Thursday, October 22, 2015

Bach and the Sentry

Ivor Gurney
A previous post on this blog was titled “Watching the war in the dark.” It featured the poem “War Film” by Teresa Hooley, which imagines a young mother who sits in a theatre and views a documentary about the war, “With a catch of the breath and the heart's uplifting,/ Sorrow and pride.”

Today’s post could also be titled “Watching the war in the dark,” but this poem is written by musician-turned-soldier Ivor Gurney, who before the war was recognized as a prodigy at the Royal College of Music in London.  In "Bach and the Sentry," Gurney  imagines a man who takes his turn on sentry duty, standing on the firestep of the trench and gazing out over No Man’s Land. 

An Observer, E. Handley Read
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 178)
On the Western Front, opposing armies faced each other from distances that typically ranged from 100 – 300 yards, although in some areas, the opposing trenches were separated by less than 20 yards.  Men lived under the constant threat of sniper fire and night surprise attacks, and so all soldiers rotated shifts at sentry duty. Because it was so very easy to fall asleep while staring into the blackness, military regulations required that sentries be relieved every two hours.  The official penalty for sleeping on sentry duty was death by firing squad. 

Bach and the Sentry
Ivor Gurney

Watching the dark my spirit rose in flood
On that most dearest Prelude of my delight.
The low-lying mist lifted its hood,
The October stars showed nobly in clear night.

When I return, and to real music-making,
And play that Prelude, how will it happen then?
Shall I feel as I felt, a sentry hardly waking,
With a dull sense of No Man's Land again? 

The poem captures the brief moment when remembered notes of classical music sing into the tense and lonely boredom of sentry duty.  Sounding of hope and delight, memories of Bach’s “dearest Prelude give life to the deadened scene before the sentry:   the mist assumes the form of a pilgrim traveler and lifts its hood to so that it can be seen and known, and the stars grace the night sky with a majestic and dignified presence.   

The music causes the sentry to dare to contemplate survival -- not "if" but "when" he returns to a world where Bach’s Prelude can ring out on instruments, rather than echoing in a solitary man’s mind.  And yet….although the music will be unchanged, the man who has experienced The Great War fears that he will forever hear the notes differently, as the music cannot help but recall the exhaustion and loneliness of nights spent staring into No Man’s Land.    

Gurney did survive the war, but he returned a changed man.  By 1922, four years after the war’s end, he had attempted suicide several times and was committed to a private asylum near his home in Gloucester.  Twice he attempted to escape, and after being recaptured for the second time, he was moved to an asylum near London.  Helen Thomas, the widow of Edward, the dead war poet, visited Gurney at the Dartford asylum and described finding "a tall gaunt dishevelled man clad in pyjamas and dressing gown."  Gurney never left the asylum, but died there in 1937.  Buried in his beloved Gloucester, his gravestone reads, “To the Dear Memory of Ivory Gurney, Musician and Poet, A Lover and Maker of Beauty.” 
You can click on the above video to listen to Bach's Prelude in G Minor.  In the spring of 1917, Ivor Gurney wrote that Bach's Prelude in G Minor “sticks to me in solemn moments.”  He added that while it might qualify as the “dearest Prelude,” the poem wasn't written about a specific composition. 


  1. Not sure I understand this poem at all. Your explanation is beautiful and I really like listening to the Prelude. Also love the painting. Poetry is VERY hard for me. Give me more music and art!!

  2. "All I want is — guerre fini, soldat fini; and to go home without burden of any thought save music, and hard swot for a time."

    Gurney in a letter to Marion Scott August 24 1918

    The war did end and Gurney went home. But of course the war stayed with him for the rest of his life.