Go to Site Index for Ivor Gurney, Poet Composer
Ivor Gurney in 1915 - Go to Home Page

Perspectives on Gurney

   Opinion, Commentary, Dialogue
To  Respond/ Responses to Blevins
Footnotes / Bibliography
Back to Perspectives

New Perspectives on Ivor Gurney’s Mental Illness

© 2000 by Pamela Blevins

The first breakdown
Euphoria and despair

    Eventually Gurney lost control of his life and in the spring of 1913 suffered a seemingly mild breakdown in London. He was 23 years old.
    “My brain, heart, nerves, and physique are certified sound, but...I am overworked and quite run down,” he explained in a letter to Marion Scott.(Footnote *27)  There are few letters from this period and no official known documentation of his illness so it has not been possible to determine precisely when Gurney suffered the collapse, but he was showing signs of both physical and mental problems, namely depression, as early as January.  Some weeks later, perhaps in late March, his condition worsened to the point where he consulted a doctor who gave him orders to return to Gloucestershire, which he did in late April or early May. _________________________________________
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
    Once away from the chaos of London, Gurney threw himself into hard physical labor and turned also to sailing and walking, activities that were his own means of combating the effects of stress, overwork and depression throughout his life.  During the dark times when his excessive mental activity seemed to overwhelm him, he shifted the focus of his attention from his mind to his body and became a physical force.  Gurney seemed incapable of resting completely and ceasing all activity. One part of him was always in motion.  By July, his depression was lifting and he was “taking risks in pure glory of soul and joy of heart and yelling and quoting and singing and hauling at the sheet...and breaking my arm with the tiller”.  He was making an effort to write poetry and was reading books at a rapid rate.  His health, both physical and mental, might have been improving in his eyes but in truth, he was far from well.  His chief complaints remained attacks of “the Blues” and stomach problems.
    Although the cause of Gurney’s 1913 breakdown is generally laid to “overwork”, his actual production that year and in 1912 was relatively slim.  If he sat down to write music, he could only “stare at blank paper until I was sick at heart!”  His studies, assignments and college rehearsals undoubtedly occupied much of his time but certainly his friends, Howells, Benjamin and others, were equally challenged while Howells was remarkably productive.
    However, as a disorganized and careless individual, who had difficulty focusing on his work, Gurney might have found it too much of a burden to keep up.  Further, regimen annoyed and frustrated him and often sparked his anger and rebellion.  He much preferred to experiment with original ideas and to follow his own direction, erratic though it may appear, than to conform to rules imposed on him by others.  “Any routine irked him,” observed Marion Scott many years later.
    After his creative dry spell, he dived headlong into work and activity again and was able to write to his friend Will Harvey: “Gradually the cloud passes...I have done 5 of the most delightful and beautiful songs you ever cast your beaming eyes upon.  They are all Elizabethan — the words — and blister my kidneys, bisurate my magnesia if the music is not as English, as joyful, as tender as any lyric of all that noble host.”(*28)  The songs were Gurney’s Five Elizabethan Songs and he knew that he had done something great.  In one breath of genius, he equaled the song achievements of his teacher Stanford as well as those of other notable composers of the day, including Elgar, Vaughan Williams, John Ireland and Hubert Parry.
    Gurney had told Harvey about the songs in early 1914, probably January, and was excited by the prospect of the “sacred hunger for Spring that nourishes the fire in you” but as had happened in 1913, Gurney slipped again into depression.  The cycle of his manic-depressive illness was repeating and the space of time between his manic moods and his depression seemed to be shrinking.  Gurney knew something was wrong with him and described his affliction as “neurasthenia” — exhaustion from overwork or prolonged mental strain.  For the rest of his life, he would try to find ways to overcome it, but he had no way of knowing that there was nothing he could do to stop the illness from accelerating and eventually overpowering him.
    Gurney’s lethargy or “sloth”, as he described it, his apathy and confusion, his inability to concentrate, the unevenness in quality and quantity of his work, his carelessness, insomnia, restlessness, indifference to his surroundings and appearance were all symptoms of depression.  During these periods, he appeared withdrawn, self-absorbed and “dreamy”.  As his condition worsened in his mid- and late-twenties, Gurney began to experience symptoms that indicated his illness was indeed advancing.  He began to have suicidal thoughts, indulged in self-blame and inappropriate guilt, and had recurrent thoughts of death as an escape from his troubles — all signs that he was deteriorating.
    In these early stages of his illness, he was clearly exhibiting symptoms of manic behavior as well.  As his black mood lifted — “Gradually the cloud passes” — he was flooded with energy and his mood became elevated and expansive.  He switched from a brooding introvert to a gregarious extrovert.  In the manic state he felt he was invincible.  He became impulsive and reckless, undertaking daredevil physical activity that put him in danger.
    He was like a sponge, absorbing everything around him and firing it back in a flood of monologues that left his listeners breathless and unable to take it all in.  His physical and mental energy were overwhelming, almost out of control, and his creativity was greatly heightened.  After a bout of depression, he would throw himself into his work with such fervor that he forgot about sleeping and eating and seemed able to survive on a minimum of both.
    By contrast, during a depression, he berated himself for his bad habits, his failures, his slowness, or any number of self-perceived deficiencies.  But once the depression lifted, his confidence and self-esteem were restored, he became cocky, arrogant and vain.
    Then with his candle burning at both ends, the string drawn as tightly as possible, Gurney would begin to come down from his high and stumble back into the darkness.

