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!


Karen said...

A long time ago, Jill Robinson sent me copies of poems by Ivor that had been published in the London Mercury. "In Flaxley Wood" was not among them. Like you I do not recall seeing this title in the very extensive list of poems in the Archive or in any book (not that I claim to remember all the titles but it just sounded unfamiliar when I saw it). Also, does the word "zodiac" sound like a word Gurney would have used? Given that the book is fiction I would assume that the poem is fiction also.

Philip Lancaster said...

Yes, the term 'zodiac' is unusual - indeed the concept of zodiac light isn't something that I had heard of. However, it is a phenomenon first observed/recorded by mathematician and astronomer Cassini in the latter part of the seventeenth century. Discussion of this was present (if one trusts Wikipedia) in encyclopaedias by 1728, and given Gurney's voracious reading habits it is not impossible that he had not come across the concept - especially noting his apparent interest, to some degree, in the bodies in the night sky (as is noted in the Cornish post that followed this).

This said, the evidence is so far mounting against 'In Flaxley Wood' being a genuine Gurney poem and it won't be making it into the OUP complete edition.

George said...

Hello Philip,
Frstly my apologies for not getting in touch sooner - I only discovered the existence of your Blog today via the Guardian website. Sigh. How easy it is to become out of touch....
Anyhow, 'In Zodiac Light':
1. It never appeared in The London Mercury. I have a complete run, bought at great expense when I was a student and should've been spending the money on food, and it's not there. When Mr Edric's novel came out, I started going through them frantically, in case Kelsey Thornton and I had made a mistake, but no...
2. Editing '80 Poems or So' meant going through everything from 1918 to 1923, in order to make sense of the manuscripts (something I'm sure you're familiar with now!). No poem called 'In Flaxley Wood' surfaced. Now, that means very little: sometimes only printed versions survive of key poems, but I'm sure Marion Scott would have kept a copy AND a note if the poem had appeared. Especially then, in that period.
3. Pam picked up on the word 'Zodiac' - a good call. But I don't ever remember IG writing about Flaxley. Never. As you'll know, he has his cluster of names and whilst some, like Shurdington or Dursley, are infrequent, this is a completely new one on me.
When I picked up the book, my feeling was that the poem was made up - like a lot in the novel. I found it disappointing, truth be told - like Silkin's 'Gurney'.
Anyhow, hope this helps. As one of the few people to have been through the whole Archive (albeit twenty years ago - God, was it that long?), I'm happy to help with any other queries.
Your blog gave me a happy couple of hours this morning. In a Maurice Chevalier voice: 'Ah, I remember it well'.
Good luck. Contact me if you need anything.
Best wishes,