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New Perspectives on Ivor Gurney’s Mental Illness

© 2000 by Pamela Blevins

    Many of the behavioral patterns that characterized poet-composer Ivor Gurney were already set in place when he was a child.  Looking back through the corridors of time, Gurney struggled to understand experiences that marked his development by writing about them repeatedly when he had little else to do during his 15-year incarceration in a London asylum.  Cut off from social intercourse, his friends, music, nature, freedom, and everything that he loved, Gurney retreated into the world of words. They became his salvation, his one link with the remembered world outside the four Grey walls that imprisoned his mind and his body.
    In his poem, What’s in Time, written when memory brought forth an unbroken flow of truthfulness and clarity about his past, he describes his “strange coming to personality”, “the mother leaving”,  the “insurrection and desire to be one’s own and free”, “The birth of creation in the heart, the touch of poetry”, and the “raining steel and furious red fire” of war.(Footnote *1)
    These memories hint at only a fraction of the complex circumstances, behavioral traits, hereditary factors and events that shaped Gurney’s life and finally led him to waste away from an untreated, misdiagnosed and misunderstood mental illness that slowly consumed his genius.
Manic-depressive illness and schizophrenia
Florence Gurney, a life of disappointment
From mother to son — the genetic factor
A stranger to his family
The first breakdown — Euphoria and despair
War — an unlikely respite
A romantic interlude
The asylum
The last years
    Gurney once told his friend Marion Scott that so long as he was in the asylum, he looked upon himself as being one dead.  “To spend days, months, years oppressed by delusions and physical pain; to be always in the same range of rooms and garden, cut off by locked doors from the rest of the world — that was Gurney’s lot,” Scott recalled. (*2)
    As a child and young teenager growing up in his native Gloucester, where he was born in 1890, Gurney was driven by chaotic forces, both internal and external, that spun him through cycles of moods and behavioral patterns that are recognized today as symptomatic of bi-polar or manic-depressive illness.(*3)   Yet for more than two decades Gurney has been regarded as a “paranoid schizophrenic”, an incorrect diagnosis that has limited understanding of both the man and his art.  The nature of Gurney’s illness is vitally important because the behavioral patterns of the bi-polar victims and the schizophrenic are markedly different even though they share some symptoms in common, particularly delusional episodes.
    In his groundbreaking 1978 biography The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, Michael Hurd first defined Gurney’s illness as paranoid schizophrenia based on his own careful analysis of Gurney’s mental state at various times in his life, his behavior, social interactions, traits, hereditary factors, medical records, interviews and Gurney’s own writings.  Hurd observed that “prolonged bouts of depression were a feature” of Gurney’s adult life and that “they usually followed a period of intense creativity”.  What Hurd is actually describing is, in fact, the recurrent or cyclic nature of manic-depressive illness.  However, what Hurd learned about Gurney’s behavior led him to conclude:  “All this suggests a type of mind and body that found it difficult to reach a state of equilibrium and self-acceptance, and which was in no way aided by a satisfactory emotional life.  In such circumstances the advent of schizophrenic psychosis is scarcely surprising.”  He also concluded that the “delusions which he then suffered were typical” of the illness.  Hurd went a step further and suggested that Gurney’s mother, Florence, may have suffered from a “similar disposition, though to a much lesser degree...and may have passed on to her son all the essential ingredients of his genius and his undoing.”(*4)
    Hurd’s conclusions were supported by the late William H. Trethowan, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Birmingham, who published his analysis, Ivor Gurney’s Mental Illness in Music and Letters in 1981.(*5)  Trethowan states that “Gurney’s mental illness...took the form of a paranoid schizophrenic psychosis (i.e. that form of schizophrenia characterized by persistent persecutory delusions) which ultimately became chronic.”   When Gurney was admitted to the City of London Mental Hospital shortly before Christmas, 1922, the diagnosis was “systematized delusional insanity” which Trethowan interpreted as “an old-fashioned term synonymous with paranoid schizophrenia, the term now preferred.” Even though Trethowan was aware of Gurney’s dramatic mood swings, he chose instead to focus on the hallucinations and delusions that Gurney suffered.  From these incidents, which began in Gurney’s mid-twenties and were most severe when he was in the asylum, Trethowan concluded emphatically: “There can be absolutely no doubt about the nature of Gurney’s illness.”  Like Hurd, Trethowan implies that Gurney “inherited...his mental instability from his mother”, and suggests that given her personality traits she “could certainly be described as schizoid”.(*6)
    Both Hurd and Trethowan focussed largely on Gurney’s delusional behavior. They reached their conclusions more than 20 years ago at a time when mental illness in its various manifestations and subtleties was not as well understood or as clearly defined as it is today.  For example, musicians, artists and writers, including Robert Schumann, John Ruskin, Virginia Woolfe, Vincent van Gogh, and Ezra Pound, once thought to be schizophrenic would not be classified that way today.  However, neither Hurd nor Trethowan can be faulted for their analysis of Gurney, which reflected the knowledge available at the time they were writing.

