you’ve probably followed some commemorations of WWI this weekend. I couldn’t help but find one of the WWI poets for our reading today. We’ve read several of them (mostly British, but some American) over the years, but can’t recall if we’ve looked at Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) before. He was also a composer, and even before enlisting in WWI, had suffered nervous breakdowns. He was wounded twice in the war, the 2nd time by poison gas.
WWI is seen as definitive break with the world that came before, partially because of new technologies (machine guns, tanks, poison gas) that made the horrors of combat more vivid (Along with, of course, the scope of the war). And the WWI poets, faced directly with that imagery, pushed writing about the battlefield past the patriotic complacencies of prior war poetry.
This example, however, retreats a bit from the responsibility of the poet to depict the horrors of the battlefield. It is, instead, a stately sonnet (ABBA ABBA CDE CDE) that speaks unironically about the skill, might, mettle, and honur of the craft, and of the military action. Unless I’m reading it wrong — this is my first time with Ivor Gurney since using a big anthology for Brit Lit in about 1992. Have a good week,
TO THE POET BEFORE BATTLE
Now, youth, the hour of thy dread passion comes;
Thy lovely things must all be laid away;
And thou, as others, must face the riven day
Unstirred by rattle of the rolling drums,
Or bugles’ strident cry. When mere noise numbs
The sense of being, the sick soul doth sway,
Remember thy great craft’s honour, that they may say
Nothing in shame of poets. Then the crumbs
Of praise the little versemen joyed to take
Shall be forgotten; then they must know we are,
For all our skill in words, equal in might
And strong of mettle as those we honoured; make
The name of poet terrible in just war,
And like a crown of honour upon the fight.