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R.K.R. Thornton’s Review
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Review of John Lucas’s Ivor Gurney,
Writers and their Work

© 2001 by R.K.R. Thornton

    I’m not the person who is going to review this book impartially. As will become evident, I still resent the intensely personal and unprovoked attack in Lucas’s review of my edition of Gurney’s Letters in the TLS, a review which based its material substantially on the book and then turned to insult the editor. So I am not going to look at anything which he produces with an entirely unbiased eye. I’ll try to give this book the same hard and somewhat hostile treatment which he obviously thinks is part of the rough-and-tumble of scholarly debate.

    Indeed, it seems as if in this book his attacks continue, both overt and covert. He asserts in his ‘Select Bibliography’ that ‘there is as far as I am aware no full bibliography of Gurney’s poetic output, let alone his entire oeuvre, musical or literary. However, items appears [sic] from time to time in the Ivor Gurney Society Journal’ (p.108). Either he knows of Towards a Bibliography (1996) and wishes to slight it as not being ‘full’ (though it would have corrected some of his errors), or he does not, which suggests he is not well versed in the field of Gurney criticism. In the same book list, he takes a swipe at Best Poems and The Book of Five Makings, saying that ‘the ordering of the poems, which is conjecturable [sic], is highly questionable’. Unfortunately, the ordering in that book is Gurney’s. He has carelessly mistaken the book; he means to have a go at 80 Poems or So as he does in the text, taking his cue (and his idea) from Arnold Rattenbury. Gurney proposed no order for 80 Poems or So which is discoverable. Rattenbury and Lucas don’t like the order we chose, which was to group poems on roughly similar subjects. They don’t propose another order, or how any other order might be arrived at, they say the grouping produces ‘a book as unlikely as it is unlovely’ (a neat phrase of Rattenbury’s – used but unattributed by Lucas) and then go on to compare poems with similar subjects. The criticism seemed fair in Rattenbury’s piece; in Lucas’s book, the venom sours it.

    I was quite looking forward to some interesting discussion of Gurney. I was prepared to think that Lucas could be lively and sophisticated, and that the book, as the first full-length study, would be something one could recommend to students of Gurney and set subjects for debate. But I was disappointed. In some ways, of course, I was delighted to find that Lucas is not the critic he (along with reviewers selectively quoted on the back cover) thinks he is. The book is sloppy, blinkered, tendentious, lazy and derivative.

    I use those terms, not in his flippant and casual way, but seriously and with evidence.

    As far as ‘sloppy’ goes, there are the errors of transcription, approaching a hundred at a quick count. Usually small things (Lucas makes a point of the importance of small details), but the occasional word here and there missed out or put in, ‘me’ for ‘one’, ‘rattle’ for ‘whistle’ and so on; but a substantial number, and I’m not completely sure that I can check all of them because there’s very little attribution or annotation of where the quotations come from. From time to time there is an endnote, and some comments within the text, but it is only by finding which text the given one approximates to that one can guess what he is transcribing. There’s no sense that he is offering a new transcription from a manuscript. Indeed there is no sense that he has even seen a manuscript. The Gurney Archive does not get a mention in the Bibliography or in the Prefatory Note, and there is no evidence of knowledge of Gurney beyond the printed texts.

    When he writes of ‘First Time In’ for example, he says that Rennie Parker ‘who has studied the manuscript carefully, claims that the asterisk shouldn’t be there’ (p.53). Although he has praised her ‘important article’ (in volume 5 of the Journal), that word ‘claims’ suggests that there is a doubt. Why doesn’t he go and look and see for himself? Does he not know, or does he not care, or does he want to have the pleasure of casting doubt?

    There are many of these lazy, sloppy sections, which seem almost to be designed to fill up space, to get to the word-length. For example on page 31 he wonders where Gurney could have taken his use of the word ‘thing’ from in ‘To His Love’. Could it be Shakespeare? Could it be Hopkins? In parenthesis he adds ‘(though that depends on the exact dating of the poem and when he got hold of the copy of Hopkins’s poems, lent him by Haines)’. The poem, as anyone can find out, was written in or before January 1918 when it was sent in a postmarked letter to Marion Scott. Hopkins’s poetry was not published until much later in 1918, as a little effort would have discovered. (It wouldn’t take much more effort to make sure that he wouldn’t have found ‘thing’ with any sense like this in the Hopkins versions in Bridges’s Spirit of Man anthology, which Gurney knew well). Why the reference to Hopkins, when he’s going to say ‘but nobody taught him how to use the word with such extraordinary fervour’? It fills the space and gives a ‘literary’ look. In other words, it’s waffle.

