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. Read More