Monday, August 27, 2018

First Time In

Australian Division soldiers, 1917 (Frank Hurley)

For many soldiers, their first arrival at the front triggers a tangled mix of emotions: excitement, terror, detachment, awe. Ivor Gurney, a private from Gloucestershire who had given up his scholarship at the Royal College of Music to enlist, described his first night in the front line trenches of the Great War as “one of the notable evenings of my life” and one “of the happiest for years.”* Gurney was so moved by the experience that he wrote at least five letters describing it to his friends.** In the account he sent to Catherine Abercrombie, he wrote,
But we had not long to stay there or anywhere till we were marched here and put in trenches with another battalion for instruction.  They were Welsh, mostly, and personally I feared a rather rough type. But, oh the joy, I crawled into a dugout, not high but fairly large, lit by a candle, and so met four of the most delightful young men that could be met anywhere. Thin faced and bright eyed, their faces showed beautifully against the soft glow of the candlelight, and their musical voices delightful after the long march at attention in silence. There was no sleep for me that night.  I made up next day a little, but what then? We talked of Welsh folksong, of George Borrow, of Burns, of the RCM [Royal College of Music]; of—yes—of Oscar Wilde, Omar Khayyam, Shakespeare, and of the war: distant from us by 300 yards.  Snipers were continually firing, and rockets—fairy lights they call them: fired from a pistol—lit up the night outside. Every now and again a distant rumble of guns to remind us of the reason we were foregathered. They spoke of their friends dead or maimed in the bombardment a bad one, of the night before, and in the face of their grief I sat there and for once self-forgetful, more or less, gave them all my love, for their tenderness, their steadfastness and kindness to raw fighters and very raw signalers.

Candle-lit faces, fairy lights in the sky, softly sung folksongs – all less than 300 yards from the enemy, where artillery fires and snipers aim to kill.  Gurney wrote two poems about his encounter with the Welsh at the front, giving both the title “First Time In” this is the shorter of the two:†
Welsh Regiment, WWI

First Time In

After the dread tales and red yarns of the Line
Anything might have come to us; but the divine
Afterglow brought us up to a Welsh colony
Hiding in sandbag ditches, whispering consolatory
Soft foreign things. Then we were taken in
To low huts candle-lit shaded close by slitten 
Oilsheets, and there but boys gave us kind welcome;
So that we looked out as from the edge of home.
Sang us Welsh things, and changed all former notions
To human hopeful things. And the next days’ guns
Nor any Line-pangs ever quite could blot out
That strangely beautiful entry to War's rout;
Candles they gave us precious and shared over-rations—
Ulysses found little more in his wanderings without doubt.
'David of the White Rock,' the 'Slumber Song' so soft, and that
Beautiful tune to which roguish words by Welsh pit boys
Are sung—but never more beautiful than here under the guns’ noise.
            —Ivor Gurney

Gurney’s ear is that of a musician tuned to the soundscape of war: he notes the surface noise, but is struck by the melodies that lie underneath. The poem’s syntactic inversions (“Candles they gave us precious”) and echoing alliterations suggest the mood of an ancient fireside, where warriors gather to listen to the bard. And the deafening roar of the guns cannot mute the quiet beauty that whispers through the Welsh songs of home, but rather increases their power. Significantly, Gurney identifies one specific song, “David of the White Rock” (in Welsh, “Dafydd y Garreg Wen”).  Tradition has it that on his death bed, the music’s composer called for his harp and wrote the tune before dying at the age of twenty-nine. Lyrics were added a century later, relating a tale of beauty that is heightened by the nearness of death (I’ve included the English translation):

‘Bring me my harp,’ was David's sad sigh,
Ivor Gurney
‘I would play one more tune before I die.
Help me, dear wife, put the hands to the strings,
I wish my loved ones the blessing God brings.’
‘Last night an angel called with heaven’s breath:
“David, play, and come through the gates of death!”
Farewell, faithful harp, farewell to your strings,
I wish my loved ones the blessing God brings.’

In the letter in which he wrote about his encounter with the Welsh to his friend and mentor Marion Scott, Gurney closes with his own whispered consolation, attempting to find beauty and meaning in the death that surrounds him:
War’s damned interesting. It would be hard indeed to be deprived of all this artist’s material now; when my mind is becoming saner and more engaged with outside things. It is not hard for me to die, but a thing sometimes unbearable to leave this life; and these Welsh God makes fine gentlemen. It would seem that War is one of His ways of doing so.††
Gurney survived the war, but his sanity did not.  He spent the last fifteen years of his life in mental institutions, and when he died in 1937, he was buried in a Gloucester churchyard.  His original gravestone (later replaced after damage) simply states that he was “a lover and maker of beauty.”
* Ivor Gurney, letters to Herbert Howells and Marion Scott (June 1916).
** Pamela Blevins, Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott, Boydell, 2008, p. 98 (footnote 33). Scholars know of letters sent to Marion Scott, Ethel Voynich, Catherine Abercrombie, the Chapman family, and Herbert Howells.
† This version of the poem follows Marion’s Scott’s handwritten copy, dated 1920-1922 and shared by the First World War Poetry Digital Archive.  The original manuscript is held at the Gloucestershire Archives.
†† Ivor Gurney letter to Marion Scott.

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