War — an unlikely respite
“Saner and more engaged with outside things”

    A temporary respite from his illness would come from an unlikely source — war.
    For Ivor Gurney military service was an “experiment” undertaken not so much out of patriotic duty as out of the need for self-preservation and to escape, if only temporarily, from increasing emotional disturbances he could neither control nor understand.  He believed that in the hard, disciplined army life with its demands for order, attention to detail and routine, he might find some stability and perhaps come away with his fragile mental and physical health restored.
    In the early months of his training, his experiment seemed to be working.  He claimed he was in “a much happier frame of mind” than he had been for some four years and believed that his health was slowly improving.  Although the rigorous training exhausted him, he found that he was experiencing “healthy” fatigue, not “nervous exhaustion”.  Perhaps for the first time in his life, Ivor Gurney was eating regular, balanced meals, including meat which he seemed to have avoided in the past.
    Although he complained about the boredom and pettiness of military life, the artist in Gurney was alive and alert to the sensations, sights and sounds in his new world.  The language in his letters is poetic, his descriptions vivid, his observations keen, his arguments and discussions about books, music and ideas are philosophical, searching and profound.  His ready wit graced many of his letters.  He enjoyed the comradeship and diverse backgrounds of his fellow soldiers and, as he had done when he was a civilian, he made friends.  He wrote hundreds of letters to friends in England and they wrote back. Had Gurney possessed the withdrawn and potentially dangerous anti-social behavior of a schizophrenic, it is unlikely that he would have made friends or that he would have made it through basic training much less become a reliable soldier at the Front.
    Once Gurney landed in France, he claimed he found war “damned interesting” and told Marion Scott that it would be “hard indeed to be deprived of all this artists material now.”  He felt that he was more able to shut introspection out of his mind as he became “saner and more engaged with outside things”.  He expressed concern that “the Lord God [might] have the bad taste to delete me” and “the thought of leaving all I have to say, unsaid” made him “cold”.
    Prior to joining the army, Gurney had begun thinking seriously about writing poetry, but it wasn’t until he reached France and found himself in the thick of battle that, according to Marion Scott, his poetic “genius suddenly flowered”.
    Gurney started sending poems with his letters to Marion Scott and by the winter of 1916/1917 they were collaborating on what would become Gurney’s first book, Severn and Somme, which was published through Scott’s efforts in November 1917.(*29) Typically, Gurney, excited by the possibilities around him, was working in his usual white heat, writing poems and even several songs, reading, writing long letters and doing his job as a soldier.   War had carried him from the Somme to Ypres and into some of the worst confrontations of the Great War.  Yet he seemed to take soldiering in stride and was proud that he had earned a reputation for being “extremely cool under shellfire”.  His excessive activity indicates that he was experiencing one of his manic phases but it did not interfere with his ability to carry out his duties nor did he plunge into depression.