    Lucas is fond of waffle, a sort of academic showing off, wandering at one stage for a couple of pages through Southey, Browning, Dickens, Owen, Randall Jarrell, Paul Nash landscape and Hemingway, presumably to indicate disenchantment with the war. ‘Nash’s disenchantment with the war was, it hardly needs saying, widely shared’ (p.83). It hardly did need saying, but he’s filled in a couple of pages saying it. There is a sense that this is a very tired book, written to a deadline and bodging together rather self-indulgent opinions, and second-hand material.

    That use of ‘second-hand’ and my earlier use of ‘derivative’ were not accidental and come from one of the two most serious deficiencies in the book (the other is its almost complete ignoring of music). It goes along with the lack of an acknowledgements page. There is no acknowledgement of copyright, no mention of the Gurney Estate (perhaps part of an assertion that property is theft, to go with his red Gurney). There is no evidence of familiarity with, or even an awareness of, the Gurney Archive. When Lucas chooses to acknowledge someone who has worked on Gurney, it is either to use their ideas or to sneer at them or more often both – Michael Hurd, for example. Hurd’s book is in the ‘Select Bibliography’ (it is always a good idea to have a ‘select’ bibliography because that exonerates you from revealing the gaps in your information) and is said to be ‘seriously out of date and is, besides, written by someone who has not much understanding of poetry’. One wonders why that nastiness of tone. Perhaps it is to separate him from the possibility that you might think he owes anything to Hurd’s book; or perhaps to disguise the fact that his own book is almost silent on and ‘has not much understanding of’ the music. Almost the only acknowledgement that Gurney was a musician comes in the comment on p. 35: ‘He was also writing music, but here I lack both space and competence to follow him.’ Let’s not blame it on space; that’s an excuse; space could easily have been found by cutting some of the waffle. But look at the evidence of his dependence on the dismissed Hurd. Let’s take the penultimate paragraph of Lucas’s book and put in capital letters all those words which coincide exactly (we’re not including paraphrase here) with Hurd’s account on pages 169-170 of The Ordeal:

    It could be said that the long, embittering and ultimately soul-destroying years of his incarceration made Gurney into a sacrificial animal. IN 1937 MARION SCOTT, with the ENCOURAGEment of the COMPOSERS GERALD FINZI AND HOWARD FERGUSON, WHO HAD NEVER MET GURNEY BUT WHO hugely admired his work as composer, managed to persuade the editors of MUSIC AND LETTERS to devote a large PART OF THE JANUARY 1938 ISSUE TO AN APPRECIATION OF his music. OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS agreed to PUBLISH TWENTY of his SONGS IN TWO-VOLUME format. By now, however, PULMONARY TUBERCULOSIS was running through Gurney’s body. PROOF COPIES OF MUSIC AND LETTERS WERE sent TO HIM, BUT Hurd says that HE WAS TOO WEAK even TO TAKE THE WRAPPING OFF THE PARCEL. ‘IT IS TOO LATE’, he said. HE DIED AT 3.45 ON THE MORNING of 26 December 1937.

    I suppose any narrative of Gurney’s end will have many of the same details, but not the same sentence order, and the same clause structure. Words are changed, as in the essays of lazy students; Hurd says proof copies were ‘rushed’ to him, Lucas that they were ‘sent’, but Hurd is right and Lucas ignorant, merely trying to disguise the crib, especially with that disingenuous reference to Hurd.

    The same lazy derivativeness occurs in the ‘Biographical Outline’. Anyone who wishes can compare what Lucas offers with the ‘Chronology’ of Best Poems and The Book of Five Makings. Obviously a brief biography in note form will have serious overlaps – there is only one life and the names and dates are the same – but the verbal similarities (nay identities) are too continuous for coincidence. Lucas’s tired schoolboy has again lazily compiled his book from an unacknowledged source and passed it off as his own. He does make some additional entries in his ‘Biographical Outline’, often to introduce mistakes, like suggesting Gurney published in The Listener in 1923, or turning Aubers Ridge into Aubers Bridge. In the entry for 1916, when he gets too lazy to provide all the detail, he simply refers the reader to the ‘Chronology’ in George Walter’s edition of Rewards of Wonder. There is a neat indication of the fact that this is cribbed rather than re-invented when it comes to Gurney’s first poems. Lucas’s ‘Biographical Outline’ follows Best Poems in saying that in 1913 Gurney ‘Begins to write verse. Suffers from nervous problems diagnosed as “neurasthenia”’ (Lucas uses this version word for word but with a capital letter for Neurasthenia – our author is nothing if not independent!). In the body of his text, where he is following The Ordeal, he says that ‘His first poems seem to belong to 1912’ (p.2). 1913 is probably right, but Lucas doesn’t know, or seem to have anything on which to base an opinion, but follows the book he is currently leaning on.

