merry England, And fornicate my bloody life away.33 For Gurney, the trench-song, the folk-song, are great and imperfect also. ‘The Golden Age’ is a vision of home from the point of view of the soldier in the trenches, a ‘Home for Heroes’, you might say, and is nostalgic in that self-consciously sentimental manner. However, it is his wistful disappointment in the aureate – the golden age, that ‘glow in the State’ – and in perfectibility which leads Gurney to write one of his most famous lines, in ‘The Silent One’, of a dead comrade, recalling his ‘Infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent’. Gurney does not write ‘Infinitely lovely’: what is infinite is the chatter, not the loveliness. Jon Silkin has remarked that Gurney is interested in the dead man’s ‘vitality’: vitality for Gurney is pitched against the idea of perfection, the infinitely lovely. In ‘The Golden Age’, too, Gurney contemplates the vision of England seen by Belloc, and by the singers of that trench-song, as, precisely, aureate, a position characterised by the speechifying conventions of high sentiment (‘O for some force’) to which Gurney is no stranger throughout his poetry and letters, and which is derived at least in part from the optative gestures of Keats, Shelley, and Whitman, but which here is essentially thwarted, even consciously self-thwarting. However, ‘formlessness’ – Belloc’s assessment of Shakespeare’s modus operandi – goes too far, even as a description of the scene on the heath in King Lear which was so crucial to Gurney’s imagination; although, having said this, at least one critic has remarked on the ‘formlessness and directionlessness of the heath scene’.34 The operative question here is the extent to which ‘lawless exuberance’ tends towards ‘formlessness’, in literary work as in the state. Despite his espousal of lawlessness and formlessness, Belloc also writes in praise of ‘the pace at which Milton rides his verse, the strong constraint within which he binds it’.35 It is this mode, rather than a purer (and more abstract) ‘lawless exuberance’, within which Gurney works. Gurney does not wish to ‘mar the framework’ as such; but his framework is liable to be warped and dilated in the service of that ‘national characteristic’, vitality. In that Gurney associated this ‘immeasurable vitality’ of the poetic line with Walt Whitman, we might imagine that this ‘vitality’ is not a ‘national characteristic’ of the English in particular, but national per se; as with Shakespeare, it is the mark of the writer whose social and literary conventions, whose ‘framework’, struggle to contain or comprehend him or her, whose work reshapes that very framework. That Gurney ‘met’ Beethoven and claimed to be the author of Shakespeare’s plays is symptomatic. He not only emulated ‘national’ artists, he identified with them, more or less pathologically – Whitman being another example. One need only read the poignant, dashed-off note to Howells for a ‘sane’ account of this ambition, written on the eve of his departure for France and the Western Front, in which Gurney exhorts Howells to ‘make English music what it should be’:36 in other words, not merely to make English music, but to remake it. Gurney’s post-war war poems also deal with class relations on the Western Front (an England in microcosm), and the warping of propriety and ‘proportion’, especially in that ‘finicking accent’ which represents English hegemony in ‘The Silent One’. As has been remarked, Belloc, with his assumptions of benevolent oppression, is not an isolated voice in this respect. An editorial of 1910, again in The Times, asserted that ‘democracy, in the arrogance of its newly-asserted power, appears to believe that it can dispense with everything that in the past has made the real greatness and the enduring prosperity of nations’.37 Democracy is perceived here as being ruthlessly utopian, in contradiction to the nostalgic allegiances of conservatives, their roots spreading downward for centuries, represented here by The Times. But it is telling, again, how Gurney refashions Georgian conservative rhetoric, here represented by such words as ‘greatness’ and ‘enduring’ in the Times editorial, for instance in ‘Mist on Meadows’, ‘How England should take as common their vast endurance’: ‘greatness’ is a central Gurneyesque concept, a refashioning of conservative rhetoric which would have been unrecognisable to the writer of that editorial; and the enduring greatness of England is betrayed by its unwillingness or inability to recognise the ‘vast