Distinguishing between manic-depressive illness and schizophrenia

    Manic-depressive illness is a mood disorder.  Schizophrenia is a cognitive, or thinking disorder.  While both illnesses have some symptoms in common and primarily strike their victims in adolescence and early adulthood, schizophrenia alters the development of thought processes that are critical to the creative process while manic-depressive illness does not.
    Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, an authority on manic-depressive illness and professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the United States, explains that “Most clinicians are now aware that psychotic features such as flagrant paranoia, severe cognitive disorganization, delusions, and hallucinations — once thought by some psychiatrists to be more characteristic of schizophrenia — are in fact relatively common in manic-depressive illness.(*7)
    “The latter,” she continues, “can usually be distinguished from schizophrenia by a family history of depression, manic-depressive illness, or suicide, a lifetime course of manic and depressive episodes interspersed with long periods of normal thinking and behavior, and generally healthier personality and social functioning prior to the onset of the illness.  Bizarre behavior, once thought to be much more characteristic of schizophrenia, is now recognized as a frequent component of mania as well.”(*8)  Dr. Jamison writes as both an expert on the illness and as one of its victims.
    Manic-depressive or bi-polar illness is characterized by a variety of symptoms in each of its phases.  According to Dr. Jamison, depressive symptoms include “apathy, lethargy, hopelessness, sleep disturbance (sleeping far too much or too little), slowed physical movement, slowed thinking, impaired memory, and concentration, and a loss of pleasure in normally pleasurable events...suicidal thinking, self-blame, inappropriate guilt, recurrent thoughts of death, a minimum duration of the depressive symptoms (two to four weeks), and significant interference with the normal functioning of life”.  Persistent physical problems, including digestive disorders, that do not respond to treatment can also be present. (*9)
    Gurney was no stranger to these symptoms of depression.  “But oh, so sick of everything...I will allow anyone to say anything against my Scherzo, my slow Movement even, which show to what depths I have descended,” wrote the usually strong-willed Gurney in a letter to Marion Scott.  On another occasion he says his “bloody-bloody head is thick...” while he also complained of suffering from “a dry-up of thought” and a brain that “won’t move”.  His later correspondence and poetry are full of references to death, guilt, self-blame and suicidal thoughts.
    In the manic phase, victims experience symptoms that are opposite those encountered in depression.  The mood is “generally elevated and expansive (or, not infrequently, paranoid and irritable); activity and energy levels are greatly increased; the need for sleep is decreased; speech is often rapid, excitable, and intrusive; and thinking is fast, moving quickly from topic to topic,” explains Dr. Jamison.  Further, in a manic state, victims have “inflated self-esteem, as well as a certainty of conviction about the correctness and importance of their ideas.  This grandiosity can contribute to poor judgment, which in turn, often results in chaotic patterns of personal and professional relationships...In its extreme forms, mania is characterized by violent agitation, bizarre behavior, delusional thinking, and visual and auditory hallucinations.”(*10)
    Symptoms of this illness in its manic phase were common to Gurney.  His friend John Haines told Marion Scott about spending a day with Gurney and being “horrified...After a while I began to see that his ideas about the voices and so forth, though extravagant, were in themselves ordered and sensible”.  Gurney was so high that day that Haines reported: “I was so exhausted and drained that I slept around the clock!”  On another visit with Gurney, Haines noted that Ivor was “composing both verse and music with the same extraordinary rapidity still.”(*11)
    All of Gurney’s friends were aware of his dramatic mood swings.  “I always seem to be writing contradictory letters...about Ivor. The fact is I simply don’t know what to make of him and he varies as the wind,” Haines wrote Marion Scott.  “It is not easy to determine to what exact extent his present mood is based on simple restlessness,” observed Gurney’s friend, composer Herbert Howells.  While Margaret Hunt, a woman who had known Gurney from the time he was 15, recalled: “Ivor must always struggle hard for expression.  We know him so well of course and have seen him in so many moods and the joy of life and creation is so marked, while the reaction goes deeper than with anyone I have ever seen.”(*12)
    One of the key questions contemporary psychiatrists consider when distinguishing between manic-depressive and schizophrenic patients is: “Does the patient like people?”  The answer in Gurney’s case was “yes”.  In fact, he not only liked people, he thrived on his relationships, and people, in turn, liked him — a strong indication that he was not schizophrenic.(*13)