A romantic interlude
“Love has come to bind me fast”

    On Good Friday, April 7, 1917, Gurney was wounded in the upper arm and spent six weeks recovering before he was returned to action.   In September he was gassed at St. Julien.  He described the effects of the gas as “no worse than catarrh or a bad cold” but doctors thought otherwise and sent him to the Edinburgh War Hospital for treatment.  He was pleased to have earned the “blighty” that got him out of battle and it wasn’t long before he fell in with hospital routines.  He played the piano, wrote poetry, made new friends and enjoyed the company of the Scottish nurses, particularly that of V.A.D. Annie Nelson Drummond.(*30)   Prior to his relationship with Drummond, Gurney appears to have had little experience with women beyond his friendships with the Hunt sisters and Marion Scott.  His closest companions had always been male and he held his friend Will Harvey as dearest of them all.
    As the eldest of five children in a family dominated by successful businesswomen, Annie became responsible for the primary care of her four brothers.  Despite her practical background, she possessed the sensibilities of an artist and was searching for a way to express her own great love of beauty and nature when Gurney arrived at the hospital.  He was unlike any soldier who had come into her care before and it wasn’t long before a relationship developed between them.  Gurney dreamed of getting her to settle down and make “a solid rock foundation for me to build on — a home and a tower of light”.  He neglected to say what he could provide for her.  After he was released from the hospital they exchanged letters and saw each other when Gurney could get away from his duties.  According to Marion Scott, they became secretly engaged.(*31)
    Gurney’s spirits were soaring.  Then by mid-March, Annie Drummond was gone from his life.  As much as she cared about Gurney, it is likely that as a nurse, she began to see that Ivor Gurney was an unstable young man, a fact she might not have been willing to allow herself to admit earlier.  She knew what it was to dream, but she knew that living in a dream was not the way to build a life together.  She had already been caregiver for her four younger brothers and did not want to become the caregiver for a husband as well.  Gurney was devastated. The situation with Annie Drummond was complex and appears to have been the catalyst for a severe episode of depression in Gurney.   As he had done in early 1913 and in early 1914, he felt himself sliding towards depression.
    One of the characteristics of manic-depressive illness is its seasonal cycle in some of its victims.  Two thousand years ago, Hippocrates observed that “mania and melancholia were more likely to occur in the spring and autumn”.  According to Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison “Modern research bears out these early observations...Two broad peaks are evident in the seasonable incidence of major depressive episodes: spring (March, April, May) and autumn (September, October, and November)...Individuals who have manic-depressive or artistic temperaments may share an uncommon sensitivity to seasonal fluctuations in light as well as pronounced changes in mood as a result of those fluctuations.”(*32)  Seasonal cycles of manic-depressive illness vary with individuals.  In Gurney’s case he seemed most vulnerable to the depression cycle in the spring with a slow climb to his manic phase taking place during the summer months.
    After the break with Annie Drummond, however, he entered a period of depression that seemed deeper and more prolonged than in previous years.  He experienced delusional episodes and for the first time he openly threatened and attempted suicide but found that he could not take his own life.(*33)  He would be hospitalized from April to October 1918.
    While it is easy to blame his war experience for his breakdown, there is no evidence that he ever suffered symptoms of the “deferred shell shock” that qualified him for discharge from the army in October.  The Ministry of Pensions recognized what was really wrong with Gurney and declared that his disability was “Manic Depressive Psychosis” but added that his condition was “Aggravated by but not due to service”.(*34Gurney knew full well that he had not suffered from shell shock but felt it was to his benefit to let military authorities believe he had, especially where his meager pension was concerned.  When applying for the pension, Gurney admitted that he had given the reason for the application as “‘after shell shock’, which was false...”.(*35)  The war certainly left its imprint on Gurney, but it did not destroy him as so many people came to believe.(*36)
    Ultimately what did destroy Ivor Gurney was his untreated manic-depressive illness.

The asylum
“Evil flowed black like a tide of darkness over me”