    Indeed it is a characteristic of the book that Lucas depends on others for his information and has little information to offer of his own. ‘Lacking as we do an up-to-date biography, the progress of Gurney’s thought can’t, I think, be traced with any degree of exactness’, he writes on p.44, seeming to assume that knowledge of Gurney’s thought must be in someone else’s work. I don’t notice elsewhere in the book a reluctance to tell us of Gurney’s thought! But he goes on breezily: ‘Nor does it much matter.’

    Fact does not seem to much matter to Professor Lucas. We are familiar by the end of the book with his jokey, self-deprecating attempts to dismiss the responsibility for basing his ideas on evidence, to sneer at others but to assume no responsibility himself. ‘I suspect he continued to think of himself as . . .’ (p.3); suspicion is easier than evidence. ‘Thornton and Walter don’t offer a possible date, but I’m pretty certain that the poem will have been written sometime in 1920’ (p.47); topics from 1920 potentially referred to in the poem are mentioned, but no argument that Gurney responded immediately to current events (‘Great poets, great creators are not much influenced by immediate events’, wrote Gurney in 1915, as Lucas should be aware, having quoted the comment on p.11). ‘I hope it isn’t twisting words unduly if I suggest that much of Gurney’s poetry seems to me to . . .’ (p.48); it is, of course, twisting words. ‘Gurney would almost certainly have encountered’ (p.49); ‘there may also be a glance at . . .’ (p,49); ‘“There may not,” said Pooh’. Page 84 is full of wooliness: ‘I don’t know. It’s possible’, ‘Gurney may be saying’, ‘This is speculation’; it is speculation, and not very interesting speculation at that, but it’s taken half a page.

    There is more speculation in the criticism. ‘My reading of this extraordinary poem is to some extent speculative’ (p.70) he writes when he has made heavy weather of ‘Sonnet. September 1922’. What he seems to mean is that he doesn’t have an inkling of what it is about, but he disguises this by a repetition of his assertion that Gurney’s poetry is not the work of a madman. At this point he seems to be suggesting that Gurney suffered from a political and not a medical condition. He had said on the previous page that ‘There is no point in denying that at this time Gurney was in a dreadfully disturbed state of mind, a danger to himself and damnably unpleasant to others. On the other hand, “Sonnet. September 1922” cannot be explained away as the incoherent ravings of an incurably sick man’ (p.69). The simple response to that attempt to explain the poem away (which, by the way, I don’t think any but the most crass would do in the crude terms in which he opposes it) would be to explicate the poem, which he patently does not do.

    ‘First Time In’ comes in for much attention, which it well deserves, but not quite in this way. Lucas is determined that Gurney will be a radical and the redder the better, so that ‘red’ is a word which stirs Lucas to sit up. Inevitably the first line of the poem gets a lot of attention: ‘After the dread tales and red yarns of the Line’. Lucas asks: ‘Do dread tales and red yarns oppose each other? Almost certainly. On the one hand, stories of war’s horror, on the other, of (who knows?) mutiny, resistance, of doing in the Prussians of England’ (p.52). I like the ‘almost’ get-out, and the disarming ‘who knows?’ Indeed, who does know? Certainly not Professor Lucas; but he is prepared to fill in gaps in the record if Gurney has been so careless as not to say anything on the topic: ‘There is nothing about these yarns in Gurney’s letter to Marion Scott. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they weren’t spoken – he had the official censor to consider in whatever he told her of trench talk’ (p.52). What Gurney and the Welsh soldiers actually spoke of was ‘Welsh Folksong, of George Borrow, of Burns, of the R. C. M.; of – yes – of Oscar Wilde, Omar Khayyam, Shakespeare and of the war’; and ‘They spoke of their friends dead or maimed in the bombardment, a bad one, of the night before’ (Letters, p.91). Lucas could have found all this if he had bothered to read all the letters about Gurney’s ‘First Time In’ rather than assume there was only one. If Gurney had had political things in mind, who better to speak of them to than Ethel Voynich, of whose revolutionary associations Lucas seems unaware? So determined is he not only that the soldiers would have been talking of mutiny and revolution, but also that Gurney is referring to it in this poem, that even the ‘roguish words’ that the Welsh pit boys put to a beautiful tune become for Lucas ‘just possibly “red” words’. ‘Roguish’ can only be pushed into that sort of meaning by someone who will ‘twist words unduly’. By the time he reaches the poem again, when he is considering Rewards of Wonder, things have modified a little (I don’t suppose he read back through the earlier part of the book to check – it would not have been a pleasure). By now:

    ‘War’s rout’ means both the noise and confusion of war and ‘A large party or social gathering’. The possibilities of such a rout are, I suggest, contained in ‘red yarns’, for though that can be taken to mean tales of horrid mutilation (‘that red, wet thing’) it can as well mean tales of socialist defiance, of making a new world out of the ruins of the old one (p.91).

    The ‘almost certainly’ has gone.

    There are other incredible twistings of words unduly. At the end of ‘The Road’ Gurney insists that the problems of the people of Whitechapel and the Mile End Road could not be avoided by travel, as if there is no golden land.

Young souls are fleshed there
And tyrant immeshed there
As in Athens or Ukraine
And the heart hurts the brain
Or the spirit is lashed there,
And thought is as vain,
Hope constant, and smashed there,
As away a day’s journey by train.
    Lucas tells us, apropos of this passage, that the poem ‘acknowledges that their dreams of immeshing tyrants are repeatedly smashed. Yet a new world is reachable: as near or far, as a day’s journey by train’ (p.47). What fuels this lavish misreading is revealed in the next paragraph: ‘Could anyone reading the poem in 1923 have been unaware of the train journey that had brought Lenin to revolutionary power?’ By the next page, the misreading has become simply accepted: ‘in “The Road” revolutionary energy seems only a day’s train-ride away’ (p.48). Does one need to argue with that level of foolishness?

    There is an index, somewhat perfunctory, not indexing the poems written about, and adding its own mistake or two.

    I should say that there are some reasonable comments in the book. The notion of Gurney as a communist of the type that Hopkins calls himself in the ‘red’ letter is not ridiculous; and the enthusiasm for Gurney and the picture of him as an alternative to the generally accepted line of development of English poetry in the twenties are fine. But this is Gurney without the music, frog-marched into the party, read (do I mean ‘red’?) in the image of the critic rather than for himself. The last sentence of the book, asserting that Gurney should be recognised as ‘one of the finest poets of the twentieth century’, I can agree with wholeheartedly. I don’t see this book will help to bring that about.

R.K.R. Thornton

To Respond . . . . If you would like to respond to what is 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.
R.K.R. Thornton’s Review
Wendy French’s Review
Desmond Graham's Review
Back to Perspectives


Further Thoughts on John Lucas’s Book

© 2001 by Wendy French

    While new to Gurney as an area for study I had looked forward to the publication of Lucas’ book hoping it would stimulate my questioning about Gurney’s life and work. However, I am sorry to say that I found the book disappointing for a number of reasons and that was before I had even read K. Thornton’s review in this discussion group.

    For me, the most crucial question is: Who was the book aimed at?  If the book was written for an audience new to Gurney then the book does not provide enough detail about Gurney’s life. It pre-supposes that the reader knows certain facts i.e. in the first chapter Lucas states that when war broke out Gurney volunteered for military service but was turned down. Lucas does not state why this was so and therefore anyone unaware of Gurney’s short sightedness would be left guessing. I also think that the issue of Gurney’s physical short sightedness in relation to his genius for composing and some of his poetry are interesting areas for debate. On the other hand if the book was written for Gurney scholars or enthusiasts then there is not enough new or interesting argument to keep the reader on board. Lucas often quotes from other writers on Gurney, particularly Michael Hurd, but does not add any fresh interpretation on their observations. Some of the material is second hand and not Lucas’ own work. Indeed Lucas is sometimes dismissive and often condemning of work previously published. This worried me as I have been taught to question past knowledge in the light of new evidence and current thinking but not too outwardly condemn past scholarship. Ideas change with the politics of the day and so new questions arise from old texts. Lucas has an arrogant tone and seems to enjoy mocking his colleagues. I do not feel at all comfortable with this approach.

