Saturday, 12 May 2012

An Anniversary and a Poetic Centenary

Although it was raised a few months ago by some members of the Gurney Society Committee, it has sort of passed me (and others!) by that this year marks the 75th anniversary of Gurney's death, passing away on Boxing Day, 26 December, 1937. Part of me thinks that the anniversary thing is rather a red herring: why can't composers and poets be marked at any time? – there is no requirement for there to be a calendrical accident to warrant putting on some sort of commemoration or celebration. A few ideas have been mooted for the December date, but falling on the day after Christmas rather limits options. I shall post on here with details of anything that happens.

One anniversary that is perhaps worth drawing attention to is the centenary of Gurney's first poetry, which falls about now. A squib of a verse dating from Easter 1907 has recently come to light in a book dedication in a volume presented by Gurney to Alfred Cheesman. However, the first 'proper' attempt at poetry that we have is a short thing called The Irish Sea:

The after glow slid out of Heaven,
Heavily arched the vault above,
Then round my bows, and in my gleaming
Wake, dim presences ’gan to move.

My boat sailed softly all the night,
Through wraiths and shapes of mystery,
But dawn brought once again to sight
The friendly and familiar sea.

This poem was sent to Gurney's boyhood friend F.W. Harvey in an undated letter, and a manuscript (again undated) of the poem is extant in the archive, which is annotated as being a homage to one of Gurney's great literary influences, Hilaire Belloc. While undated, the letter contains valuable internal evidence that allows us to put a date on the verse. Kelsey Thornton's invaluable volume of Gurney's Collected Letters - a book permanently at my side - dates the letter to June 1913, on account of a mention of Gurney's having just been to see the Abbey Theatre performing J.M. Synge's Playboy of the Western World at London's Court Theatre, which production ran at this theatre in the first week of June 1913. A few weeks ago I was preparing this poem for its inclusion in Tim Kendall and my edition of Gurney's complete poetry for OUP. Gurney's letter notes that the poem had just been rejected by The Eyewitness - a journal edited by Hilaire Belloc, to which fact Gurney draws attention on account of the poem having been written in homage to Belloc. When looking into Belloc I discovered that Belloc handed over the editorship The Eyewitness in June 1912, shortly following which it changed its name to The Witness. This didn't quite tally with the Abbey Theatre evidence, so I went back to the Court Theatre listings for 1912 and found that the same company presented the same play in the same week of that year: so we can now be sure that it was June 1912 in which Gurney was writing to Harvey. If by early June the poem had already been rejected by Belloc's Eyewitness, it must have been written some time before this, so this poem must have been written in around May 1912.

SO: while there may have been other poems before this first extant poem, and while Gurney's poetry began to flow in earnest whilst on army training in 1915, on the evidence we have we can say that around this time must fall the centenary of Gurney's first serious attempts to write poetry.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice to know something Irish was there from Gurney at the beginning!

Readers may like to know that my radio play THINK WELL,O SINGER, set in Twigworth at Gurney's grave, recently received a Zebbie Award Nomination from the Irish Playwrights and Screenwriters Guild. (link: http://script.ie/zebbies/z2012/ )

The recording by RTE, starring Ciaran Hinds and Brenda Blethyn, is available to hear at: http://www.rte.ie/radio1/drama/thinkwellosingerreport.html (there is a podcast if this is hard to access in the UK).

Karl O'Neill