Psychological Damage


‘To His Love’

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.

NOTES

This poem is a monologue, in which one soldier speaks to the fiancé or girlfriend of a dead soldier of his death— mourning his loss and regretting that he will never have the pleasure of the dead soldier’s company again. The poem was inspired by the supposed death of Ivor Gurney’s best friend Willy Harvey in August 1916. Reality told a happier story than the drama described in the poem: Harvey was not in fact killed, but had been made a prisoner of war, returning to his fiancé Sarah Kane at the end of the war.

STRUCTURE NOTE: Four stanzas of five lines, comprising three lines of free verse (ABC) and a rhyming couplet (DD). One of the most interesting things about this poem, however, is its exemplary use of alliteration (repetition of consonants for effect) and assonance (repetition of vowel sounds for effect). It is a musical poem, structured by soft sound, throughout using the ‘oh’, ‘oo’, ‘uh’ sounds denoted by the letter ‘O’, but also using ‘I’ and ‘E’ sounds to create different effects. For example, the effect of the varied ‘O’ sounds is mournful; the drawn-out vowels of ‘Ee’ slow the pace of the poem down. Alliteration, found in all four stanzas, also provides an elusive rhythm to the poem. In the first verse, for example, sibilance gives the opening a sound of susurration, of whispering.

Ivor Gurney: A Gloucester man, Ivor Gurney was a talented young composer before joining the army in 1914, seemingly destined for success. He was bipolar and suffered from manic depression. He loved the Gloucester countryside and would go on ecstatic walks there, but also had two major nervous breakdowns, the first before the war (1913) and the second at the very end of the war (1918). He was suicidal during both and was discharged in 1918. His life was tragic after the end of the war: he was admitted to an insane asylum in 1922 and stayed there until he died in 1937.

To His Love: The poem addresses the lover of the soldier who has died.

“He’s gone… useless indeed”: A blunt and mournful statement of loss; a sense that all earlier plans have been destroyed.

“We’ll walk no more on Cotswold / Where the sheep feed / Quietly…”: the Cotswolds are a famously beautiful part of the English countryside, near where Gurney grew up. Like many of the WWI poets, nature and the countryside provided consoling memories and inspiration, when contrasted to the horrors of war.

“so quick”: quick here takes its older meaning, ‘full of life’.

“His body… is not as you knew it”: The sinister connotations of this euphemism— that the soldier’s body has been maimed or blown apart— provides a grisly hint of what has happened to the soldier at the hands of mechanized weapons, probably shelling.

“on Severn river / Under the blue…”: A powerful contrast between this peaceful image and the horror of what has happened to the soldier. Peaceful and horrific memories struggle with each other here (the Severn is the river that runs through Gloucestershire. Gurney contrasted two rivers in the title of his first poetry collection, Severn and Somme, with broadly the same meaning).

“You would not know him now…”: The ellipsis here seems to suggest that the speaker doesn’t want to pursue that description of the soldier’s body when talking to his lover. Note the subdued tone the varying ‘O’ sounds give the line; and the way the the ‘n’s give the line a stuttering rhythm. This ingenious use of alliteration and assonance can be traced throughout the poem.

“he died / Nobly”: the speaker quickly turns from thinking of the dead body to the noble manner of his death– doing his duty with chivalry.

“cover him over / With violets of pride / Purple”: The flowers will cover him like a shroud. The purple of the violets, like the soldier “from Severn side”, symbolise pride as purple is a colour associated with kingship.

“Cover him, cover him soon!”: The exclaimed repetition of ‘cover him’ shows the desperation and revulsion of the speaker.

“with thick-set / Masses of memoried flowers—” The flowers must cover him ‘thickly’ to hide the horror of the body underneath. Memories of the man fight against the traumatic image of the maimed body: the flowers symbolising happier times on the Severn. This is also, in psychological terms, an account of what Freud termed repression: to turn away from, censor or bury a memory.

“Hide that red wet  / Thing”: The imprecision of description of the ‘red wet Thing’— his friend’s bloody and maimed body— suggests the unspeakable violence done to it.

“I must somehow forget”: The last word demonstrates the tension between remembrance and forgetting that the poem says is necessary for all soldiers who have seen the consequences of bloody combat.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: Gurney is among the group of British Soldier-Poet ‘greats’ that Stallworthy places together in the middle of his selection of WWI poets. His biography seems important to this selection: Gurney’s subsequent madness makes this a poignant choice of a poem about dealing with the horrors of war; the musicality of the poem, with its use of assonance and alliteration, is also appropriate to the life of this composer.]

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‘Little Song of the Maimed’

Lend me your arm
To replace my leg
The rats ate it for me
At Verdun
At Verdun
I ate a lot of rats
But they didn’t give me back my leg
And that’s why I was given the Croix de Guerre
And a wooden leg
And a wooden leg

NOTES

This is a highly critical— and political poem. It uses the black humour and flippancy often found in popular soldier songs and folk songs to oppose the glorification of war. It insists on the obscenity of war and the injuries it causes: ‘Maimed’ is the key word here.

STRUCTURE NOTE: This is a little like a marching song, with subversive lyrics. The repetition mimics marching and is bluntly shocking.

Benjamin Peret: Peret, like Apollinaire, fought for France during the war. Later, he became a surrealist (after spending some time as a Dada artist, an avant-garde art movement that embraced the absurd). This accounts for some of the odd, comic gestures in the poem: the Surrealists and Dadaists believed that life was only to be understood by embracing the unconscious and the nonsensical.

Little Song of the Maimed: A child-like title for a grim subject matter: ironic, sardonic and pretending to be naïve.

“Lend me your arm / to replace my leg…”: the poem begins with a horrible, foolish request: it is meant to be funny, as if the logic of exchange in the daily world could be extended to parts of one’s own body. Of course, it can’t. Note the direct, second person address of this poem– it is intended to be discomfiting for the reader, even confrontational.

“The rats ate it for me / at Verdun.” A grim account of a lost leg being eaten by the ubiquitous rats of the front line. Verdun is to the French what the Somme was to the British: a catastrophic battle that led to tens of thousands of dead, for no appreciable gain.

“I ate lots of rats…”: The madness of the narrator’s perspective is revealed, and again he has a peculiar idea of equivalence: he thinks that if he eats rats like they ate his leg, he will somehow get his leg back. Again, the world plainly does not work according to this odd logic.

“And that’s why I was given the CROIX DE GUERRE: the absurdity extends to the reasoning for the injured man receiving a medal from the French government— as if the loss of a leg were somehow equivalent to being given a ‘Cross of War’. The very idea, this patriotic trade-off a leg for national honour, is portrayed as quite as mad as his previous rantings.

“and a wooden leg / and a wooden leg.”: the poem ends with that marching rhythm, which is now, ironically, pointless: who can march with a wooden leg?

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: The selection of these two famous surrealists adds a further international variety to the collection. Stallworthy plainly felt that it was important not only to have non-British voices but also avant-garde modernist works in his collection. The question is whether this adventurous, or more of a token gesture.]