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.

1 comment:

Philip Lancaster said...

A further thought on 'Roman':

The language of the passage quoted above in which Caius is mocked by his captors is redolent of the mocking of Christ in the Gospels, between his being taken captive in the garden at Gethsemane (garden=Caius's woodland?) and his being sentenced to death: Caius is described as wearing a purple robe, the same as that in which Christ was dressed in the Gospels of Mark and John (it is a scarlet robe in Matthew); and the use of the term 'mocking' is directly comparable, leading one to presume that such taunts would be filled with ironic references to the might of the Roman lords, echoing the irony in Christ's acclamation by his captors, 'Hail, King of the Jews'.

With his friends, the Britons amongst whom he has been accepted as an equal, being far away, and although his captors are not baying for blood, could reason have been argued by a Pontius Pilate like figure, should Gurney have continued his poem?