    After six months in military hospitals, Gurney returned to civilian life “piteously thin...his uniform hanging about him like a flag around a pole.”(*37)  At first his friends were alarmed by his erratic behavior but eventually with his health restored, he was able to resume his writing, his work as an organist and his studies at the Royal College of Music.  By 1919, a second collection of his poetry, War’s Embers, had been published and his music was being performed.(*38)  He moved comfortably in London music and literary circles and earned a reputation as one of the most promising men of his generation.  Writers like Walter de la Mare and John Masefield took an interest in his poetry while singers like Steuart Wilson, Gervase Elwes and Harry Plunkett Greene performed his songs.  He threw himself back into his music and poetry, juggling both arts.  From late 1918 through late 1921, he worked at a manic pace, composing over 200 songs, including some of his finest, and forging a new direction in his poetry.
    Although his beloved friend Margaret Hunt died in March 1919 and his father in May, Gurney seems to have kept his usual cycle of depression at bay that spring.(*39)  He was productive but still not anchored firmly in any one place, either physically or emotionally.  In October he complained of “nerves and an inability to think or write at all clearly” but he managed to stay ahead of his depression and by 1920 was enjoying the most productive and financially-secure period of his life.  However, it was not to last.  He was restless, his behavior became unpredictable and inappropriate, and he could not hold a job.  _________________________________________
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
He took to wandering between Gloucester and London, often walking the 120-mile distance, sleeping in barns and earning a little money singing folksongs in country inns.  In London, he slept on the embankment, and was picked up several times by the police, once suspected of being a spy.  His friends tried to help but Gurney was losing control of his life and was heading for a severe breakdown.
    By September 1922, “evil flowed black like a tide of darkness” over Gurney. The emotional storms that had swirled around him all his life intensified.  He was beginning to suffer from hallucinations and claimed he was being tormented by “tricks of electricity”.  He had become violent and suicidal.  Ronald Gurney, feeling he had no other choice, had his brother declared insane and committed to an asylum in Gloucester.
    Gurney’s initial response to his imprisonment was to escape because he was afraid that he would go “quietly mad”.  He had already experienced the trauma of being in asylum-like conditions when he was hospitalized at Lord Derby’s War Hospital in Warrington for two months after his 1918 breakdown.(*40)  His first escape was dramatic. He hurled a clock through a window and scaled a high wall, but he cut himself so badly on the glass that he had to give himself up after only a few hours of freedom.  That was in October.  He escaped again in November.  By December, his doctors had decided it would be best for Gurney to be moved away from Gloucester.  They called on Marion Scott to make the arrangements to have him transferred to the City of London Mental Hospital at Dartford.  As he had done in Gloucester, he escaped but was quickly recaptured. “I am treated like a lunatic,” he complained to Scott.
    The responsibility for Gurney’s care ultimately fell to Marion Scott who became his legal guardian for the remainder of his life.  As time passed, Scott found Gurney so “agonizingly sane in his insanity” that he felt “every thread of the suffering all the time”, certainly an indication that he was lucid and functional on most of the occasions when Marion went to visit him or took him out on day trips.(*41)
    Gurney’s behavior in the asylum was more delusional than it had been on the outside and he complained of “a twisting of the inside” and pain in his head so bad that he felt he would be better off dead.   His actions were violent and threatening, his words obscene and sexual.
    He wrote dozens of letters to the police and others appealing to them to rescue him.  The letters were never posted.  He suffered from insomnia and was given medications to help him sleep.  He endured a bout of “scurvy”, which, if the diagnosis was correct, indicates that his eating habits and nutrition remained poor despite the availability of regular meals.  “He will miss a meal or two and then eat an abnormal amount of food at another meal,” says a note in his medical records.  But worse than his natural illnesses was a “treatment” thrust upon him without his consent and one that made him very ill.
    In July 1923, Marion Scott was informed that Ronald Gurney had given hospital authorities permission to inoculate Ivor with a “mild form of Malaria” in a misguided effort to quell his psychological symptoms.  At the time, Malarial treatments were experimental and were sometimes used on men still suffering from the effects of war.  However, injections of malaria were more commonly used to treat syphilis.  It was a dangerous and barbaric treatment that produced potentially fatal fevers and hallucinations.  Individuals who experience high fevers can also suffer brain damage. Gurney was already hallucinating enough without having more hallucinations induced.  According to his medical records, he was ill with malaria for at least a month enduring “daily paroxysms of malaria fever” for part of that time.  By November 5, Gurney’s physical health was “much improved but the malaria has had no beneficial effect mentally”.(*42)
    Marion Scott believed that Dartford was “the best place for him”, but it appears that Gurney was just another patient to the doctors and attendants.  While his medical records tell the story of a man in decline, virtually no mention is made of how Gurney, the artist, was filling his time.   “...said to have been a capable composer, and approved poet”, noted one doctor almost as an aside while another reference reveals that Gurney “continues to write music”.  “He...busies himself with private matters,” observed another doctor.
    What those “private matters” were seemed to have been of little or no interest to his doctors or hospital authorities but for Gurney they were his salvation — he had continued to write both music and poetry.   As he had done when he was a child, he simply removed himself as best he could from the unpleasant situation of the asylum by retreating into the world of words and deeper into himself, an act that, for a time, helped keep his illness from completely consuming him.  While his doctors were coping with Gurney’s general health, his delusions, his violent behavior and concerns that he might attempt suicide, Gurney was composing some of the finest poems he was ever to write and which became a memoir not only of his suffering in the asylum but of his entire life.

