Tuesday, 24 March 2009

John Haines Archive and more on 'The Roman'

Those who read Tim Kendall's War Poetry blog will have seen his recent post made following a visit to the Gloucestershire Archives last week during which, as well as showing him some items of interest from the Gurney collection with which I am working, I also showed him a few items from the collection of the Gloucester solicitor, botanist and poet, John (Jack) Haines. As Tim points out, Haines was an important 'hub' figure, connecting numerous writers and composers from the time: Gurney, the Dymock poets, Walter de la Mare, Herbert Howells, Gerald Finzi et al.

The Haines collection was presented to the Gloucestershire Archives a few years ago by Penny Ely - a former Trustee of the Gurney Estate who had acquired these papers from Haines's son, Robin - and last year they were catalogued by an archive colleague, Helen Bartlett. (Incidentally, this coming Saturday, 28th March, Penny Ely will be giving a talk on Haines at an event on May Hill run by the Friends of the Dymock Poets - further details available on their website.)

During the last couple of weeks I have begun to take a closer look at parts of the collection, drawing upon Helen's catalogue to locate any specific Gurney references. One of these was a map of Flanders upon which was roughly inscribed in pencil what appears to be the movements of the 2/5 Gloucester Battalion, up to the point where Gurney was gassed at St. Julien, near Passchendale, in September 1917.

Tim alludes to a couple of further findings within the collection: the fact that Haines was asked to compile a small volume of Gurney's poetry, a volume which Blunden advised him to make a small but significant collection; and also that Gurney 'turned against' Haines in 1928, for an unknown reason. This latter was gleaned from a letter to Haines from Dymock Poet Lascelles Abercrombie (the other speaker at Saturday's Dymock event is Abercrombie's grandson, Jeff Cooper), who notes that he was sorry to hear that Gurney had turned against him.

Also in the Abercrombie correspondence is a letter dated February 12 1928, responding to a couple of poems that Haines had sent for Abercrombie's perusal, 'The Roman' - the poem discussed in my 'Britons and Romans' blog - and probably including another, written in 1926, titled 'The Organ Sounds':
My Dear Jack,
This is amazingly interesting stuff, & it certainly ought to be preserved & published - at any rate The Roman: there's a strange magic about it, hardly describable. [...] My best thanks for letting me see it. I shan't easily forget The Roman.
L[ascelles]. A.[bercrombie]

With this early recognition of the poem's worth, it is strange that it has yet to make it into print.

Saturday, 14 March 2009


Issue three of Clutag Press's ARCHIPELAGO has just appeared, featuring the first publication of Gurney's poems, 'Praise of Britons' (1922/24), 'Crickley Height' (1922/24), 'Crickley Cliffs' (1925) and 'First Framilode' (June 1925), as well as a wonderful, previously unpublished essay 'On Sailing a Boat on Severn', accompanied by an essay by yours truly. Visit www.clutag-archipelago.com to order your copy and to find out more about this remarkable publication; a publication the brief for which is described as follows:
'Extraordinary will be its preoccupations with landscape, with documentary and remembrance, with wilderness and wet, with natural and cultural histories, with language and languages, with the littoral and vestigial, the geological, and topographical, with climates, in terms of both meteorology, ecology and environment; and all these things as metaphor, liminal and subliminal, at the margins, in the unnameable constellation of islands on the Eastern Atlantic coast, known variously in other millennia as Britain, Great Britain, Britain and Ireland etc; even, too, too readily, the United Kingdom (including the North of partitioned Ireland), though no such thing ever existed, other than in extremis during wartime, but in the letter. But while the unnameable archipelago is its subject, its vision is by implication global, and its concerns with the state of the planet could not be more of the hour.'

Friday, 6 March 2009

Making an impression

Just occasionally one stumbles across a remarkable accident. Today was one such occasion, when, seated at my desk, some light fell at an angle across the Barnwood House manuscripts I have been working with of late. These are thin, unwatermarked pages torn off a writing pad - one of those with a lightly glued band at the top edge so that pages can be removed easily.

As the light fell across one of these pages, an imprint became visible: the outline of whatever it was that was written on the previous page. This may seem obvious, but it came as a flash of lightning to me! On first inspection it was very difficult to determine what was written in the imprint, and aside to the identification of the occasional 'Barnwood House, Gloucester' in the top right hand corner - happily further confirming their provenance - I began to resign myself to the fact that it would be impossible to determine any more, even after trying various ways of digitally enhancing a photograph of a page in Photoshop.

However, returning to the manuscripts I began making comparisons between the pages immediately to hand. Despite my initial scepticism, I discovered that in comparing the manuscripts directly one could identify blemishes (crossings out), the positioning of the imprint, and identify the occasional character, firmly placing the manuscript before that on which the imprints occur. This is, of course, helped by the fact that Gurney only seems to have torn away the page upon which he was working after the poem or letter was completed.

Here is an unusually clear sample of an imprinted page. Most of the imprints on other pages are overwritten in pencil with that page's own poem, destroying much of the evidence of the previous page's content.

Now, where I would not have known in which order within the bundles of manuscripts, the poems were written, more than likely having to bundle them together as a disordered block, perhaps hazarding some sort of order given common ideas within certain poems, I can for some of these manuscripts accurately determine which poem followed which!

