Wednesday, 6 August 2014

War poet who spent time in Southport's Psychiatric Hospital finally rehabilitated

All around us we hear of war and the remembrance of war. As I watched the lamps going off across the town on  Monday evening and as the last candle was about to be extinguished at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier the camera panned to the plaque in Poet's Corner which bears the names of sixteen soldier poets . One name caught my eye- Ivor Gurney.

A few weeks back I had caught bits of as radio programme (now available as a podcast) about the life and music of Gurney. I knew of his protracted mental illness but I had no idea that in 1918 he had spent time in Winwick Hospital. Between 1915 and 1920 it was known as The Lord Derby War Hospital and treated over 56,000 soldiers.  After the war it returned to being a civilian Psychiatric Unit and served a wide area covering, Southport, Crosby, Bootle, as well as Warrington and Newton-le-Willows. I well remember families struggling to go and visit the Hospital 30 miles away. All sorts of voluntary effort went into organising lifts and coaches. The hospital was still serving Southport in the 1980s.

Gurney had been gassed on the Western Front at St Julien at got his 'Blighty Ticket' to come home. He landed in June 1918 at Winwick. Gurney had been ill before the war. Long and disputations articles have been written about exactly what illness he suffered from. I don't think that we should be too hung up on exactly what label he would be given today if he met a modern day Psychiatrist, it doesn't really matter if it was bi polar or schizophrenia. The experiences of the trenches had a devastating impact on his health, it haunted his poetry until his death almost 20 years later.

Winwick Hospital was dealing with some of the worst cases of 'shell shock'  and employed some
novel and experimental treatment including 'electrical treatment'. I cannot trace any record of Gurney having received such a treatment at Lord Derby's hospital, although during the many years he was an impatient he was given a dose of malaria as an experimental treatment-it was not successful. What is clear is that witnessing the extreme distress of the other soldiers did take its toll on Gurney.

War accelerates change in so many fields technological, medicine and in society at large. Mental ill health continues to be the subject of discrimination and stigma. In the aftermath of WW1 there was some public acceptance of the impact on soldiers 'nerves' of what they had witnessed and endured. In some small way it made its way into popular literature, for example D.L. Sayers's all to perfect character, Peter Wimsey suffered from shell shock and his bouts are described and discussed in some of the books.

It was during Gurney's time in Winwick that he tried to commit suicide in response to voices in his head. He wrote to several of his friends saying 'I am committing suicide partly because I am afraid of madness and punishment and partly because my friends would rather know me dead than mad'. One of his friends Marion Scott acted quickly and alerted the hospital and Gurney was found wandering along the banks of a canal. He was returned to the hospital and put under 'special supervision'.

What is significant for me is just how many friends stood by Gurney through all his mental distress. We well know how people with severe mental ill health often loose touch with family and friends believing that their 'friends desert them like a memory lost'. However Gurney may have felt many of his friend stood by him. Not only did Marion Scott bundle her Mother on to a train  and go to Warrington to see Gurney, other continued to visit and care for him during the long years in hospital . Ralph Vaughan Williams visited him and helped fund his care, as did other childhood friends like Herbert Howell.

Ever since his first breakdown in 1913 Gurney had believed that hard physical work and discipline was the best way of coping with his illness. After his suicide attempt he told nurses that he thought he'd be happy farming. This idea led him to believe that the army life would suit him well and he volunteered to join up when war was declared. Because of his eyesight he was not taken on immediately. He joined up as a Private and as such was the only soldier poet named on the plaque in Westminster Abbey who was not an Officer. For a while the war did seem to help him control his symptoms and recently a documentary was made on Gurney called The Poet that loved the War




Gurney did write poetry whilst he was in Winwick including the one below:


The Stone-Breaker

Written at Warrington in July 1918.

The early dew was still untrodden,
Flawless it lay on flower and blade,
The last caress of night's cold fragrance
A freshness in the young day made.

The velvet and the silver floor
Of the orchard-close was gold inlaid
With spears and streaks of early sunlight -
Such beauty makes men half afraid.

An old man at his heap of stones
Turned as I neared his clinking hammer,
Part of the earth he seemed, the trees,
The sky, the twelve-hour heat of summer.

"Fine marnen, zür!" And the earth spoke
From his mouth, as if the field dark red
On our right hand had greeted me
With words, that grew tall grain instead.

* * *

Oh, years ago, and near forgot!
Yet, as I walked the Flemish way,
An hour gone, England spoke to me
As clear of speech as on that day;

Since peasants by the roadway working
Hailed us in tones uncouth, and one
Turned his face toward the marching column,
Fronted, took gladness from the sun.

And straight my mind was set on singing
For memory of wrinkled face,
Orchards untrodden, far to travel,
Sweet to find in my own place.


Gurney had been a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral and along with Herbert Howells and Ivor Novello had been an organ scholar there. He went on to the Royal College of Music with Howells before the war and returned there afterwards to study under Vaughan Williams. Herbert Howells went on to be one of the leading English choral composers of the twentieth century and though his pre war teacher at the Royal College thought Gurney was 'the biggest of them all' he found him unteachable.

Howells and Gurney were together in Gloucester Cathedral on the night that many people believed marked the start of the great renaissance of English music; the first performance of The Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis by Vaughan Williams. The pair of them were so moved by the music that they could not sleep and spent the whole night walking around Gloucester talking about the performance.

Throughout his illness Gurney wrote both poetry and music but after he entered The London Mental Hospital in 1922 little was published or performed and he faded from public view. He always did have champions but it took many years for his achievements to be widely acknowledged. His friend still visited him but he was never discharged from the hospital till his death in 1937. At his funeral Herbert Howells played the organ.

Gurney's re emergence into the light took a long time . A biography appeared in 1978 and his two volumes of war poems-Severn and the Somme and War Embers were re issued in 1997 (the Winwick poems are in the second collection) there have been some performances of his music including his 1920 War Elegy performed at this years Proms .

On holiday this year in the Cotswold's I went to Gloucester Cathedral where in April they had unveiled a new window dedicated to Gurney designed by Tom Denny. The second panel represents The Stone Breaker his 1918 poem written in Winwick Hospital.

At the outbreak of war Foreign Secretary Edward Grey famously remarked  "The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life”, the same could be said of Gurney's reputation, but now  the light has been restored. Sadly the same cannot be said of peace in Europe where we still hear of wars and rumors of war.







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