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.

1 comment:

Tim Kendall said...

If St George never set foot in England, how did he manage to kill a dragon at Uffington?