    An important symptom of schizophrenia now recognized by psychiatrists is the withdrawal of schizophrenic victims into a world entirely their own that is characterized by a reluctance, even an inability, to make human contact and sustain relationships.  Gurney did not withdraw from the world voluntarily in 1922.  He did not choose to be imprisoned in an asylum or to be cut off from society.  He was committed because his younger brother Ronald believed that’s where Gurney belonged despite Ivor’s episodes of sanity amid the cyclic chaos of his mind.  Ivor knew he was troubled, but he also knew he was not crazy or mad.  He begged for help, but it was not forthcoming. “Rescue me while I am sane,” he pleaded in a letter to Marion Scott written shortly after he was first admitted to an asylum in Gloucester.
    Because Gurney’s illness was never diagnosed correctly or understood, he was cast into a prison-like environment which offered nothing in the way of social contact, intellectual stimulation or even basic treatment for his illness.  He was cut off from the people who cared for him and who provided the social interactions that meant so much to him.  Denied this lifeline, he retreated deeper and deeper into himself in the asylum.  He had nothing in common with his fellow inmates and wanted nothing to do with them.  By separating himself from other patients, he was trying to protect himself as best he could from the negative atmosphere and influences in the asylum, a place in which he knew he did not belong.
    Marion Scott understood this and tried to get him released to her care or into care more compatible with his true mental condition which required intellectual and artistic stimulation along with compassionate companionship and access to the curative powers of nature which always benefited Gurney.  The authorities in charge of Gurney’s care would not allow this and the best Scott could do was have Gurney transferred from the asylum in Gloucester to one in London nearer to her.  This move enabled her to visit him regularly, to take him out on day trips and to bring as much of the outside world to him as possible.  But this was not enough to stop the steady progression of his illness.  Unfortunately, between 1922 and 1937 when Gurney was in the asylum, modern drugs and sophisticated psycho-analytical treatment were not available.

Florence Gurney, a life of disappointment
“...the very thing we look forward to so much is bitter”

    For the key to understanding Gurney’s mental illness and its effect on both his life and his work, it is necessary to do as he did, look at his life through the corridors of time, beginning not with Ivor himself but with his mother Florence Lugg Gurney.
    By all accounts Florence Gurney was a difficult, temperamental woman whose behavior was at times unpredictable and contradictory.
    Gurney’s elder sister, Winifred, painted an unflattering portrait of their mother, describing life under her “iron rule” and “nagging” as “something akin to a bed of stinging nettles”.  Winifred claimed that Florence Gurney “did not seem to enjoy her children, and so far as I could see she did not win their love”.(*14)  Gurney’s brother, Ronald, remembered a “terrible streak in mother — not mad but certainly bad with a touch of...evil about her” and called her “a menace”.(*15)  The Gurney children favored their father, recalling him as “the more home-loving, affectionate parent” who “was not allowed to give us as much love as he had for us.”(*16) _________________________________________
Manic-depressive illness and schizophrenia
Florence Gurney, a life of disappointment
From mother to son — the genetic factor
A stranger to his family
The first breakdown — Euphoria and despair
War — an unlikely respite
A romantic interlude
The asylum
The last years
    Marion Scott, whose feelings for Gurney ran deeper than friendship, made a point of befriending the Gurney family in 1918.(*17)  She liked David Gurney, who impressed her as “gentle and slightly puzzled by life in general and his eldest son in particular”.  But she was brutal in her assessment of Florence, believing her to be “borderline” at times and claiming that she possessed a character “as hard as flint...and was probably incapable of feeling anything like love.”  Yet Scott felt that it was Florence from whom Ivor “inherited his strange power of placing ideas in unusual juxtapositions,” but with a great difference between mother and son.  “With him it was genius, and with her it was almost foolishness.”(*18)
    Born at Bisley near Stroud in 1860, Florence Lugg was one of eight children of William Lugg, a house decorator, and Mary Dutton.  She loved music and had received some instruction in it but like many young women of her era, she went without formal education.  It is likely that as soon as she was old enough, she was sent out to work, probably as a family servant.
