Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) was an English composer and poet who fought in, and survived, the First World War. He wrote several hundred poems, songs and instrumental pieces, and is regarded as one of the foremost World War I poets. However, he was troubled by severe mood swings from his teenage years, and suffered his first breakdown in 1913. Another breakdown followed in 1918, a few months after his return from the Western Front. Although he continued to write poetry and music prolifically, his mental health continued to deteriorate and in 1922 his family had him declared insane. He spent the last fifteen years of his life in psychiatric hospitals and died in 1937 of tuberculosis, at the City of London Mental Hospital. Although for a number of years it was believed that Gurney suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, it is now believed that he had bipolar disorder. Recently it has been argued that despite the horror of combat, the discipline, comradeship and sense of belonging of the army, may have temporarily helped Gurney’s mental health.
Gurney served both on the Somme and at Passchendaele – two of the most infamous battlegrounds of WWI. In 1917 he wrote ‘Strange Hells’ – a beautiful, surprising poem. ‘There are strange hells within the minds war made‘, but at the same time, ‘not so often, not so humiliatingly afraid as one would have expected‘. Perhaps he’d known stranger and more frightening hells before he entered battle. He certainly did after battle. His poem ‘To God’ is a heartbreaking cry for death in a situation that he felt was intolerable. If we read the last lines of the poem in isolation – ‘Not half can be written of cruelty of man, on man, not often such evil guessed as between man and man‘ – we might think they were describing his war experience. But they appear in the context of a poem about his experience of hospitalisation, in which he was ‘praying for death, death, death, and dreadful is the indrawing or out-breathing of breath‘. ‘And there is a dreadful hell within me‘.
Gurney’s description of his depression and longing for death will be familiar to many – I have never been an inpatient, but so many of the emotions in this poem are familiar to me, including the feeling of ‘crying and trembling in heart for death, and cannot get it‘.
On this Remembrance Sunday, I want to remember a man who knew first-hand both the hell of a wartime battlefield, and the hell of his own internal battles with mental illness. I hope these poems move you, as they did me.