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Ivor Gurney’s “To His Love”
November 11, 2013 | by Glyn Maxwell
In honor of Veterans Day, we are re-running this favorite post.
In the last century, a few years of sodden slaughter in France and Flanders turned British poetry from Keatsian lyricism to raw, aghast reportage. Isaac Rosenberg’s poems, for instance, moved from prewar patriotic exultation—“Flash, mailed seraphim, / Your burning spears”—to, three years later, this numb, bone-dry mutter from the trenches: “Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew / Your cosmopolitan sympathies.”
In Ivor Gurney’s “To His Love” you see the thing happening not in mid-career but in mid-poem—between lines, in a line break, specifically the last one. It’s the most astonishing line break I’ve ever encountered. It’s the sound of a culture’s poetic history cracking in half.
“To His Love” begins as an almost doggedly traditional elegy, with the Byronic echo of “We’ll walk no more on Cotswold.” It meanders through rivers, beasts, flowers, and the old tropes—nobility, “pride,” “memoried.” We are lulled into thinking that the urgency of “Cover him, cover him soon!” arises from intense soldierly love, rather than the desperate need to hide a shredded corpse, that “red, wet / Thing.” The euphemistic Latinate décor is stripped away; the haplessly tall T does it’s pitiful duty by the form, like a Tommy too shell-shocked to hide, a standing target.
The fragile Gurney was gassed and traumatized by the war, and he lived out his days in asylums. I never forget this poem of never forgetting:
He’s gone, and all our plans
Are useless indeed.
We’ll walk no more on Cotswolds
Where the sheep feed
Quietly and take no heed.
His body that was so quick
Is not as you
Knew it, on Severn River
Under the blue
Driving our small boat through.
You would not know him now …
But still he died
Nobly, so cover him over
With violets of pride
Purple from Severn side.
Cover him, cover him soon!
And with thick-set
Masses of memoried flowers—
Hide that red wet
Thing I must somehow forget.
Glyn Maxwell’s most recent book, One Thousand Nights and Counting: Selected Poems, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in September.
It reminds me of some of the verses in A Shropshire Lad - the ones that appear innocent, poetic, bucolic, but then have a sharpness, a searing sadness that appears in just the last few lines which re-colours all the preceding words and means that you now have to read the whole poem again several times to re-evaluate all that is there.