    Life could not have been easy for Florence Gurney, raising her children, keeping house in cramped quarters above the tailor’s shop, working with her husband, and dealing with a precocious child like Ivor whose contentious relationship with Ronald was cause for much disharmony in the household.   At the age of 40, this already tired and care-worn woman gave birth to her fourth child, Dorothy.  She was overwhelmed.  With all that she felt she had to contend with alone, including a benign, only moderately-ambitious husband, it is no wonder that her spirit soured, reducing her to nagging and making her appear spiteful, selfish, mean and emotionally barren, but she was not always that way.
    Winifred recalled that her mother “possessed us as babies” and “certainly did her best to bring us up well,” caring thoroughly for their material needs. She was determined to give her children enriching opportunities, particularly in music which she loved. While Winifred and Ronald were inclined to emphasize the unpleasant memories, life in the Gurney household was not miserable all the time nor was Florence always acting the shrew.  She could be tender and understanding when she needed to be and she had the sense to know when those times were.
    More telling about her than the bleak memories of Winifred and Ronald are her own rambling, unpunctuated letters.  They hint of a woman with a sensitive nature and the eye of a keen observer, whose own vision and use of words leaned towards the poetic.  She described Ivor’s hair as “straight and silver”, the hair of her other children as “gold” and recalled a scene from her past in which garden tools and diggers “shone like silver”.
    In a 1927 letter to Marion Scott, Florence described how seeing the words “it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive” on a pulpit reminded her of life’s disappointments.  “I had been looking forward to hearing the Band in the Park and oh I was disappointed twas music without a soul so that is how it is through life the very thing we look forward to so much is bitter.”(*19)
    Nature excited Florence Gurney just as it did Ivor.  Winifred recalled that her mother would “go into raptures over a beautiful sunset”, while a niece once observed Florence going “into ecstasies over a flower”.  Florence was more sensitive than anyone realized and possessed an artistic temperament that craved expression.  But she was imprisoned by circumstances and saw no way of expressing her own poetic and musical sides.  Her behavior and attitudes speak loudly of a woman battling frustration, consumed by disappointment and looking for scapegoats in those closest to her, those she felt were responsible for her misery — her children and her husband.  Florence Gurney undoubtedly felt that there was never enough of anything — time, money, space, quiet, freedom.
    There is more to be considered about Florence Gurney’s behavior.  Most of the memories of the Gurney children center on what they perceived as her inability to be warm and loving, her constant nagging, and her abrasive manner, dating primarily from their teenage years when Florence was in her forties and early fifties.  By the age of 40, when she had her last child, she could have been suffering from postpartum depression.
    This depression might then have flowed unbroken into menopause.  Menopause can be a difficult time for many women, even in our modern age with medications to help control mood swings, irritability, sleeplessness and physical discomfort.  Florence had to live with her symptoms, having no way to diminish or erase them.  Her already fragile mental state combined with menopause, which affects both emotional and physical well- being, could very well have exacerbated her unpredictable behavior.  The timing of her menopause symptoms also coincided with a time when her children were beginning to need their mother less.  With her children seeking their own independence, it is likely that Florence Gurney no longer felt needed or loved herself.
    Although Winifred remembered that Ivor was “kindly disposed” to his mother as a child, as he grew older they often clashed.  Ivor had a “terrible temper” as did Florence.  Ronald said that when Ivor was an adult he would hardly get in the house “before his nerves and Mother’s collide”.  The clashes between Florence and Ivor were not rooted so much in differences as they were in the similarities of two people of like temperament, each seeing in the other an unsettling self-reflection.
    The portrait of Florence as a woman incapable of feeling love and expressing it is drawn largely from the memories and impressions of Winifred and Ronald Gurney, who were jealous of Ivor and harbored bitterness against their mother for what they felt were the sacrifices she forced other family members to make so that Ivor could study music.  They undoubtedly sensed that Ivor was his mother’s favorite — or at least appeared to be — given the lengths she went to ensure his success.  Their memories of life in the Gurney household, of their mother and of Ivor must be regarded with a degree of caution.
