Thursday, 23 April 2009

St. George's Day

St. George is perhaps a curious choice to be England's patron saint: a Turkish knight who never set foot in England, but whose cult was introduced into this country in around the eleventh century, and whose banner, by the 13th century, had been adopted by the king of England, under which he fought in the crusades.

Gurney obviously thought it rather an anomaly also, for in his poetry St. George is not mentioned, in spite of the fact that there are poems specifically about this date, 23 April. The date would have held more significance in the fact that we celebrate St. George's day on the Turkish festival marking their first day of Spring.

However, today was for Gurney all about Shakespeare: our prized poet and playwright who, reputedly, both was born and died upon this day in 1564 and 1616 respectively. 80 Poems or So contains two poems titled 'April 23 1922', the first beginning 'Now on this famed day, Shakespeare's day...' and the second being a paean to England and (although unnamed) Shakespeare, briefly recalling some of the playwright's escapades.

Where there is a mention of St. George in Gurney's work it is with obvious reference to Shakespeare. It comes not in his poetry but in his completed play, The Tewkesbury Trial (April 1926). This play runs partly in parallel with Shakespeare's Henry VI part I, Gurney's second scene announcing the death of Henry of Monmouth (viz. Henry V - albeit an announcement premature by six days in historical fact), the funeral procession of whom opens Henry VI; their are some common protagonists: the Duke of Bedford, John of Lancaster; Sir John Fastolfe; The Duke of Gloucester; John Talbot also is mentioned. These figures make only a cursory appearances, since the play takes place principally in the Gloucestershire; in the meadows, taverns and houses around Tewkesbury and Fairford, and mostly consists of the everyday people of these provinces making a commentary upon the place, upon music, and sometimes on the distant action. The spirit of Shakespeare's Henry V is invoked, scenes taking place upon St. Crispin's Day, the Agincourt song being heard at one point, and also in the scenes of battle at Verneuil, France (a battle of the Hundred Years War that, again, Gurney gives prematurely, happening in the play 14 months before it did in actuality). During this part of the play there is a communal call to arms in which the soldiers all shout,

'Forward! Forward!
St George for England! St George!'

St George finally makes his way into Gurney's work, but only secondarily, through the eyes of Shakespeare.

Gurney and Shakespeare is a small part of Sebastian Field's remit in his PhD on Shakespeare and the Great War (visit his blog here!). Inspired by John Lee's essay in Tim Kendall's Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry, Sebastian's work is looking at the influence of Shakespeare upon poets in the Great War, at the heart of which, in 1916, fell the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. From my conversations with Sebastian it is remarkable to hear how much influence one can find, not only upon poets (Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen, Gurney et al) but in wider circles.

The matter of Gurney and Shakespeare is probably a PhD entire in itself. I have today completed the initial transcription of Gurney's 1926 poetry - a remarkable collection of 300 poems (some 40,000 words) - as many poems from that one year as the Collected Poems (1982/2004) contains in entirety. For me, this is a remarkable benchmark as it means that my transcription of Gurney's complete poems is nearing completion - a benchmark in my PhD. However, the poetry of this year contains a number of poems that take Shakespeare as their starting point. These poems bear references to the play from which they stem, including references to specific acts, scenes, and sometimes line numbers. There is one set of poems, for instance, inspired by King Lear - Gurney's favourite Shakespeare play. These poems are not merely a rewriting of the passages in question (Gurney isn't attempting to improve Shakespeare, although some extensive rewritings of Shakespeare's plays do exist elsewhere in the archive, dating from around this time or slightly later) but are a point of departure. One may find a common line with Shakespeare's original, but the emerging ideas are Gurney's, sometimes an expansion of something Shakespeare writes; sometimes a quasi-commentary thereon. There are also a number of songs written by Gurney presumably for insertion into the plays where there are no songs. It would be a significant undertaking to examine this work in detail, endeavouring to unravel Gurney's responses, but a little of it might fall under Sebastian's brief, and in writing up of my PhD there will be some cursory examination of this work.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Tea with the Kavanaghs

When one is working so closely with the primary source material, as I am in the reorganisation, cataloguing and transcriptions of the Gurney archive, one can sometimes lose sight of published sources. There have been occasions on which I have come across a poem that I am sure is published, only to find that, when cross referenced with various sources, it is a poem that I have come to recognise solely through my acquaintance with it in the manuscripts and typescripts of the collection. More to the point, in working with the original source materials one can become so wrapped up in one's own emerging ideas about Gurney and his work, one's reading focussing on contextual rather than direct commentary, that one forgets about the work of other commentators on Gurney's work.

