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The Poem Stuck in My Head

Ivor Gurney’s “To His Love”

November 11, 2013 | by

Ivor Gurney in 1920.

In honor of Veterans Day, we are re-running this favorite post.

In the last century, a few years of sodden slaughter in France and Flanders turned British poetry from Keatsian lyricism to raw, aghast reportage. Isaac Rosenberg’s poems, for instance, moved from prewar patriotic exultation—“Flash, mailed seraphim, / Your burning spears”—to, three years later, this numb, bone-dry mutter from the trenches: “Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew / Your cosmopolitan sympathies.”

In Ivor Gurney’s “To His Love” you see the thing happening not in mid-career but in mid-poem—between lines, in a line break, specifically the last one. It’s the most astonishing line break I’ve ever encountered. It’s the sound of a culture’s poetic history cracking in half.

“To His Love” begins as an almost doggedly traditional elegy, with the Byronic echo of “We’ll walk no more on Cotswold.” It meanders through rivers, beasts, flowers, and the old tropes—nobility, “pride,” “memoried.” We are lulled into thinking that the urgency of “Cover him, cover him soon!” arises from intense soldierly love, rather than the desperate need to hide a shredded corpse, that “red, wet / Thing.” The euphemistic Latinate décor is stripped away; the haplessly tall T does it’s pitiful duty by the form, like a Tommy too shell-shocked to hide, a standing target.

The fragile Gurney was gassed and traumatized by the war, and he lived out his days in asylums. I never forget this poem of never forgetting:

He’s gone, and all our plans
Are useless indeed.
We’ll walk no more on Cotswolds
Where the sheep feed
Quietly and take no heed.

His body that was so quick
Is not as you
Knew it, on Severn River
Under the blue
Driving our small boat through.

You would not know him now …
But still he died
Nobly, so cover him over
With violets of pride
Purple from Severn side.

Cover him, cover him soon!
And with thick-set
Masses of memoried flowers—
Hide that red wet
Thing I must somehow forget.

Glyn Maxwell’s most recent book, One Thousand Nights and Counting: Selected Poems, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in September.

8 COMMENTS

6 Comments

  1. Susan | November 10, 2011 at 5:09 pm

    I have nothing to say after reading this, except to exhale a sigh of sorrow. I just need to touch someone and say thank you for posting it, and for introducing Ivor Gurney to me, Poor Soul that he is.

  2. Gerardo Mena | November 11, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    Wow. Ivor Gurney just rocked my face off.

  3. J.shea | November 12, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    The horror of war, in simple,eloquent rhymes.

  4. John Orosco | November 14, 2011 at 8:06 pm

    The night just got darker,and the mud deeper,and red is no longer red,but death.WW1 the end of all striving for a whole generation.Nietzsche had it right:”Coming to power is a costly business:power makes stupid”.What an amazing poem
    about the inhumanity of war.

  5. Pamela Blevins | January 16, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    For the record, Ivor Gurney suffered from bi-polar illness, which is why he lived out his days in an asylum not from being “traumatized” by the war. He actually thrived during the war, finding significant stability from the mood swings that began plaguing him in his teens, writing his first volume of poetry Severn & Somme and composing a handful of “trench” songs that are regarded as being among his best, all while writing hundreds of letters and doing his job as a solider. The common notion would have us believe that he suffered shell shock and was thus confined to the asylum where he continued to relive the war for the last 15 years of his life. This is not true. Gurney was wounded in the arm in April 1917 and gassed mildly in September of the same years. He 1918 he suffered a serious breakdown related to his illness and not the result of the war. We have laboured far too long under the illusion that Gurney was destroyed by his war experience. While his war poetry places him among the most notable poets to come out of the war, much of his best poetry was written during the asylum years when he wrote about many subjects, particularly the landscape of his beloved Gloucestershire that he would never see again. His poetry reflects his passion for life, his great love of beauty and nature, his sensitivity and his profound intelligence. Another poem that is a blistering commentary on the inhumanity of war is Mary Borden’s “Unidentified”. Borden, an American expat who settled in England, founded and ran a mobile hospital in France for the duration of the war and daily saw what the inhumanity of war did to men.

  6. ornamental peasant | November 11, 2013 at 4:13 pm

2 Pingbacks

  1. […] “To His Love,” by Ivor Gurney, drawing on poetry crossed with reportage. The Paris Review explains: […]

  2. […] Paris Review – Ivor Gurney’s “To His Love”, Glyn Maxwell. […]

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