Ivor Gurney (1890-1937)

Behind the name Ivor Gurney lies the tragic story of a composer and poet whose life seemed full of promise, but who ended his days in a lunatic asylum. His work was influenced by two contrasting landscapes – the beautiful countryside of his native Gloucestershire, and the desolate terrain of the Western Front during the First World War. He was wounded at the battle of Arras (the poet Edward Thomas did not survive the same battle) and later in 1917 he was gassed and returned to “Blighty”. Although when he died in 1937 he was just beginning to be acknowledged as one of England’s finest song composers, it is only in recent years that his stature as a war poet has been fully appreciated. He was certified insane in 1922, and after running away from Barnwood House, an asylum near Gloucester, he was committed to the City of London Mental Hospital in Dartford, Kent, where he remained until his death from bilateral pulmonary tuberculosis, on 26 December 1937. His body was removed to Gloucester, and in the bleak unlovely churchyard at Twigworth, towards sunset on the last day of the year, he was buried.

In 1932, Helen Thomas, widow of the poet, went with Marion Scott to visit Gurney at Dartford (Gurney loved Edward Thomas’s work and set at least eighteen of his poems to music). In 1960 she recalled the visit for the Royal College of Music’s magazine:

We arrived at the asylum which looked like – as indeed it was – a prison. A warder let us in after unlocking a door, and doors were opened and locked behind us as we were ushered into the building. We were walking along a bare corridor when we were met by a tall gaunt dishevelled man clad in pyjamas and dressing gown, to whom Miss Scott introduced me. He gazed with an intense stare into my face and took me silently by the hand. Then I gave him the flowers which he took with the same deeply moving intensity and silence. He then said, “You are Helen, Edward’s wife and Edward is dead.” I said, “Yes, let us talk of him.” So we went into a little cell-like bedroom where the only furniture was a bed and a chair. The window was barred and the walls were bare and drab. He put the flowers on the bed for there was no vessel to put them in; there was nothing in the room that could in any way be used to damage with – no pottery or jars whose broken edge could be used as a weapon. He remarked on my pretty hat, for it was summer and I had purposely put on my prettiest clothes. I remember that although his talk was generally quite sane and lucid, he said, “It was wireless that killed Edward.” This idea of the danger of wireless and his fear of it constantly occurred in his talk. “They are getting at me through wireless.” Before we left he took us into a large room in which was a piano and on this he played to us and the tragic circle of men who sat on hard benches against the walls of the room. They gave no sign that they heard the music. The room was quite bare and there wasn’t one beautiful thing for the patients to look at.

Ivor Gurney longed more than anything else to go back to his beloved Gloucestershire, but this was not allowed for fear he should try to take his own life. I said, “But surely it would be more humane to let him go there even if it meant no more than one hour of happiness before he killed himself.” But the authorities could not look at it in that way.

The next time I went with Miss Scott I took with me Edward’s own well-used Ordnance Survey maps of Gloucestershire, where he had often walked. This proved to have been a sort of inspiration, for Ivor Gurney at once spread them out on his bed and he and I spent the whole time I was there tracing with our fingers the lanes and byeways and villages of which he knew every step and over which Edward had walked. He spent that hour re-visiting his beloved home, spotting a village or a track, a hill or a wood and seeing it all in his mind’s eye. He trod, in a way that we who were sane could not emulate, the lanes and fields he loved, his guide being his finger tracing the way on the map. It was deeply moving, and I knew that I had hit on an idea that gave him more pleasure than anything else I could have thought of.