endurance’ of its ‘common’ soldiery. Gurney idealises the ‘common man’, the Tim Goddings of the regiment; Walt Whitman, he writes, was a ‘lover of the common man’ also;38 but at heart Gurney is a tormented conservative, like Belloc himself, for whom the modern world has ‘levelled down’ the organic society of pre-industrial England, a state of affairs lamented by a poem such as ‘The Golden Age’. There is a persistent sense in which England itself, and its landscapes, represents greatness for Gurney rather than the social perfection sought by the nostalgist or the utopian; though again he may have taken his cue in this from his ‘master’ Hilaire Belloc, who writes in ‘The Views of England’, an essay which Gurney recommended to Marion Scott, of ‘disappointed men talking wild talk … expecting impossible or foreign perfections from their own kindred’, prescribing a remedy for their delusions: ‘Let them walk from Dover to Solway’.39 As Shakespeare is essentially English in his greatness of imperfection, so England itself is great and imperfect. Indeed, greatness entails imperfection in these terms, since perfection seems aligned with modern, capitalist orthodoxy. G. K. Chesterton employs the same terms in ‘The Philosophy of Robert Browning’ when he writes of Browning’s ‘hope in the imperfection of man, and … hope in the imperfection of God’, which are ‘great thoughts, thoughts written by a great man’.40 In this idiom, imperfection and greatness are concomitants, an idiom which Gurney, a reader of Chesterton, may have absorbed. It is the inability to recognise the ‘vast’ greatness of its soldiers, and their ‘immeasurable vitality’, which is the object of Gurney’s condemnation. The proper ideal is that of an England not ‘levelled down’ either by the homogenising, pandering press, or capital, or the hand of power. ‘Foreign perfections’ implies ‘native imperfections’, as political, moral, and spiritual as they are aesthetic. One wonders if King Lear and its ‘empty uplands in a great storm’ may have seeped into Gurney’s depiction of No Man’s Land in ‘Pain’, published in 1917’s Severn and Somme: ‘grey mud where goes / An army of grey bedrenched scarecrows in rows / Careless at last of cruellest Fate-sending’ (CP 15) – in which, perhaps, the mercilessly punished naivety of Gloucester at the hands of Cornwall and Regan is matched by that of the Gloucesters (Gurney’s regiment) at the Somme and Passchendaele. The storm in King Lear is a storm alright, but it is also the storm in Lear’s mind, which is in turn the turbulence of the state. It is both a literal storm and turbulence made manifest: a storm which in ‘Pain’ is an artillery barrage, as elsewhere ‘lightning and torrentous strong flying hail’ (‘Friendly Are Meadows’, CP 134). The Fool, too, becomes a model for Gurney’s self-image after the war, the rejected, outcast ‘common man’, who may commune with kings, as in ‘The Storm at Night’:    Me – I shall walk till the rain comes; spates Of straight water, lit with white electricity and amber. Crying ‘King Lear’ out, if it is fine enough, or dumber Than Edgar or blunt Kent – if from magnificence magnificent It fails – or like Poor Tom go read in my lamplit room-corner.    (CP 268) This poem, written in the asylum sometime between 1922 and 1925, contemplates magnificent failure, and the magnificence of failure, as much as it laments the failure of magnificence. This thwarted ‘magnificence’ is echoed in ‘On Somme’: ‘Poets were luckier once / In the hot fray swallowed and some magnificence’ (CP 206). Again, here, the inversion is not simply a Morris-like archaism: it serves to complicate and implicate the sense of the sentence, the magnificence of the patria and its language, and the tragic failure of such ideals and their various forms. It is a registration of the ‘vast energies’ in the language, in the soldier returned to an indifferent or hostile nation, and in the war-poet of immediately post-war England – energies which are ignored or abused. The storm is a continuous symbol in Gurney’s work, in a Lear-like way, of the horrors which the poet finds within and without, often within the context of the ‘finicking accents’ of English poetic form: Horror follows Horror within me There is a chill fear Of the storm that does deafen and din me And rage horribly near.   (‘Poem’, CP 172) A warped ballad, this is an example again of poetry which maintains form yet which contains massive, disrupting energies. It is unconventional in its conventionality; but it avoids, like Belloc’s disproportionate ideal of the English spirit with its ‘lawless exuberance’, making the unconventional conventional, making the eccentric central. Evident here also is the neo-Shakespearianism of ‘the storm that does deafen and din me’; and the contained energy of ‘rage’, which is both noun and verb (thanks to the archaic modality of ‘does’), which is another word from the heath of King Lear: ‘Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!’ (III. ii. 1).41King Lear provides a further context for Gurney’s view of post-war England, and its cruelty, in ‘Mist on Meadows’: But they honour not – and salute not those boys that saw a terror Of waste, endured horror, and were not fearer Before the barrages like Heaven’s anger wanton known…    (CP 173) ‘Heaven’s anger wanton known’ clearly draws on ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to th’Gods. / They kill us for their sport’ (IV. i. 36-7), spoken by Gloucester after the atrocity visited on him, just as this poem is written for the Gloucesters after theirs. This passage is, again, remarkable for its tension between the aureate, even the finicking – ‘But they honour not’ – and the vital and disruptive. ‘Heaven’s anger wanton known’ appears semantically tortuous due to its postpositive inversion of the adjective; ‘fearer’ does not show up in the Oxford English Dictionary as an adjective, nor can I find it as an adjectival dialect word, though it seems to want to be an adjective in this context. If it is a noun, then it should be a plural. Also, we have ‘terror’, ‘horror’, and ‘fearer’ in close proximity, in a very Gurneyesque way making a half-mockery of harmony, as in, also, the self-tangled knots of ‘Tobacco’: Or in those caves of dug-outs, men taking lazily Smoke in luxuriously, of Woodbines easily. For one stroke forgiving Fate and its so mazily Self-tangled knots.    (CP 138) Gurney is working here to remake ‘the glow / In the word [and] glow in the State’. In his work so often, harmony is thickened and hypertrophied into disharmony; here, the machinations, the self-tangled knots, of that very Fate which the smoking soldiers seek to escape are effected in the harmonious stammer of Gurney’s lines, which seem to parody mellifluousness even as they seem to batten on it. This idiom of self-conscious excess is echoed tellingly in a poem about Beethoven, published in 1927, which itself draws on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 135, a poem which (among many other of the sonnets) echoes, or perhaps influences, Gurney’s use of repetition: ‘Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will, / And Will to boot, and Will in overplus’. It is a poem about excess and disproportion, too, in an idiom of excess and disproportion – like Gurney’s: Beethoven I wronged thee undernoting thus Thy dignity and worth; the overplus Of one quartet would our book overweigh.     (CP 133) Beethoven replaces Bach as the exemplary musician in Gurney’s poetry perhaps because Gurney comes to value the ‘overplus’ of Beethoven’s music over the proportion and order of Bach’s. In its sentiment, then, this poem is very similar in spirit to ‘The Sea Borders’, with its ‘huge surge of spirit’ within ‘great barriers’. Beethoven’s ‘overplus’, which is by logic of allusion Shakespeare’s also, would ‘overweigh’ whatever attempted to contain it; but in Gurney’s thinking this overweighing, this overbalancing, is a thing to be privileged over the ‘perfection’ of, say, Bach, or Tennyson. Gurney now perceives his earlier valuing of proportion (in his poetry written in the trenches) as wrong-headed, putting the matter quite consciously in an idiom of disproportion: ‘undernoting’, ‘overplus’, ‘overweigh’, words which take their emphatic places at the end of their lines. It is an idiom of excess and disproportion which is itself excessive and disproportionate; words which take their place among others of Gurney’s, relating an experience of actually talking to Beethoven, during which, also, ‘Bach was there but does not care for me’: ‘you’ll take it seriously [the claim that Gurney had actually spoken to Beethoven], and decide I am not unbalanced or overstrung’.42 While Gurney was indeed unbalanced and overstrung (and, tragically, increasingly so as his life went on), the unbalancing and overstringing of Beethoven’s music, and of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, is, then, desirable not simply for unbalanced and overstrung reasons. Tim Kendall’s diagnosis of Gurney’s inability to tell the difference between ‘the inspired and the incompetent’ must, then, be accepted with certain qualifications.43 For Gurney, the ‘incompetent’ may correspond to his espousal of imperfection which runs throughout his work and informs his thought; in this respect, it is the burden of the reader to distinguish the inspired from the incompetent in his work, or even to discern the inspired within the ‘incompetent’: that is the central challenge of Gurney’s poetry. To return to Herbert Howells’s phrase, the struggle-in-making is indeed an integral part of Gurney’s poetry (as of his music, according to Howells), and should be considered an operative part of his achievement. Edmund Burke writes that ‘deformity is opposed, not to beauty, but to the compleat, common form’:44 and it is precisely this sense of completeness, which is the completeness of the polity as well as the completeness of his defeat at its hands, and of the ‘common form’ which expresses this polity during and after the war, against which Gurney writes. However, to write against the ‘compleat’ and the ‘common form’ from within, as it were, presupposes a relationship of some kind with completeness and form, and some degree of faith in the ‘accumulated … wisdom of the community’ which most poets have to some extent, in literary terms at least, and which in Gurney is given a deeper significance and irony.45 Footnotes 1 Anthony Quinton, The Politics of Imperfection: The Religious and Secular Traditions of Conservative Thought in England from Hooker to Oakeshott (1976), p. 11. 2 Ibid., p. 13. 3 Ivor Gurney, War Letters (1983), p. 100. 4 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. Adam Phillips (Oxford, 1990), p. 100. 5 It is to be hoped that a forthcoming three-volume edition of his complete poems from Oxford University Press, edited by Tim Kendall, will further interest in his work. 6 Tim Kendall, Modern English War Poetry (Oxford, 2006), p. 93. 7 Geoffrey Hill, Collected Critical Writings (Oxford, 2008), p. 444. 8 Music and Letters, 19/1 (Jan. 1938), p. 14. 9 War Letters, p. 49. 10 References to CP are to page number in Ivor Gurney, Collected Poems, ed. P. J. Kavanagh (Oxford, 1984). 11 War Letters, p. 91. 12 Walt Whitman, ‘In Cabin’d Ships at Sea’, in Leaves of Grass, ed. Jerome Loving (Oxford, 1990), p. 10. 13 Geoffrey Hill, ‘Gurney’s “Hobby”’, in Collected Critical Writings, p. 429. 14 War Letters, p. 60. For example, ‘Tim Godding made a remark the other day, which might amuse you. Someone was poking fun at him, and Tim, patient for a time, got all his own back with “Ah mate, I was born too near a wood to be frightened with owls”’. 15 Ezra Pound, ‘Canto LXXXI’, The Cantos (New York, 1996), p. 538. 16 Letter to Marion Scott, 9 May 1915, War Letters, p. 29. 17 War Letters, p. 34. 18 Ibid., p. 53. 19 Ibid., p. 54. 20 Ibid., p. 53. 21 Ibid., p. 183. 22 Quinton, The Politics of Imperfection, p. 28. 23 Hilaire Belloc, ‘King Lear’, in First and Last (1911), p. 267. 24 War Letters, p. 186. 25 Bergson is the tantalising omission from the roll-call of Gurney’s readings in his correspondence, Creative Evolution having been translated into English in 1911. 26 Letter to Ethel Voynich, War Letters, p. 49. Bohn’s Classical Library was a series of translations of the classics published in the late nineteenth century. 27 Hilaire Belloc, ‘On Milton’, in On Anything (1910), p. 143. 28 Ibid. 29 Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State (Constable: London, 1927), p. 127. 30 Ibid., p. 32. 31 Ibid. 32 Selina Todd, The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class (2014), pp. 22-3. 33 Marcus Clapham (ed.), Poetry of the First World War (2013), p. 18. 34 Bruce R. Smith, ‘Speaking What We Feel about King Lear’, in Peter Holland (ed.), Shakespeare, Memory, and Performance (Cambridge, 2006), p. 24. 35 Belloc, ‘On Milton’, in On Anything, p. 147. 36 War Letters, p. 63. 37 Quoted in Todd, The People, p. 14. 38 War Letters, p. 91. 39 Ibid., p. 36; Hilaire Belloc, ‘The Views of England’, in First and Last, p. 46. 40 G. K. Chesterton, Robert Browning (1911), p. 179. 41 Quotations are from the Arden Shakespeare, ed. Kenneth Muir (1972). 42 War Letters, pp. 249-50. 43 Kendall, Modern English War Poetry, p. 93. 44 Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry, p. 93. 45 Quinton, The Politics of Imperfection, p. 11. © The Author(s) [2018]. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved.

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Essays in CriticismOxford University Press

Published: Jan 1, 2018

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