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Ivor Gurney's Return to the "Private" Experience of Warfare: Rewards of Wonder and the Poems of 1919-1922 Daniel Hipp Vanderbilt University THE POET Charles Tomlinson, writing in 1995, uses the example of the British poet of the Great War, Ivor Gurney, to pose a philosophical question in his poem, "To a Christian Concerning Ivor Gurney": You will have much to explain to your God on the final day, And he, also, will have much to explain to you— Why (say) the mind of Gurney, whose preludes I am listening to, Should, through so many years, have to waste away Into inconsequence—composer, poet who dreamed that our land Would greet in him an heir of Jonson and Dowland; But its mind was elsewhere, and so was that of your Lord, Assigning this soldier his physical composition— That blood, those chromosomes that drew him to the absurd Disordering of notes, to the garrulity of the word, Instead of the forms that already his youthful passion Had prepared for the ordering of self and nation. Tomlinson, lamenting Gurney's "inconsequence," is among a number of writers and poets responsible for Gurney's critical rescue in recent decades . Gurney has been largely ignored in favor of other soldier poets like Wilfred Owen or Edward Thomas, men who died in battle and were therefore thought to be in more need of remembering. Samuel Hynes argues that to ignore Gurney is to neglect the most unique voice that the Great War produced: "[Gurney was] better, Fd say, than Owen, better than Rosenberg, better than the young Graves, more powerful, more wide-ranging, more original in his rhetoric."2 Hynes goes on to explain Gurney's obscurity, through the war's aftermath up until recent decades , by claiming that because he was both a "war poet" and a "mad ELT 43 : 1 2000 poet," he became an easy figure to dismiss or to compartmentalize. That is, if Gurney went to war, and if he then went mad, then surely the war caused the madness, and at best Gurney might serve as a window onto the madness that was the Great War. In diagnosing Gurney with "Deferred Shell Shock" in 1919, his doctors themselves seemed to facilitate the misunderstanding of his condition that would dominate thinking about Gurney's reputation and accomplishments in the decades to follow . His doctors were responding to the fact that at the war's end, which Gurney experienced in an English hospital, he was beginning to display warning signs that the mental illness which would lead to his institutionalization three years later was surfacing.3 But because of the state of psychology at the time and his doctors' lack of awareness of his prior mental history, and because these doctors had seen many minds crippled by war, they attributed Gurney's mounting mental instability to the delayed effects of what he had both seen and lived through in France. Recent scholars of Gurney have argued convincingly that the war was at most a precipitating factor for the schizophrenia. W. H. Trethowan demonstrates that the symptoms Gurney displayed in the years following the war are telltale signs of psychosis or paranoid schizophrenia , and not the neurotic responses to trauma that constitute shell shock.4 Tomlinson's poem as well attributes Gurney's madness to "blood" and "chromosomes," not the battlefield. Hynes writes, "What did the war actually do to Gurney? Did it drive him mad? ... The answer ... is pretty clearly no. Indeed, it is more probable that the discipline, work, and comradeship (not to mention the regular meals) of army life postponed a collapse that would have come in any case."5 Gurney's suffering had far more complicated origins than simply having seen the madness of war, and the war, ironically, provided him with temporary relief from the varying degrees of madness that plagued his life. However, the timing of the war in his life and the return after the war of his madness, less dramatically in evidence before the war, make his combat experiences likely contributors to his disease. The British Army's War Office report on shell shock, commissioned by King George V in 1922, concluded that "the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 3-36
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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