    Petty jealousies, lack of communication, simmering resentments, clashing personalities and shattered dreams fueled the current of anger and hostility that made members of the Gurney household tense, combative and embittered.  Young Ivor contributed as much to the discord in his home as anyone.  No one family member was solely responsible and despite her own resentments, Winifred understood better than anyone what went wrong in part.
    “If we could only have broken down this terrible barrier and had a round table conference, we would have been a happier and more united family; but obstinacy and determination was so practiced amongst us, I think, that we developed unbreakable control, because our emotions were so strong,” Winifred wrote in the early 1950s.  “There was always the desire to clear matters up and let bygones be bygones, but as we were all stiff and unbending, we couldn’t do it.”(*20)

“The strange coming to personality”
From mother to son — the genetic factor

    Relatively little is known about Florence Gurney’s life so a thorough evaluation of her mental state is not possible.  However, the information available does provide some significant insights.
    There is little doubt that Florence was in control of the Gurney household.  Her erratic behavior intimidated her husband and children, making them anxious and wary because they never knew what would trigger her outbursts of temper or prompt her nagging.  It appears that she was a good, caring — even loving —  mother when her children were young but that her behavior was like Ivor’s, varied “as the wind”.  Although Winifred and Ronald had little good to say about their mother, Ivor, by contrast wrote or said very little about her or any other member of his family.  Yet there is no known record of him complaining about Florence’s treatment of him or his siblings.  In late 1922, shortly before Ivor was to be moved from the asylum in Gloucester to the City of London Mental Hospital, he expressed his concern for his mother in a poignant appeal for Ronald to “Look after Mother please.”  He wrote this at a time when his own life was in jeopardy and it is not the response expected from a man who does not care for, or love, his mother.
    Judging from her letters, Florence took pride in Ivor’s achievements and it appears that she did her best to provide opportunities for him and her other children.  After Gurney’s death, she wrote” “we keep grieving about Ivor”.
    If read carefully, Florence Gurney’s own words cast doubt on the image of her as a cold woman who was incapable of feeling love or giving love.  Like many people of her era — and even today — she could well have found it difficult to express feelings of warmth and tenderness because she might have grown up in a household where they were absent.  Because she had difficulty expressing her feelings does not mean that she was devoid of them.
    Florence’s letters were written with a breathless, manic energy and exude a sense of her being overwhelmed and in complete disarray as if she cannot collect her thoughts or herself in a coherent manner.   In her letters, she reveals a fearfulness that sometimes goes beyond reason as well as guilt, self-deprecation, and helplessness.
    The one constant in Florence Gurney’s behavior was its inconsistency.  Given her mercurial, unpredictable moods running from depression to manic highs with episodes of paranoid behavior later in life, it is possible she suffered from a degree of manic-depressive illness.
    Manic-depressive illness is a familial disease.  According to Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison: “Individuals who have manic-depressive illness are quite likely to have both bipolar and unipolar relatives”; or, in other words, relatives with both manic and depressive behavior (bipolar) or manifestations of either depression or manic behavior (unipolar) but not necessarily both.(*21) While it is not possible to trace its course through Florence Gurney’s family, it appears that her siblings were inclined toward “highly excitable” or manic behavior while she herself experienced both manic and depressive moods. Another of Florence’s relatives — the exact relationship is not known — was remembered as “brilliant”.  He is said to have spent “many years of his life” as a patient at Barnwood House, where Ivor Gurney was first admitted in the early autumn of 1922.(*22)
    Studies conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health in the United States indicate that if one parent has manic-depressive illness and the other parent does not, the risk of either depressive or manic-depressive illness in their child is 28 percent.  If both parents are affected that risk rises to 75 percent.  Because the state of David Gurney’s mental health is not known, his genetic role in Ivor’s illness cannot be gauged.
    What is certain, however, is that Ivor Gurney exhibited signs of manic-depressive illness from an early age and that, like his mother, nearly everything in his life was inconsistent and extreme.

A stranger to his family
“Insurrection and desire to be one’s own and free...”