The last years
“Gone out every bright thing from my mind”

    Although he had more difficulty sustaining his musical voice, Gurney had more to say in his poems and he said it with greater honesty, conviction and freedom during his asylum years than at any other time.  He laid himself bare.  Many of his asylum poems are autobiographical and reveal a depth of experience, despair, anger, loss, disappointment and self-loathing that is absent from his earlier work.  However, some of these poems are also infused with tenderness, longing, beauty, a richness of language and sparkling images that suggest nothing about his life trapped “between four walls” of an asylum cell.
    The year 1925 was a remarkably productive one for Ivor Gurney.  His medical notes reveal that he was suffering from headaches and other physical complaints, depression and delusions and was “no better mentally”, yet he managed to write at least nine collections of poetry and compose some 50 songs and a few instrumental pieces.  The music is generally of no interest and meanders off into incoherence while the poetry is uneven in quality.  However, during this manic outburst and another episode in 1926, Gurney wrote some of his finest poems: Epitaph on a Young Child, The Silent One, The Coppice, Hell’s Prayer, The Love Song, The Poets of My County, I Would Not Rest, The Sea Marge, The Dancers, December Evening.
    Today, studies and analyses of Gurney’s complete poetic achievement refer to the “impatience of his language”, “the queer contortions and omissions which become part of his manner”, how he “telescoped his thoughts so much that they are sometimes very difficult to unravel”, his “new, idiosyncratic mode of expression”, his “imagined world” that “deals with parallels and comparisons”, or how he “began many a poem [that] winds into another, and possibly yet more...”.  When Edmund Blunden was editing Gurney’s poetry for his 1954 collection Poems by Ivor Gurneyhe described the difficulty he faced in choosing the poems and concluded that:  “...the solution of the editorial puzzle appears to be to take examples in which the principal topic survives least entangled with one or two of the others always crowding upon Gurney’s memory.”(*43)
    Critics attempt to justify these characteristics in Gurney’s writing as signs of innovative genius or as the “actions...of a skilful artist striving to create a wholly new kind of poetic utterance” when, in fact, they are the fingerprints of his mental illness.
    Gurney’s music also contained these fingerprints.  For example, Herbert Howells in the Music and Letters tribute to Gurney published in 1938 wrote: “There were piano preludes thick with untamed chords; violin sonatas strewn with ecstatic crises...an essay for orchestra that strained a chaotic technique to breaking-point.” Michael Hurd observed: “It would be wrong to pretend that Gurney’s songs are without blemish...His songs are like his poems...‘gnarled’ and full of quirks” and have “a tendency to allow a rhapsodic manner to degenerate into general aimlessness. There is also a factor that pulls in the opposite direction — a tendency, paralleled in the syntax of his poetry, to telescope events so that modulation, in particular, is achieved under pressure and is guaranteed, sometimes, only by the most tenuous link.”(*44)
    Both Gurney’s poetry and music clearly mirror the manic thinking patterns that are classic signs of manic-depressive illness.
    Early clinical researchers into manic-depressive illness observed that the thought processes of its manic victims showed “heightened distractibility”, a “tendency to diffusiveness” and “a spinning out the circle of ideas stimulated and jumping off to others”.(*45Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler found that “The thinking of the manic is flighty.  He jumps by by-paths from one subject to another, and cannot adhere to anything”. (*46)
    According to Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, contemporary researchers have shown that “manic patients, unlike normal individuals or schizophrenics, tend to exhibit pronounced combinatory thinking.  Characterized by the merging of ‘precepts, ideas, or images in an incongruous fashion’, the ideas formed in this way become ‘loosely strung together and extravagantly combined and elaborated’.”(*47)
