Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Despair & Joy: the bitterness of work, 1918

The necessity of sorting through the mass of papers is exemplified by two sides of paper that I have just come across whilst working in the archive.

Amongst numerous letters, appeals, essays and poems, dating variously from 1922 to 1927, is a rare section of diary, seemingly discovered amongst Ivor's things by his mother or sister, following his death. It dates from the end of November 1918 - a time when Haines began to recognise in Gurney's poetry a new departure, under the influence of Edward Thomas, and a time when Gurney was endeavouring to piece his life back together following the end of the war and his breakdown earlier that year. I believe the Cornish holiday of December 1918 (see earlier blog, Cornish Influences) to be the beginning of a turning point for Gurney, when he began to look forward and return to his work with some vigour in early 1919. The short diary extract of November 1918 - on two pages torn from an exercise book - finds Gurney trying to rediscover his drive and love of the music and poetry he wrote. It tells us that the act of creativity was for Gurney - as with many artists - a necessary part of him, and more importantly it was an act of hope, of seeking and of giving; a selfless act, as Gurney himself puts it in the diary entry, wanting to 'give others joy' where he has none:

Friday Last F[riday, 29th] of November 1918

It is better to work than despair; better to use than to be used. Better to force than to drift. Better to leave work accomplished than a memory of empty hours in despair, though that work causes bitterness. For having no Joy, I may as well make and give others Joy - at worst this is. And all the bitterness may pass, to leave a love of work whence all the other love may come.
Being what I am I must do every morning something I can show, without reference as to what difference it will make in the future; but it must make some.


Tim Kendall said...

November 1918? Does he mention the Armistice?

Philip Lancaster said...

No, there is no mention of the Armistice in this brief diary, which begins with the entry given here and continues with just a couple of very brief entries into the first couple of days of December, mostly being comments on piano practice and how he can only hope to gain enjoyment and fluency at the piano by practicing 'hard passages'.

However, today I did come across a later poem I hadn't seen which mentions the Armistice.

Karen said...

See The Day of Victory in War's Embers. I think it was subtitled November 11, 1918. Gurney was beginning to find more level ground in November and December -- the visit with Ethel Voynich in Cornwall was balm for his spirit. She was the right person for him to have spent time with at that point.

Philip Lancaster said...

The Day of Victory Poem - a poem of which Gurney was proud, mentioning it by name in various appeals, published originally in the Gloucester Journal - is indeed one such Armistice work. There are two others that I sorted yesterday, one dating from 1923, the other from 1925: 'Armistice Day' ('The dead, that died for England's honour only') and 'Armistice' ('My comrades will walk in Gloucester...'). Both are unpublished.

Another unpublished poem which, in my experience, is rather original in its thoughts on the Armistice, was written in 1919: 'The Bugle'. In this the poet is walking London's streets, seeing the signs of everyday life continuing in the same way that it had both before and during the war. People going about their 'sordid cares[,] / Traffic of wares', 'losing their souls in care of business', heedless of the fact that men had 'been mown / Like corn swathes East of Ypres or the Somme / Never again home / Or beauty most beloved to see'; heedless of the fact that 'In soldiers['] faces one might see the fear /That once again they should be called to bear / Arms, and to save England from her own.'