    When he was only a child, Gurney removed himself as best he could, both physically and emotionally, from the tension, hostility and depressing atmosphere at home.  He was sensitive, but also precocious and strong willed and seemed to know instinctively how to protect himself from unpleasant situations.  He possessed an out-going personality and quickly surrounded himself with sympathetic friends who understood him and nurtured and encouraged him: his godfather, the Reverend Alfred Cheesman, musicians Margaret and Emily Hunt, and friends his own age, particularly composer Herbert Howells and poet F. W. “Will” Harvey.
    As he grew older and drifted further from his family, he became a stranger who “did not seem to belong to us”, someone who “simply called on us briefly, and left again without a word”, Winifred recalled.  He became “pompous and scornful” of his family and they took his attitude to mean that he felt he was too good to associate with them.  His family rarely saw him.  Florence, who was suspicious and possessive by nature, grew jealous of Ivor’s friendships outside the family and undoubtedly saw Ivor’s friends as taking her son away from her and filling him with high-blown ideas.  She sensed that Ivor had left her and she was right. _________________________________________
Manic-depressive illness and schizophrenia
Florence Gurney, a life of disappointment
From mother to son — the genetic factor
A stranger to his family
The first breakdown — Euphoria and despair
War — an unlikely respite
A romantic interlude
The asylum
The last years
    One of the most influential adults in Gurney’s early years was his godfather, the Reverend Alfred Cheesman but it wasn’t until Gurney attended Sunday School at All Saints Church that he began to play an active role in Ivor’s life.(*23)
    At Cheesman’s suggestion, Ivor became a probationer in the All Saints Choir, a position that provided him with basic grounding in music. Two years later, when Ivor was ten years old, Cheesman encouraged him to compete for a place in the Gloucester Cathedral Choir, which he won.  His position at the Cathedral provided him with the opportunity to attend the King’s School, where he received both a general and musical education.  It was the first of many opportunities Gurney was to enjoy thanks to the intervention of Alfred Cheesman, who found him jobs, coached him for exams, taught him how to read and recite poetry, took him on trips, and raised money to help Ivor with his expenses when he attended the Royal College of Music in London on a scholarship.
    In his teenage years, Gurney began to exhibit behavior that concerned those who knew him.  He became daring and self-destructive and increasingly indifferent to his personal appearance.  While disregard to clothing and cleanliness is not uncommon among boys, it was one of several aspects of Ivor’s behavior that presaged the onset of  more serious problems.
    According to Marion Scott, Gurney “adored violent exercise, exulted in storms and sailed with a daring near to madness”.  He was a powerful athlete whose habit of walking had pushed his capacity for sustained physical activity to a high level.  He became a tough, aggressive participant in school-boy sports and so self-centered that he “seemed to think he could beat the other side on his own”.  His sister Dorothy recalled that once while Ivor was out hunting birds with his father’s sporting gun he accidentally shot himself in the foot.(*24)
    But there was more than external physical danger surrounding Gurney.  His eating habits were abnormal in the extreme and alarming.  In what developed into a pattern, he would starve himself for long periods and when hunger finally overtook him, he would consume food like a starving person.  Instead of eating practical nutritional foods, he would eat a half-dozen ice cream cones for his meal, or unreasonable quantities of apples or a loaf of bread or even a pound of butter.  He had a particular weakness for cakes.  Once he gave in to his desire for food, he was unable to stop eating.  When he was in his late twenties, he acknowledged his shame at these self-proclaimed “bestial” behavior.
    Gurney had been a reasonably healthy child, suffering from typical childhood diseases including chronic bronchitis and unspecified ear trouble.  By Florence Gurney’s account, Ivor’s teeth “grew projecting out” and it appears that some effort was made to correct the problem by “pulling them in” perhaps aligning them by extracting other teeth that were crowding his mouth.  The result was a row of uneven teeth that left him with a poor overbite which Florence felt made Ivor’s mouth worse.(*25)
    In his teens he began to suffer from digestive trouble which would eventually interfere with his studies and work and which was to plague him throughout his life.  What he labeled “the trail of the dyspeptic serpent” was frequently wrapped around him.  He described his insides as “twisted”.  While poor teeth and a bad overbite could account for some of his erratic eating habits, Gurney’s obsessions with food — starving himself and then gorging himself, eating unsuitable combinations of food that would likely make him ill — suggest a deeper cause than having difficulty chewing his food.