    After 1926, there was little Gurney, himself, could do to stop the debilitating effects of his untreated illness.   He needed help but none was given.  Marion Scott tried  but her efforts were rebuffed by hospital authorities. He also needed to be allowed supervised freedom to be outdoors and to enjoy the company of companions who could stimulate his thoughts and his feelings.  He was allowed none of this.  Consequently, he lost all hope.  He grew more hostile to his environment and the people in it.  His rage at being confined must have been enormous and he released it in abusive and violent behavior.  His asylum keepers described him as “sullen, solitary, silent and self-centered”.  His hallucinations continued.  He claimed that he was the author of Shakespeare’s plays, that Beethoven had never existed and that he, Ivor Gurney,  had composed Beethoven’s music.  Yet doctors would also find that he could be “quite sensible and coherent” when dealing with the “normal affairs of life” but he rarely enjoyed such opportunities.
    If Gurney had been schizophrenic, he would not have been able to sustain his productivity or his interest in his work and in books for as long as he did.  Schizophrenia, like Alzheimer’s disease, is a dementing illness and is usually chronic and “relatively unrelenting”.  Among other things, it renders its victims incapable of reasoning clearly.  Gurney was not demented nor did he lose his ability to reason even though his medical records chronicle a slow, steady decline to the point where his conversation was “rambling and disjointed” and his memory “very defective”.  Individuals who are institutionalized for long periods of time and have little or no outside stimulation often lose touch with reality and become confused, disoriented and apathetic.  The only person who visited Gurney regularly was Marion Scott who took him for rides and visits to the theatre.  Otherwise, he had no contact with the outside world.  He would not have seen films or attended concerts or had friends with whom he could talk.  His life in the asylum was a void.
    As late as 1932, Gurney proved that he was neither demented nor that he had lost his reason.  Marion Scott asked Helen Thomas, the widow of poet Edward Thomas, to visit Gurney, who had greatly admired Thomas’s work.   “...we were met by a tall gaunt dishevelled man...to whom Miss Scott introduced me.  He gazed with an intense stare into my face and took me silently by the hand.  Then I gave him the flowers which he took with the same deeply moving intensity and silence.  He then said: ‘You are Helen, Edward’s wife, and Edward is dead.’” Gurney remarked on her pretty hat, “the gay colours gave him pleasure,” she wrote.  “I sat by him on the bed and we talked of Edward and myself, but I cannot now remember the conversation.”  Although Gurney did make some delusional comments, Mrs. Thomas found that his “talk was generally quite sane and lucid”.(*48)  Had he been schizophrenic, it is less likely he would have welcomed a visit from Helen Thomas or that he would have understood or cared who she was.  It is also unlikely that he would have noticed what she was wearing and commented on it, or that he would have been interested in carrying on a “lucid” conversation.
    Madness “occurs only in the extreme forms of mania and depression; most people who have manic-depressive illness never become psychotic,” according to Dr. Jamison.  “Those who do lose their reason — are deluded, hallucinate, or act in particularly strange and bizarre ways — are irrational for limited periods of time only, and are otherwise well able to think clearly and act rationally”.(*49)
    Gurney proved that both his reason and his memory were intact when Helen Thomas brought Edward’s old ordnance survey maps with her on another visit.  He eagerly spread them out on his bed and “spent an hour re-visiting his beloved home, in spotting a village or a track...and seeing it all in his mind’s eye, a mental vision sharper and more actual for his heightened intensity”.(*50)
    He continued to have periods of lucidity right up to the end although they became fewer and of shorter duration.  During these periods, he was aware of his surroundings, the life going on around him and his own feelings.
    In late November 1937, just a month before Gurney died, Marion Scott gave him proof copies of a special issue of Music and Letters devoted to him.  He was lucid enough to respond: “It is too late.”  A month later on December 26, as dawn began to lighten the winter sky outside the City of London Mental Hospital, Ivor Gurney died, ending his long struggle with manic-depressive illness.

