Saturday, 31 January 2009

Cornish influences

As part of my work in the archive I am transcribing all of Gurney's notebooks. I recently transcribed the contents of a small green notebook, the first part of which contains a diary of a holiday in Cornwall, from 22-29 December 1918. Gurney had been invited down to Cornwall by the novelist and musician Ethel Voynich - a friend of Marion Scott noted for her novel The Gadfly. Voynich also invited two other men of a similar age to Ivor: her nephew, Geoffrey Taylor, and a friend of his from Trinity College Cambridge, Edgar Adrian. It was a remarkable group: Taylor went on to be knighted and given the Order of Merit for his contribution to physics, and in 1932 Adrian was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine, for his work on the human nervous system. I have made brief enquiries at Trinity Cambridge regarding the papers of these two alumni, hoping that there might be their own diary for this time or perhaps some correspondence that might mention Gurney. Adrian's papers aren't currently accessible, but amongst those relating to Geoffrey Taylor there is a manuscript of the first poem of Severn & Somme: 'To Certain Comrades'. Written - and indeed published - well before this holiday, it could be that Voynich sent it to her nephew to acquaint him with Ivor's work prior to the holiday.

The Cornish holiday is a notable occasion in Gurney anecdotage, for, as Taylor reports in a letter to Marion Scott, quoted by Scott in her essay on 'Gurney: The Man' in the January 1938 Music and Letters tribute to Gurney:

'We went a walk one day out on to the end of Gurnard Head, which is a rocky peninsula on the north coast of Cornwall. On the way Ivor was rather abstracted and whenever we stopped, he lay on the grass, usually face down, pulled out a little long note book ruled with music lines and began to write. When we got to Gurnard Head, 'A' found a little chimney (i.e. a crack between two rocks) which led on to a little place which was otherwise inaccessible. We took I. G. up this, showing him where to put his hands and feet. Then we went back down the chimney and climbed round the rocks back to the grass neck which connects Gurnard Head with Cornwall. We were talking and did not notice that I. G. was not following till we got to the neck. It was then getting dusk. 'A' and I went back to look for I. G. and finally found him at the top of the little chimney writing in the dark. He had gone back and climbed up by himself, but I very much doubt if he could have got down by himself even if it had been light. We climbed up and brought him back in the dark!'

The music he was writing was a setting of Francis Ledwidge's 'Desire in Spring'; also titled by Gurney 'Twilight Song'.

The diary in the green notebook makes no mention of the escapade, nor is a visit to 'St. Gurnard's Head' [sic] mentioned, the landmark only been seen from afar. This walk over Gurnard's Head must therefore have taken place on the Friday, 27 December, for that is the one day that Gurney didn't diarise, leaving one and a half pages for it to be filled in later.

Aside to a few small notes, this account of the holiday is the most extensive piece of diary we have in Gurney's papers, and it makes interesting reading. He notes the places they visited but with some wonderful observations that show how his poets' eye was an integral part of his being. There are comments on sunlight and clouds - once noted as 'Armada clouds black against the skies' - an idea used later in his poetry; at Cambourne an incident is captured in pointeliste notes: 'Stars. Lifeboat launching. Flares, moving crowd. The coloured boat. Orion. Moving water. Lighted streets.'; granite is not merely present, but a scene is 'crowned with granite rocks'. At Zennor 'great rocks stood up and great cliffs fell. The sea got up gradually and threw the best clouds of spray I had seen yet. One could hear the thunder of unprisoned air.'

He endeavoured to turn some of his observations into an unfinished poem 'On Zennor Head', drafted later in the notebook. However, this poem appears not to be alone: One observation could be at the root of a (rather better!) poem drafted in the notebook, and which was collated in 80 Poems or So - an intended collection that only saw publication in 1997: 'The Companions'. The poem is dated by Marion Scott 9 January 1919, but the diary entry suggests that he had been mulling over the idea for twelve days.

At the very end of the holiday, Sunday 29 December, Gurney writes, ‘. . . Returned to the house at Zennor, got our package. Returned through half light to first bright star-light to St Ives over the stone stiles – bridges saw hills against the last clear light under black clouds, and Orion over the sea Jupiter (presumably) a king above all.’ Orion and Jupiter are those companions named in the poem, with the addition of '[Jupiter's] courtiers Mars ad Regulus'. They accompanied Gurney 'On uplands bleak and bare to wind... Past dusky rut and pool alight', until 'My door reached, gladly had I paid with stammered thanks his courtesy and theirs'.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Fictional poetry?

Last year saw the publication of a novel by Robert Edric in which Ivor Gurney featured as one of the central characters, In Zodiac Light. This is not the first work of fiction based around Gurney's life (c.f. Jon Silkin's play, Gurney), but it is the first novelised commentary (as such), which seems, in its focus on a war poet in a mental hospital, to be following in the footsteps of Pat Barker's acclaimed Regeneration.

Whilst Edric's novel features a number of historical inaccuracies in its pages - intentionally or otherwise - the book is prefaced by an intriguing poem from which the volume takes its name:

'I walked midsummer in Flaxley Wood,
And waited through the daylong night;
Attendant of a world not come,
And cast by dark in zodiac light.'

It is attributed to Gurney, titled 'In Flaxley Wood', and is cited as having been published in the London Mercury, 17 June 1921.

Whilst preparing the Ivor Gurney Society newsletter recently, I endeavoured to find this poem, it not being one that I recognised, and, not finding it in any of the published volumes of poetry nor in the archive catalogue, noted that I would be seeking the poem in the cited source to confirm its existence.

Before I could get to the British Library to look up the relevant issue of LM one of the members, Jeff Cooper, kindly sought the poem in the location cited, only to find that it was not in the June edition (it being published monthly, not more regularly as the '17 June' citation might have one believe. Nor could he find it in any other volume of LM, confirming that it was not an omission on the part of Kelsey Thornton and George Walter in their remarkably thorough Gurney Bibliography.

This poses the question, where does this poem come from? And is it truly Gurney? The location of Flaxley Wood, near Newnham, Gloucestershire, is plausible for Gurney, but is this prefatory verse as fictionalised as the remainder of the book?

If Robert Edric reads this, we would be very glad if you could please enlighten us as to the source of this poem. Thank you!

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Blogger's return

It has been rather too long since last I updated my blog! It has, however, been an interesting few months. The main project being undertaken at the end of 2008 was the preparation of over 1200 digitised images of Gurney manuscript material in preparation for Gurney to be added to Oxford University Computing Services' First World War Poetry Digital Archive, launched at the Imperial War Museum on 11 November. This extraordinary project is making manuscripts of the work of several 'war poets' freely available online. We hope that the addition of Gurney to the serried ranks available on the site, hopefully available by Easter this year, will help more people to realise Gurney's importance and instill in them a wish to explore his work further, beyond his poetry of war.

Whilst there has been a major development in the 'Gurney world', with the publication of Pamela Blevins's biography of Gurney and Marion Scott in November, there have also been exciting times in the archive. Gloucestershire Archives applied for a grant for materials to repackage a large portion of the Gurney collection which isn't yet packaged to archival standards. This grant application was successful and so my office is now filling up with the necessary materials to carry this out, as the cataloguing process continues. This may be a good point to note that, since the end of November access to the archive has been closed temporarily in order to allow the reorganisation of parts of the collection during the cataloguing. It is hoped that access to the collection will reopen at Easter. In the meantime, visit this blog again soon to read reports of the archive work, which I will be posting at more regular intervals from hereon!