Of course, some pages contain no impressions, either because they are the first in the notepad or because intervening pages were removed without being written upon; and others will contain imprints of pages that are no longer extant, but one can determine pockets of chronology within the poems with 100% accuracy (unless, of course, he interspersed use of this pad with other pads/papers). Whilst we know that the papers in the archive were moved around to a great extent by Joy Finzi and others, prior to the fixed order brought about by the first cataloguing of the papers, I can now see how much items have been moved even within seemingly coherent batches within the archive.

It may take a little time and careful observation in the right light, but when next I return to the archive I shall gather the rest of the poems and letters consistent with this paper type and determine as much of the chronology as is possible. This technique will be useable in some other parts of the archive, but it is reliant upon the type of paper being used. The paper in question here is so thin that it is practicable. A heavier paper will not yield so readily to the pressure of a pencil, transferring less of an imprint onto the sheet(s) below.

It's a good thing that I'm a very patient man!

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Romans vs Britons: the beginnings of a dramatic poem

My current occupation in the archive is the identification and sorting, as far as is possible, of those papers - correspondence and poetry - written in the first year of Gurney's incarceration, from September 1922. There are some 200 poems from this year, mostly written on thin sheets from a writing pad. Some are certainly from Barnwood House - notably a set of writings on 'Newton Bank' watermarked paper, whilst another common paper type is found both at Barnwood and Stone House, Dartford, to where he was moved a few days before Christmas, 1922.

Many of the poems deal with his predicament - notably poems such as 'To God', published in Gurney's Collected Poems (Carcanet, 2004, ed. P.J. Kavanagh). London features heavily, with memories of night walking in London, encounters with police constables on the beat, and recollections of the river Thames at night. A few of the poems I have transcribed (so far about a quarter of those written during this time) have dealt with the Romans and their occupation of Britain. This was something that fascinated Gurney following the war, born out of the scars of that Roman occupation found in the Gloucestershire landscape, and which continued to interest Gurney until the end. In one poem which is to be published shortly in the pages of Clutag Press's Archipelago, 'In Praise of Britons' (written earlier in 1922, revised 1924), Gurney states his belief that without the assistance of the Britons, and their knowledge of the land and its cultivation, the Romans could never have occupied the country. One poem I have just transcribed is interesting in its bringing together of Roman and Briton once again, but in a dramatic narrative - something rare in Gurney's work.

'Roman', an unfinished extended poem written during Gurney's three months at Barnwood House, begins by telling of a Roman, Caius, who prefers the 'pastoral simpleness' and 'homely things' of the rural life of the Briton to the presumed life of a conqueror and subjugator, albeit in what is now a peaceful Britain. He joins the Britons in discussing their schemes of 'tillage or tending', talking with them - as Gurney would have so enjoyed doing - late into the night. After a break in the talk, during which is heard 'Outside leafage moving, drowsy lowing of herds / In darkened huts', the Roman asks to stay. This is readily agreed to, and we see 'Nations growing together in one, / Through love and daily use of the same common / Usage.' The following morning, the Roman helps the Britons with their work, following which he asks whether he could borrow a horse to to enjoy the freedom and 'the turning / Of blood to bright life in the veins, and across fresh green / The hoofs turning up the moist turf in hollows seen / For a flash; and gone.'

Within a woodland he is suddenly brought down from his horse and by some Britons bent on retribution upon their occupiers. Caius is bound, knocked unconscious, and taken away. He wakes later.

'Night passed, the day came, a dark form there filled
The doorway. Spoke “Roman! Awake? your slaves call.”
Mocked him, and he knew no longer the purple
Of Rome covered him – the subject race had
Trapped one of the lord-race. No help and there half-clad
Britons came in round him. Staring curiously
At this large man they had captured.'

'Signal of smoke
Brought others in one by one to share, and as men under yoke,
To rejoice in seeing that Roman bound. And that camp loud
With talking made merry over that captive of proud
Race. And much laughter, but no rudeness shown.
Glad was the heart of Briton over that sight. The known
Conquerors cheated; in this one sight of a bound

Although only Ransom is spoken of by his captors, the Roman wonders what hope there is of rescue, there not being help 'within twenty miles'; there is seemingly little hope of seeing his friends, and returning to the tending of cattle in the community of Britons into which he has now been accepted.

The poem ends here, alas, but it is of interest for more than just the fact that it is a rare instance of Gurney exploring a dramatic narrative - this being four years before Gurney's two plays, the unfinished Gloucester play and The Tewkesbury Trial.

'Roman' is analogous to, and, I believe, even allegorical of, Gurney's own predicament: one who is making honest labour who, at a moment of freedom and a moment of keenest energy, when blood is coursing through his veins at the height of life and activity, is taken by his friends, bound and held captive. Its descriptions of captivity show deepest sympathy with Caius, noting the brutality of being constrained, the passage of time, the last observations of freedom, its memories and his hopes thereof, daring to consider how friends might come and relieve his suffering by bringing release - an apparently hopeless thought. The language of the poem is clipped; assertive and urgent, adding to the drama of the poem, but also perhaps echoing Gurney's sense of despair and his urgent desire for freedom.

At the 107th line of the poem Gurney suddenly breaks off, adding a note below the last line, 'Unfinished poem'. Gurney, unable to see hope for the end of his own captivity, couldn't find a way in which the release of Caius might be brought about, and dared not hope for it in the continuing of the poem.