There’s a undeniably autumnal feel to this week’s Featured Poem from Ivor Gurney, O Tree of Pride.
Ivor Gurney, born in Gloucester in 1890, showed musical talents from an early age and sang as a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral as a teenager. While a pupil to Dr Herbert Brewer, composer and organist at the Cathedral, he studied with Herbert Howells and Ivor Davies, who would later be known as Ivor Novello.
Gurney began composing aged just 14 and won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1911 where he was deemed by a companion, Charles Villiers Stanford, to be “the biggest of them all” but also, “unteachable”. Gurney was said to have a dynamic personality and was troubled with mood swings during his adolescence. While at college he had difficulty focusing on his work and suffered his first breakdown in 1913.
After a period of rest he returned to college but his studies were again interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. Gurney enlisted as a private soldier in February 1915 and it was during his time at the Front that he began writing poetry seriously. He sent several poems to his friend Marion Scott, who was to become his editor and business manager, and these verses provided the beginning of his first collection Severn and Somme. Gurney was wounded in the shoulder in April 1917 but returned to battle and continued writing and composing music, including the songs In Flanders and By a Bierside.
Publishers Sidgewick and Jackson accepted in July that year with publication set for the autumn however in September Gurney was gassed and sent to Edinburgh War Hospital to recover. The gas is thought to have had a detrimental effect on his mental health, although he had shown signs of Bipolar Disease since his teens. He was posted to a mining village in Northumberland after being discharged from hospital, and continued to write poetry there. Severn and Somme was finally published in November 1917.
In March of the following year Gurney suffered a serious breakdown. He was hospitalised in County Durham where he wrote several songs. Despite threatening to commit suicide at this time, Gurney regained some emotional stability and was honourably discharged from the army, reportedly for shell shock, according to his friend Marion Scott.
Gurney thrived after the war and was regarded at the time as one of the most promising men of his generation, however, his mental distress continued to worsen. He returned to college but did not complete his studies and his second publication War’s Embers received mixed reviews on its publication in May 1919.
It was a period of great success for Gurney his music was being published and performed and he continued to produce a great body of work, composing a large number of songs, instrumental pieces, chamber music and two works for orchestra. However by 1922 his condition had deteriorated to the point that his family had him declared insane.
Gurney spent that last 15 years of his life in psychiatric hospitals but continued to write prolifically, producing eight collections of verse. He also wrote two plays in the Shakespearean style, and it’s reported that at this time he appeared to believe that he was Shakespeare.
By the 1930’s his output had dwindled but his friend Scott described him as being “so sane in his insanity”. Gurney died of tuberculosis at the City of London Mental Hospital in December 1937. Marion Scott preserved his manuscripts and letters, determined to ensure Gurney’s legacy would not be forgotten.
In 1985 Gurney was among 16 Great War Poets commemorated on a slate stone unveiled at Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner and in 2009 a memorial was erected close to the spot near Ypres where Gurney has been gassed in 1917.
O Tree of Pride
O Tree of pride,
Before your green to gold and orange fade,
And scarce one single leaf of summer’s shade
Remains to hide
Robin or wren,
Give me one song of all your songs, that men
May take your beauty winter’s fire beside.
For memory passes
Of even the loveliest things, bravest in show;
The mind to beauty most alert not know
How the August grasses
Waved, by December’s
Glow, unless he see deep in the embers
The poet’s dream, gathered from cold print’s spaces.