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Gurney, Ivor

Category: Poet


Ivor Gurney (28 August 1890 – 26 December 1937) was an English composer and poet.  Gurney wrote hundreds of poems and more than 300 songs as well as instrumental music.

Gurney began composing music at the age of 14, and won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1911. Gurney had been troubled by mood swings that became apparent during his teenage years. He had a difficult time focusing on his work at college and suffered his first breakdown in 1913. After taking a rest, he seemed to recover and returned to college.

Gurney's studies were interrupted by World War I when he 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.

Marion Scott

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. He recovered and returned to battle, still working on his book and composing music including the songs In Flanders and By A Bierside.

Gurney was gassed in September the same year and sent to the Edinburgh War Hospital where he met and fell in love with a VAD nurse, Annie Nelson Drummond, but the relationship later failed.  In March 1918, Gurney suffered a serious breakdown, triggered at least in part by the sudden loss of Drummond. He was hospitalized in the Gallery Ward at Brancepeth Castle, County Durham, where he wrote several songs.  In June he threatened suicide but did not go through with it. He slowly regained some of his emotional stability and in October was honourably discharged from the army. Gurney received an unconventional diagnosis of nervous breakdown from "deferred" shell shock.

 Annie Drummond

Although Gurney seemed to recover after the war, when he was regarded as one of the most promising men of his generation, his mental distress continued to worsen. His second volume of poetry, War's Embers, appeared in May 1919 to mixed reviews. He continued to compose, producing a large number of songs, instrumental pieces, chamber music and two works for orchestra, War Elegy (1920) and A Gloucestershire Rhapsody (1919–1921). His music was being performed and published. However by 1922, his condition had deteriorated to the point where his family had him declared insane.

He spent the last 15 years of his life in mental hospitals.  Gurney wrote prolifically during the asylum years, producing some eight collections of verse. He also continued to compose music, but to a far lesser degree. An examination of his archive suggests that up to two thirds of his musical output remains unpublished and unrecorded.

Gurney died of tuberculosis while still a patient at the City of London Mental Hospital shortly before dawn on 26 December 1937, aged 47.



First World War poems from the front – edited by Paul o’Prey

Ivor Gurney grew up in Gloucester and was a boy chorister at the Cathedral.  In 1911 he won a composition scholarship to the Royal College of Music.  Initially rejected by the Army because of poor eyesight, Gurney enlisted in early 1915 and served as a private in the Gloucestershire Regiment.

He described his life in the ranks in a letter to his friend, Marion Scott: 'The Army is an awful life for an artist [...] Either it is slogging along uselessly with a pack or doing nothing but hang about after - or boredom or hell in the trenches. Very little between.' Despite this, he managed to write songs and poems at the front, often contrasting the immediate horror of trench life with memories of a beloved English countryside: 'I cling to life by deliberately trying to lose myself in my thoughts of other things.'


He suffered a bullet wound in the spring of 1917, and was gassed later that year at Passchendaele.

Gurney returned to the Royal College after the war, this time to study under Ralph Vaughan Williams, but he was too restless to concentrate or lead a structured life. He continued to be a prolific composer and poet, despite recurrent bouts of severe mental illness.  In 1922 he was committed to an asylum for the rest of his life.




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