Gone out every bright thing from my mind.
All lost that ever God himself designed.

— Ivor Gurney
     from To God, an asylum poem
© 2000 by Pamela Blevins


27. Ivor Gurney letter to Marion Scott, summer 1913, The Collected Letters of Ivor Gurney, edited by R.K.R. Thorton, MidNAG & Carcanet, 1991, p. 3. [Go back.]
28. Ivor Gurney to Will Harvey, early 1914, Collected Letters, p. 10. [Go back.]
29. Severn and Somme, published November 1917, Sidgwick & Jackson. [Go back.]
30. Annie Nelson Drummond (1887-1959) born at Armadale, West Lothian Scotland.  Emigrated to Massachusetts in 1921, married James L. McKay, on September 4, 1922, shortly before Gurney was committed to Barnwood House.  The McKays had two children, a son, who died at the age of 8 in an accident, and a daughter, who is a photographer. [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
31. Marion Scott letter to Don Ray, Gurney Archive. [Go back.]
32. Jamison, ibid., pp. 131 and 136. [Go back.]
33. Gurney hinted in a letter to Ethel Voynich in February 1915 that he contemplated suicide in 1913.  “It is indeed a better way to die...than the end which seemed near me and was so desirable only just over two years ago”.  Collected Letters, p. 14. [Go back.]
34. Ministry of Pensions document, Gurney Archive. [Go back.]
35. Gurney asylum letter of appeal, quoted in Hurd, p. 3. [Go back.]
36. Gurney was also struggling with his sexuality at the time he became involved with Annie Drummond.  It is possible that he viewed his affair with Drummond as an attempt to have a normal relationship with a woman to prove to himself that he was not homosexual.  When it failed he was devastated.   It is possible, too, that he suffered sexual abuse in his teens.  Gurney’s friend Arthur Benjamin, himself a homosexual, believed that Gurney was also homosexual.  In 1922 he wrote frankly to Marion Scott telling her: “I think that psycho-analysis is the only cure for him; but that, of course, would mean entire confidence on Ivor’s part, which is doubtful...I used to know a good deal about Ivor and on that knowledge — the details of which it is impossible for me to discuss with you — I think that psycho-analysis is the only chance.”  Benjamin was Gurney’s confidant at the Royal College of Music. [Go back.]
37. Scott, ibid. [Go back.]
38. War’s Embers was Gurney second volume of poetry.  It was published by Sidgwick and Jackson in May 1919. [Go back.]
39. Margaret Hunt was the younger of two sisters who, at the suggestion of Alfred Cheesman, befriended Gurney when he was 15.  Both had been teachers in South Africa and had settled in Gloucester around 1907.  Margaret was 15 years older than Gurney and encouraged his passions for music and nature.  He became infatuated with her.  Later in life, he acknowledged her as his muse.  “My work was meant for her,” he wrote.  He came to believe that he had failed Margaret by not fulfilling his early promise to become the great man that she believed he was destined to be. [Go back.]
40. Prior to the war, Lord Derby’s War Hospital in Warrington had been an insane asylum.  Gurney’s friend John Haines described Warrington as “the most detestable place I have ever spent six hours in, without exception, and the place would drive me mad, despite my lack of genius.”  Gurney attempted suicide while at Warrington.  Marion Scott got him transferred to the Middlesex War Hospital at St. Albans.  It is likely that Gurney was terrified by what he saw at Warrington, where shell-shock victims were forced to endure faridisation, or electrical charges applied to their bodies in a barbaric effort to “cure” them. There is no evidence that Gurney endured faridisation.  But he might have seen what his own fate would be if he was committed to an asylum. [Go back.]
41. Marion Scott personally paid £26 per quarter towards Gurney’s support in the asylum. [Go back.]
42. It is possible that Gurney’s doctors thought that syphilis was contributing to his mental problems although they do not say so in his medical records.  The note to Marion Scott, written by the Medical Superintendent at the asylum, informing her that the Malaria treatments had been approved by Ronald Gurney, is vague.  It simply states that the doctors were “very anxious to try the effect of inoculating” Gurney with a “mild form of Malaria which can easily be stopped”.   The note does not explain why they were injecting him with malaria.  No medical data are available on Gurney prior to his hospitalization at the City of London Mental Hospital so it is not possible to know if he did indeed suffer early and secondary symptoms of syphilis such as lesions, enlarged glands, skin rash and aches and pains in the bones.  Once the secondary symptoms subside, the disease can become latent and remain so for as long as 20 or 30 years.  In the asylum Gurney did have some symptoms of syphilis — headaches, pain in his bones or muscles, sores in his mouth, loss of appetite and possibly a rash on his legs and feet — but it is not possible to state that these symptoms were a direct result of syphilis.   In 1925, doctors diagnosed one of Gurney’s physical problems as “evidently a scurvy”, which resulted in his teeth becoming “quite loose”.  He eventually had six pulled.  Scurvy and syphilis both produce mouth sores and aches and pains in the joints or more specifically in the bones in the case of syphilis and in the joints in the case of scurvy — distinctions that might not be clear to a patient in pain. Gurney complained of pains in his legs and back and was eventually treated with “light infra-red” for what was described as “muscular rheumatism”.   It is extremely difficult to assess Gurney’s physical condition because from 1926 on, he steadfastly refused to allow a doctor to examine him.  Siegfried Sassoon, a contemporary of Gurney, had an aunt and uncle who suffered from syphilis. When Sassoon described their lives and behavior to a doctor friend, the doctor advised him to stop using the words “raving” and “dementia” in reference to them cautioning him that these behaviors were regarded “as possibly the most tell-tale indications of syphilis”.  Although Gurney was not demented by our modern standards, he might have been regarded as such in the early 1920s when another aspect of his behavior might be interpreted as “raving”.  When William Trethowan deposited Gurney’s medical records in the Gurney Archive, he apparently felt that there was something embarrassing or damaging in them because he stipulated that access to them be restricted until the year 2037, one hundred years after Gurney’s death. [Go back.]
43. Edmund Blunden, introduction to Poems of Ivor Gurney, Chatto & Windus, 1973, pp.22-23. [Go back.]
44. Hurd, ibid., p. 208. [Go back.]
45. Emil Kraepelin, Manic-Depressive Insanity and Paranoia, first published in Edinburgh by E&S Livingston in 1921; reprinted by the Arno Press of New York in 1976. [Go back.]
46. Eugen Bleuler, Textbook of Psychiatry, English edition, A. A. Brill, Macmillan, 1924. [Go back.]
47. Jamison, ibid., p. 107. [Go back.]
48. Helen Thomas’ account of her visit with Gurney appears in her memoir Under Storms Wing published by Carcanet in 1988. [Go back.]
49. Jamison, ibid., p. 96. [Go back.]
50. Thomas, ibid. [Go back.]