Yesterday I went with one of my archive colleagues, Rebecca Shorter, to collect a box of papers relating to P.J. Kavanagh's work on Gurney, which he had decided to give to the archive. Kavanagh, with the help of his wife, Kate, edited the 1982 'Collected Poems', reissued in a revised edition by Carcanet/Fyfield Books in 2004, and a number of the papers in the newly donated accession relate to the production of this volume (correspondence, proofs etc). The collection also contains scripts to radio talks and correspondence with researchers working on dissertations on Gurney.

We collected the papers from the Kavanaghs' home in Gloucestershire, and whilst there we talked for a while over our respective cups of coffee or tea, speaking in the main (rather predictably) of Gurney: the poetry, the archive, reception of his work, their work on the edition et al. Numerous points emerged that were particularly interesting, such as the fact that the misnomer that is the original 'Collected Poems' was given at the insistence of the publisher, who argued that they weren't misleading the public in that title, since, in lacking the definite article it didn't purport to being THE Collected Poems. Also, both Kate and P.J. Kavanagh mentioned their particular interest in the late poetry of 1926, echoing my own interest in that work, which, as I've said before on this blog (26 April 2008), seems to lose sight of his more parochial/personal interests and achieve a timeless universality. The other thing that struck home in our conversation was P.J. Kavanagh's statement that 'nobody reads the editorial commentary'. Rather embarrassedly this brought home the realisation that I hadn't read his introduction to the Collected Poems since beginning work on the poetry.

Over a late brunch this morning at Doveston's (the best cafe in Lichfield city centre!) I read Kavanagh's introduction and found that much of that of which we had spoken of was there. However, the enthusiasm for the 1926 poetry is given a bit of a dampener in the introduction, it being noted as a remarkable oeuvre, but essentially 'bloodless' in content. I can see where this is coming from, but think it rather depends upon the context of his work. Certainly, when compared with some of Gurney's earlier work it could appear to be bloodless, because, I believe, Gurney's poetry (in part) can be so bloodSOME; so very full of body and of striking imagery and language, particularly in comparison with many of his contemporaries and forebears. There is perhaps a little less 'blood' in some of the 1926 poetry, but it is still very present; still so very full of life and colour, and, in parts, of drama. Its allusions turn from the more immediate drama of the First World War and his the predicament of his own incarceration to more classical ideas, no less dramatic in essence but perhaps more discreet in statement.

The other point upon which we agreed - and one first pointed out to me by Anthony Boden - is, for me, the true tragedy of Gurney: the fact that his work has been overshadowed by his labeling as a 'Mad' poet and composer. This is by far the most journalistically 'newsworthy' part of Gurney's life, but, although significant in the tragedy of his final isolation from the world, should not be dwelt upon. This is another point I found to be well made in Kavanagh's introduction to the Collected Poems. Gurney's asylum work shows a remarkable lucidity, much of the time - in fact Gurney should be seen as all the stronger an artist for the fact that he was at Dartford producing some of his best poetry, in spite of his predicament. One can't ignore this aspect of his life, but it should not become the principal facet of his reception. What must it be like to come afresh to Gurney's work without knowing anything of his life? I have, with Gurney, been increasingly of the opinion that his work should be considered away from the minutiae of his life. The opinion of Ruskin that knowledge of the person behind a work of art and the circumstance and intention of their creation is irrelevant - the Intentional Fallacy - is a matter in which I have often thought him to be wrong. However, in Gurney's case there is a lot to be said for it. Let his work be judged neutrally, on its own terms.