    The exact nature of his early digestive trouble has never been defined although Gurney described it as “dyspepsia” (indigestion).  It is clear that the kinds of food Gurney ate could cause both emotional and physical problems for him.  For example, the large quantities of sweets he consumed would give him a rush of sugar, or what is known today as a “sugar high”, that would elevate his mood and make him hyperactive.  But the sweets he ate were devoid of any nutritional value. The large quantities of cakes, apples,  butter, ice cream and odd assortments of food he consumed did not provide Gurney with the balance of protein, carbohydrates, fats, minerals and vitamins the human body needs to function normally.
    Gurney was ill-nourished and it is likely that he suffered from severe vitamin and mineral deficiencies.  If the memories of his friends are accurate, he ate virtually no foods containing protein, which among other functions, synthesizes enzymes, hormones and other substances that regulate vital body processes, including digestion.  Gurney’s natural defenses against illness were diminished.  He was not only jeopardizing his digestive system but endangering the function of his entire body.  His chemically imbalanced system undoubtedly affected his mental function, intensifying his pre-existing disposition to mood swings.
    He was also getting very little sleep.  “But night to labour/To work, read, walk night through,” he wrote of the pattern of his early years that continued into his adulthood.  Even as a teenager when he was spending long hours with friends like Margaret and Emily Hunt, he would leave in the evening and walk out into the countryside.  Thrilled by the sights and sounds of nature and absorbed in his own thoughts, he might return home and work through the night composing music.
    Ivor Gurney was living a very full life, one in which there was little time for rest or relaxation.  His days were brimming with activity between school and studies, the Cathedral Choir, and later his music lessons, reading, his walks, his visits with friends, his own attempts at composition and his part-time work as an organist. He was over-extending himself and working in a white heat which he could not sustain indefinitely despite his desire to do so.  Overcome by exhaustion, he would be forced to stop working.  Incongruously, he came to view his need to rest as a defect in his character.  What Gurney regarded guiltily as “sloth” in himself was more likely illness induced by his poor nutrition, irregular sleep, obsessive work habits and digestive problems rather than laziness.  It was also indicative of depression.   He was already experiencing a pattern of extremes ranging from highs and euphoria to lows and despair with little level ground in the middle on which he could stand firmly.
    Gurney’s erratic behavior continued at the Royal College of Music.  By this time, 1911, he possessed a great deal of charm, which coupled with his good looks and intelligence made him a most attractive young man with many friends.   He attended concerts, socialized, even became a member of the elite Beloved Vagabonds Club, which met at Holland Park to perform music, and an associate member of Marion Scott’s newly founded Society of Women Musicians.
    Gurney’s strong will and arrogance made him a difficult student and he often clashed with his composition teacher Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, who later declared that Gurney was “potentially the most gifted pupil” that ever came his way but that he was “unteachable”.(*26)  While Gurney’s close friends Herbert Howells and Arthur Benjamin were getting along well in their studies, participating in college events and, in Howells’ case, working on large-scale compositions, Gurney was not keeping pace.  He talked big about writing operas, symphonies and concertos and was as full of himself and his dreams as ever.  But he was producing very little accomplished music at this point in his life — a string quartet, a theme and variations for piano, a violin sonata, an orchestral march, a string trio, student exercises and a scattering of songs in which his original voice was beginning to emerge.  His manuscripts were disorganized and illegible and reflected the turmoil of an illness simmering inside him.
    In the meantime, Gurney watched Howells advance rapidly to become the star composition student at the RCM while he seemed to plod along on his own resenting Stanford’s discipline and feeling trapped by the rules that were the very making of Howells’ early success.
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Continue with Blevins' article on 
Gurney’s Mental Illness
The first breakdown — Euphoria and despair
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1. What’s in Time from the Collected Poems of Ivor Gurney, edited by P. J. Kavanagh, Oxford University Press, 1984, p. 246. [Go back.]
2. Marion Scott, The Monthly Musical Record, February, 1938, p.43. [Go back.]
3. Bi-polar is the preferred medical term, however, for the purposes of this article, I will use manic-depressive illness because it is more expressive description of Gurney’s behavior. [Go back.]
4. Michael Hurd, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, Oxford University Press, 1978, pp. 197-198. [Go back.]
5. William Trethowan, Ivor Gurney’s Mental Illness, Music and Letters, July/October 1981, pp. 300-309. [Go back.]
6. Trethowan, ibid. [Go back.]
7. Kay Redfield Jamison, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, Free Press (Macmillan) 1994, p. 59. [Go back.]