Medical Consultants

Dr. Joseph Corbo, Virginia
The late Dr. Harald Johnson, California and Massachusetts
Phyllis Sullivan, R.N., C.S. (Clinical Specialist in Adult Mental Health)
Karen Wheelock, MSW, Massachusetts


The Ivor Gurney Archive, Gloucester, England.

The Royal College of Music Library, London.

American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic Criteria, Washington, D.C. 1988.

Blevins, Pamela, Ivor Gurney and Annie Drummond: The Bright Light on the Edge of Darkness, London Magazine, London, Volume 32, Numbers 9 and 10, December/January, 1993.

Ivor Gurney: ‘There is dreadful hell within me...’British Music, The Journal of the British Music Society, Volume 19, 1997.

Blunden, Edmund, Poems of Ivor Gurney 1890-1937, with Bibliographical note by Leonard Clark, London: Chatto & Windus, 1973.

Claridge, Gordon; Pryor, Ruth, and Watkins, Gwen, Sounds for the Bell Jar Ten Psychotic Authors, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Malor Books, 1990, 1998.

Gurney, Ivor, The Collected Letters, edited by R.K.R. Thornton, MidNAG/Carcanet, 1991.

Collected Poems, edited by P. J. Kavanagh, Oxford University Press, 1984.
Best Poems and The Book of Five Makings, edited by R.K.R. Thornton and George Walter, MidNAG/Carcanet, 1995.
80 Poems or So, edited by R.K.R. Thornton and George Walter, MidNAG/Carcanet, 1997.
Rewards of Wonder, Poems of Cotswold, France, London, edited by George Walter, MidNAG/Carcanet 2000.

Hurd, Michael, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, Oxford University Press, 1978.

Jamison, Kay Redfield, Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, New York:  The Free Press, 1994.

An Unquiet Mind, A Memoir of Moods and Madness, New York:  Vintage Books, (Division of Random House), 1996.

Palmer, Christopher, Herbert Howells: A Centenary Celebration, London: Thames, 1992.

Ray, Don Brandon, Ivor Gurney: His Life and Works, MA Thesis, California State University, 1980.

Sandblom, Philip, Creativity and Disease, New York: Marion Boyars, revised edition, 1997.
Scott, Marion, The Musical Monthly Record, February, 1938.

Ivor Gurney, The Man, Music and Letters, January, 1938.
— Personal Notes, Royal College of Music.
— Letters, Royal College of Music.

Thomas, Helen, Under Storms Wing, Carcanet, 1988, pp. 239-241.

Trethowan, William, Ivor Gurney’s Mental Illness, Music and Letters, LXII, 1981.

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

Go to:
Response to Blevins: New Perspectives on Ivor Gurney’s Mental Illness

If you would like to respond to what Blevins has written here, or contribute other Perspectives, Opinions, or Commentary on Ivor Gurney, please write to: ivor@gurney.net
Subject to editorial review, responses will be posted on this site.

 To contact the Ivor Gurney webmaster,
write to David Kenneth Smith.
Ivor Gurney in 1915 -- Go to Top of Page
Bibliography | Biography | Books & Articles | Call for Help | Chronology | Contemporaries | Correspondence | Discuss | FAQ | Friends | Greeting Cards | Gurney Society | Home | Journal | Links | Music | Music Scores | New | Participate | Perspectives | Photo Album | Poetry | Poetry Books | Programs | Purpose | Questions | Recordings | Song Lyrics | Springs of Music | Thematic Catalogue | Today | Top | Towards a Bibliography | War Poetry | Who’s Who | Window & Gravestone | Works List

The Official Website of the Ivor Gurney Society