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Ivor Gurney's Creative Reading of Walt Whitman: Thinking of Paumanok Stefan Hawlin University of Buckingham IVOR GURNEY wrote most of his poetry in his twenties and thirties , between 1916 and 1926, both before and after his incarceration in a mental hospital in 1922.1 After 1926 his condition declined, and with it his creativity, and he died finally in 1937 from tuberculosis, long separated from the world of serious intellectual exchange. In this decade of poetry writing, Whitman became a progressively more important influence, helping him to reach beyond the forms and modes of Georgianism . As Patrick Kavanagh observes, Gurney "is not a Georgian poet who 'broke down' but one who consciously, though unprogrammatically , broke away [from Georgianism] and was, as far as he knew, on his own, fortified by his beloved Whitman."2 Gurney's nuanced reading of Whitman deserves careful consideration, both in itself, and as a contribution to our understanding of the interaction of English and American culture in the 1910s and 1920s. He responded profoundly to Whitman's concern for vernacular speech, his rugged egalitarianism and mysticism, his quest for the "illimitable," but for all this his reading was not uncritical. The following essay studies various aspects of Gurney's engagement: how Whitman was mediated to him through music; the experience of reading Whitman in the trenches of the First World War; how Whitman's example grew on him in the postwar years; the interpretation of certain crucial poems; and Gurney's final "conversion " to Whitman in 1925. While D. H. Lawrence's view of Whitman, in Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), is well known from this period, the contention here is that Gurney's reading of Whitman is worthy of equal regard. The composer-poet first encountered Whitman significantly through music. He may have read Whitman as a child—the evidence is tenu31 ELT 49 :1 2006 ous—but, once he began his studies at the Royal College of Music in the autumn term of 1911, he moved into an environment where both the name and the poetry were prominent. The leading English composers of this period were very taken with Whitman. Both Sir Charles Stanford , Gurney's main tutor at the college, and Hubert Parry had made settings of Whitman, seeing in him "a liberation from jingoism, prudery and prejudice."3 There was also, for example, Frederick Delius's Sea Drift (composed 1902-1903, performed 1908 onwards), a setting of an extract from "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" for baritone, chorus, and orchestra. The work that most affected Gurney was Ralph Vaughan Williams's A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1), composed 1903-1909, and premiered in 1910 in Leeds, which uses Whitman texts to create an orchestral-choral tone poem of the sea of Elgar-like grandeur.4 Gurney went to its first London performance in February 1913, and Marion Scott, his confidante, recalls seeing him in a group with Herbert Howells and Arthur Benjamin, "almost speechless from the shock of joy the music had given them, and all trying to talk at once in their excitement ."5 In listening to performances on three subsequent days, he paid close attention to the relationship between musical effect and words, and he refers enthusiastically to the symphony in his letters.6 Vaughan Williams's selection of texts comprised "Song of the Exposition " (11. 181-85), "Song for All Seas, All Ships" (excepting 11. 13-14), a shortened version of "On the Beach at Night Alone," "After the SeaShip ," and extracts from "Passage to India."7 As James Day observes, "The final design perceives [the sea] as a vast natural force both separating and uniting the continents, deep, majestic, and ostensibly limitless , the arena for human endeavour and achievement and the symbol of man's never-ending spiritual quest to reach out for, explore and understand the unknown, both within himself and in the universe at large."8 In his 1920s poetry Gurney often associates Whitman and the sea, in "Of the Sea," for example, in Best Poems, and in the fine, late "Going Outward"—Whitmanesque both in theme and manner—which speaks of "the rough-breasted kind / Vasty affection of swift-lilting ocean...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 31-48
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Will Be Archived 2021
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