8. Jamison, ibid., pp. 59-60. [Go back.]
9. Jamison, ibid., p. 13. [Go back.]
10. Jamison, ibid., p. 13. [Go back.]
11. Hurd, ibid., p. 128. [Go back.]
12. Margaret Hunt letter to Marion Scott, May 8, 1917, Gurney Archive, Gloucester. [Go back.]
13. Gurney’s friends and acquaintances ranged from the lock keeper, Mr. Harris and his family at Framilode in Gloucestershire to Will Harvey, Herbert Howells, Sydney Shimmin, John Haines, Arthur Benjamin, the Chapman family, Marion Scott and members of her family, Ethel Voynich and members of her family, which included the scientist Geoffrey Taylor, the Reverend T. Ratcliffe Barnett, Annie Drummond, Margaret and Emily Hunt, Alfred Cheesman; fellow soldiers including Basil Cridland, Private T. Evans, Fred Bennett.  He was at ease meeting or corresponding with the literary and musical luminaries of his time, including A.E. Housman, Walter de la Mare, John Masefield, Eddie Marsh, Edward Shanks, Harold Monro, Scott Montcrieff, Edmund Blunden, Gervase Elwes, Steuart Wilson, Wilfrid Gibson and others. [Go back.]
14. Winifred Gurney letter to Don Ray, Gurney Archive. [Go back.]
15. Ronald Gurney letter to Don Ray, Gurney Archive. [Go back.]
16. Winifred Gurney, Gurney Archive. [Go back.]
17. Marion Margaret Scott (1877-1953), violinist, critic, lecturer, editor, writer, biographer of Beethoven, international authority on Haydn.  Gifted, dynamic, youthful appearing and possessing poetic beauty, Scott enjoyed the company of younger men and was always eager to help them advance their careers.  Although she was 13 years older than Gurney and came from a wealthy and socially prominent family, Scott, who was half American, did not stand on convention when she fell in love with Gurney.  It is likely that he became infatuated with her and used his achievements as a way to impress her and gain her attention.  Their friendship began in 1911 at the Royal College of Music but developed into more on Scott’s part, particularly during the war when she and Gurney exchanged hundreds of letters and developed a special bond of understanding.  Gurney was undoubtedly aware of her feelings towards him because he made every effort to conceal his relationship with Annie Drummond from Scott.  He feared losing her friendship if she found out.  Once Gurney was in the asylum, she never stopped loving him, but did have relationships with other men.  Scott had left her personal journal among Gurney’s papers which she had willed to composer Gerald Finzi, a champion of Gurney. One of her entries is a poem that could only have been written for Gurney: “In time to come when we have done with time...we two will climb/Some sunny height of air, you chanting rhyme,/And well contented songs, innocent as a boy,/I by your side quite silent in pure joy”.  Her journal is in the Gurney Archive. [Go back.]
18. Marion Scott notes, Royal College of Music, London. [Go back.]
19. Florence Gurney letter to Marion Scott, August 22, 1927. [Go back.]
20. Winifred Gurney to Don Ray, Gurney Archive. [Go back.]
21. Jamison, ibid., p. 194. [Go back.]
22. Trethowan, ibid., p. 308. [Go back.]
23. Alfred Cheesman (1864-1941), born in Bosham, educated at Worcester College, Oxford, curate of All Saints Church Gloucester from 1888-1912, vicar of Twigworth from 1912 until his death.  Honorary Canon of Gloucester from 1925. [Go back.]
24. Another version of the story claims the Ivor Gurney shot himself in the hand. [Go back.]
25. According to Don Ray in his Ivor Gurney His Life and Work, (MA dissertation, California State University at Long Beach, 1980, when Gurney transferred to the Cathedral Choir in 1900, it was “with the provision that he have his teeth fixed: an overbite was effecting his speech”. [Go back.]
26. Herbert Howells, manuscript on Ivor Gurney, reprinted in Herbert Howells: A Centenary Celebration by Christopher Palmer, Thames Publishing, 1992. [Go back.]
Manic-depressive illness and schizophrenia
Florence Gurney, a life of disappointment
From mother to son — the genetic factor
A stranger to his family
The first breakdown — Euphoria and despair
War — an unlikely respite
A romantic interlude
The asylum
The last years

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