The Silent One (by Ivor Gurney)

Who died on the wires, and hung there, one of two–
Who for his hours of life had chattered through
Infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent:
Yet faced unbroken wires: stepped over, and went
A noble fool, faithful to his stripes– and ended
But I weak, hungry, and willing only for the chance
Of line– to fight in the line, lay down under unbroken
Wires, and saw the flashes and kept unshaken,
Till the politest voice– a finicking accent, said:
‘Do you think you might crawl through, there: there’s a hole’
Darkness, shot at: I smiled, as politely replied —
‘I’m afraid not, Sir.’ There was no hole, now ay to be seen,
Nothing but chance of death, after tearing of clothes
Kept flat, and watched the darkness, hearing bullets whizzing–
And thought of music– and swore deep heart’s deep oaths
(Polite to God) and retreated and came on again,
Again retreated– and a second time faced the screen.

Image courtesy The Daily Mail. 

About Ivor Gurney…

Born in 1890, Ivor Gurney was the son of a tailor and a seamstress. He showed musical ability and sang as a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral, from 1900 to 1906. Gurney began composing music at the age of 14, and won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1911. Gurney’s dynamic personality was tainted by mood swings which appeared during his teenage years. They were significant enough to impact his work at college, eventually resulting in breakdown in 1913. He withdrew to rest, after which he seemed to recover and was able to return to college.

Nevertheless, college was once again interrupted by World War I. Gurney enlisted as a private soldier in the Gloucestershire Regiment in February 1915. At the Front, he began writing poetry seriously, sending his efforts to his friend, the musicologist-critic Marion Scott, who worked with Gurney as his editor and business manager. He was in the midst of writing the poems for what would become his first book Severn and Somme when he was wounded in the shoulder in April 1917. After recovering, he was returned to battle, still working on his book and composing music including the songs In Flanders and By A Bierside.  Meanwhile, Gurney was gassed in September 1917 and sent to the Edinburgh War Hospital where he met and fell in love with a VAD nurse, Annie Nelson Drummond, but the relationship was doomed to fail. There is speculation about the possible effects of the gas on his mental health, even though Gurney had demonstrated the signs and symptoms of a bipolar disorder since his teens.  After his release from hospital he was posted to Seaton Delaval, a mining village in Northumberland, where he wrote poems including ‘Lying awake in the ward’. Severn and Somme, was published in November 1917.

Gurney died of tuberculosis while still a patient at the City of London Mental Hospital shortly before dawn on 26 December 1937, aged 47. He was buried in Twigworth, near Gloucester.  125px-Ivor_gurney_grave

On November 11, 1985, Gurney was among 16 Great War Poets commemorated on a slate stone unveiled in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner. The inscription on the stone was written by a fellow Great War poet, Wilfred Owen. It reads: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.” A memorial to Gurney was erected in 2009 near Ypres, close to the spot where he was the victim of a mustard gas attack in 1917, and a blue plaque on Eastgate Street in Gloucester, commemorates his life.

(Source material Wikipedia)

26 thoughts on “The Silent One (by Ivor Gurney)

      1. They are not something is usually seek not but I’m pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoy them. Broken-hearted love is a great way to describe it. Thanks for sharing them.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. A Gloucestershire man and one of my favorite poets. I often walked where he walked during my schooldays in Gloucestershire. And I too sang in Gloucester Cathedral. I have his poetry here, on my shelves behind me, as I write. Thank you for awaking so many memories.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I am thumbing through Ivor Gurney’s collected poems. I came across this, starred a long time ago To God — “Why have you made life so intolerable / And set me between four walls where I am able / Not to escape meals without prayer, for that is possible / Only by annoying an attendant. And tonight a sensual / Hell has been put on me, so that all has deserted me / And I am merely crying and trembling in heart / For death, and cannot get it.” He was being force fed in an asylum and was receiving electric shock treatment at the time. Such a touching poem … “Man’s inhumanity to man” as another poet wrote.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh that’s terribly sad. The way the mentally ill were treated in times past is abominable. So misunderstood. I just ordered a collection of his poetry from a used bookshop online. I am eager to read more of his work beyond the war poems. Thanks for sharing this Roger.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this! I use poems in many of my lessons for United States History because it helps the students look at the people involved with a more empathetic mind. Once they become aware that real people lived and died throughout the events they are learning about, they can connect emotionally to them. As a result they tend to care more about learning the events, and often want to go further on their own.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Daniel! I’ve been reading ‘Men Who March Away’ – a collection of WWI poetry as part of my research for a novel. And my reasons were exactly that. To try and feel what they were feeling. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hello, Megan.

    I`m a painter and a former musician, I live and work in Belgrade, Serbia, currently working on my new painting dedicated to all artists caught up in a conflict not of their own making, such as war. In 1999. during the bombardment I escaped illegally across the border to Romania where I`ve spent four months as a refugee, finding shelter from getting mad through daily drawing. This is where I understood ways of transforming a nightmare into beauty in order to survive. In my new painting I will incorporate images of battlefield in the background and I was wondering if I could use the photo above as a reference. Can you please tell me, Meg, are there copyrights for this particular image and who owns them? I see it was by the courtesy of Daily Mail that you have used it to illustrate Ivor`s poem with – should I address them on this matter, too, or is it free to use for artistic purposes? I apologize for asking you this but I thought it would be a place to start.
    Thank you for your time and thank you for posting Ivor`s poem.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Zoran and thank you for visiting. I’m glad you found refuge both physically and mentally from the war. What a harrowing experience. Your painting sounds like it will be a very powerful and moving piece. As for the rights to the image, I’m sorry I don’t know the answer to that. I believe the Daily Mail would be a good place to start. I can tell you this: Sometimes a copyright expires after a certain period of time and enters the public domain. This image would be over 100 years old by now and very likely is in the public domain. Additionally, if you are painting the piece to keep for yourself, it wouldn’t matter. It would only be a problem if you were to sell the painting. Best of luck Zoran with your research and with your art!


      1. Dear Megan, thank you for your reply.

        The council you gave is the right one, thank you. I am going to apply for the international art concours with this piece and for that purposes I would like to secure myself from harming potential copyright owner.
        As for the painting, it is not only Ivor I wish to pay respect to through it but also George Butterworth, Anna Frank and all tender artistic souls from any moment in history and of any age or gender who felt the full horror of entrapment or found death during the storm of forces of darkness we call war. I do hope it will serve as an encouragement to those who experience the same struggle because sometimes, for multitudes of artists and those who are not, everyday life is a battlefield.

        Thank you for your support, stay kind and strong.


        Liked by 1 person

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