Ivor Gurney- Poet and Composer 1890 – 1937 Part Two

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

Ceylon Today published this article in the Mosaic section on Sunday May 25 2014.





Royal College of Music






In Part One, I described how Ivor Gurney, coming from a modest background in Gloucester, won a place in the Cathedral Choir in 1900. In 1911, he took up an open scholarship in composition at the Royal College of Music. His examiners were a formidable team of British composers: Sir Hubert Parry (best known for his setting of Blake’s Jerusalem); Sir Charles Stanford (an Irish composer and respected teacher long resident and influential in England; Dr Walford Davies and Dr Charles Wood.



marion scott

Marion Scott

At the RCM, Gurney met his lifelong friend and supporter, Marion Scott. She was thirteen years older than he was and had trained as a violinist at the RCM. She now edited the college magazine. She described her first sighting of him when he was wearing a thick Severn pilot’s coat. “But what struck me more was the look of latent force in him, the fine head with its profusion of light brown hair (not too well brushed!) … ‘This,’ I said to myself, ‘must be the new composition scholar from Gloucester whom they call Schubert’.”



He had a great deal of charm, good looks, talent and intelligence and made many friends.   He attended concerts, socialized, even became a member of the elite Beloved Vagabonds Club, which met at Holland Park to perform music.


Sir Charles Stanford was somewhat authoritarian, preferring order to chaos and found Gurney’s manuscripts tended to the chaotic. Herbert Howells recalled an occasion when Stanford made some swift alterations in pencil and said: “There, me boy! That puts it right”. Gurney responded, “Well, Sir Charles, I see you’ve jigged the whole show”, and was thrown out. Stanford turned to Howells, chuckled, and said, “You know, I love him more each time.” Stanford, in later years, declared that of all those he taught –Vaughan Williams, Ireland, and Bliss- Gurney was, potentially, “the biggest man of them all, but he was the least teachable.”




Musical Work



His earliest compositions date from 1904, but the first songs of any consequence are dated November 1907. In 1908, the distinguished classicist and poet, AE Housman (subject of Tom Stoppard’s play The Invention of Love – 1997) wrote to his publisher about giving permission for a Gurney setting of Housman’s poems. “Mr IB Gurney (who resides in Gloucester Cathedral along with St Peter and Almighty God) must not print the words of my poems in full on concert programmes (a course which I am sure his fellow lodgers would disapprove of) but he is quite welcome to set them to music, and to have them sung, and to print their titles on programmes when they are sung.” In 1913, he wrote settings of five Elizabethan lyrics – the “Elizas”. These can be heard on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2NUr3iBLb4) performed by countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim accompanied by Sachika Taniyama on piano.


Gurney started writing poetry in 1913. A collection called Severn and Somme was published in 1917. In 1919, another collection, War’s Embers was published. Those were the only two books of poetry published in his lifetime. JC Squire worked hard on his behalf and published individual poems frequently in his London Mercury.

JC Squire

JC Squire

Squire commented: “It will all come out one day, I suppose. But the best in the arts still has the old struggle”. His poems frequently appeared in anthologies and he heavy-hitters in the poetry world like Auden and Larkin praised him. Another poet, Edmund Blunden, brought out a selection of Gurney’s poems in 1954, which had little impact.




Leonard Clark edited another selection in 1973, which caused few ripples. Michael Hurd’s biography in 1978 stressed the quality of Gurney’s poetry and provided many examples.

In 1982, poet PJ Kavanagh published The Collected Poems of Ivor Gurney, which showed the full range of his achievement and encouraged further re-issues. In 1996, Everyman’s Poetry was published selection edited by George Walter of Sussex University. Walter points out in his introduction that Gurney cannot easily be categorised as a war poet, a “mad” poet or even a pastoral poet. “Ultimately his poems have less to do with their ostensible subjects than with his own awareness of them as spiritual revelations.” His subjectivity allows him to avoid vague generalizations about pastoral subjects.

Gurney is fascinated by the urban and the man-made. He writes about impermanence in the natural landscape and, in poems like “Time to Come”, writes about how the development of new housing in Gloucester affects the shape of the city and the landscape in which it sits.  Google Longford, the district in Gloucester where Gurney lived with his aunt and did farm work, and all you get is information about house prices and new developments in locations with neologisms for names, names that did not exist when I was a child walking those fields. My junior school used Plock Court at Longford as a sports ground. It was a miracle that we did not get tetanus because cow shit carpeted the field.



Longford Dawns


Of course not all watchers of the dawn

See Severn mists like forced-march mist withdrawn;

London has darkness changing into light

With just one quarter-hour of any weight.

Casual and common is the wonder grown –

Time’s a duty to lift light’s curtain up and down.

But here Time is caught up clear in Eternity,
And draws as breathless life as you or me.



More about Gurney’s war experience and war poems in Part Three.