    The style of the book alternates between a formal and informal approach. In places the text is inaccurate. One example of this is where Lucas states and I quote, “no other poet has spoken with such grieving, angry eloquence about the after effects  of war on the soldiers themselves as has Gurney.” Obvious names immediately come to mind e.g. Owen, Sassoon, to challenge this statement. Another point to challenge is the remark by Lucas that Gurney’s poem, “The Escape,” has nothing to do with Gurney wishing to escape from the hospital. And again, I quote, “Not even the title has to be thought of as voicing his desire for freedom from Stone House.” I would be interested to hear Lucas’ views on the material in the Gurney Archive at Gloucester. The poem was probably written around 1923 and there is information in the Archive that suggests Gurney was in a distressed and agitated frame of mind around this time, and so more likely to be concerned with his own welfare, rather than the uprising of socialism or the state of housing in Britain.

    There is no reference throughout the book to the work of Thornton and Walter’s, “Towards A Bibliography,” or indeed, to the Archive. As I mentioned earlier some of the material is based on second hand quotations and not even attributed to the author. The last few sentences in the book refer to Gurney’s death, “Hurd says that he (Gurney) was too weak even to take the wrapping off the parcel.” With the greatest respect to Michael Hurd he wasn’t with Gurney when he was dying  but researched his information, but Lucas does not say where Hurd’s research came from.

    My final question is: What is the purpose of the book? Is it to convince the reader that Gurney was not mad but a great socialist and therefore very much misunderstood? If that is so then we all have need of the straitjacket that Lucas refers to on Page 83.

    These are just a few initial thoughts.

Wendy French

To Respond . . . . If you would like to respond to what is 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.
R.K.R. Thornton’s Review
Wendy French’s Review
Desmond Graham's Review
Back to Perspectives


“A Mild and Generous Review”*
(*Thornton’s words, from the Editorial of the 2001 Journal)

© 2001 by Desmond Graham

[The following is reprised from Desmond Graham’s “Reviews,” Ivor Gurney Society Journal 7 (2001): 117-8.]

John Lucas’s Ivor Gurney, Writers and their Work. Northcote House/ British Council, Tavistock, Devon, 2001.  pp. xiv and 114.  L9.99/[$21.00]

    Pleasure at the recognition of Gurney’s worth which is indicated by his inclusion in the Writers and their Work series, is offset by the extent to which John Lucas misses the chance of putting him firmly on the map.  Lucas’s Ivor Gurney is at best a quirky, personal offering.  His representation of a politically left wing Gurney within a context of thought contemporary to him made a usefully provocative article when it appeared in this journal.  Re-served here, as the centre of a short book, the argument looks thinner and more a matter of opinion.  It provides an inappropriately contentious basis on which to introduce Gurney to the general reader.

    Around the material of the article, we get a review of Rewards of Wonder which admits to its own sketchiness; background comment about the First World War and its poetry which sometimes takes shape from what happens to be on the author’s shelves; a page or two which makes good use of Eric Leed; and a little bit from a Rattenbury review which provides shelter under which Lucas can snipe at the work of Walter and Thornton — as if editing could be debated as a matter of opinion rather than a matter of principle and evidence (a view not helped by Lucas’s unawareness of the existing Gurney Bibliography).  Such eccentricities could have had charm if written with modesty, but the book is written in the manner of ‘teacher’: his opinions are authoritative, his inclusions and omissions are justified because they are his.  In any case, this is a book for a series widely read by those who have access to no other work on the author.  For many it will be not only their first but their only introduction to Gurney.  Such a book ought to have included more simple, accurate information: about Gurney the musician, about his letters, about the editions and the reception of his work in the last twenty years.  Instead we have the arbitrary, the casual and the unrefined.  On pp. 92-3 Lucas quotes eight lines from Gurney’s ‘Billet’ (‘I wish to bloody Hell I was just going to Brewery . . .’) then quotes fifteen lines from e e cummings’s famous ‘my sweet old etcetera’.  He then comments: ‘There’s an obvious link between cummings’s ribaldry and the thoughts of Gurney’s private’.  There is no link between the thoughts of Gurney’s, as usual and so markedly, innocent private and cummings’s ribaldry.  The word ‘obvious’ is there to lead the submissive student to anticipate the enlightenment of the master.  More pause for thought, more care, more rigorous use of the small space available, and, perhaps, more respect for the series, could have made an appropriate first small book on Gurney.

Desmond Graham,
University of Newcastle upon Tyne

To Respond . . . . If you would like to respond to what is 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.
R.K.R. Thornton’s Review
Wendy French’s Review
Desmond Graham's Review
Back to Perspectives

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