Friday, July 3, 2015

To the Poet Before Battle - Ivor Gurney

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.

Ivor Gurney is known best today as a composer rather than a poet, but his poetic output was significant all throughout his life.  This is a poem of the Great War, the first world war, of which Gurney was a participant.  There were many poet soldiers in that war, and he seemed very concerned with the reputation of the poet not suffering from any sort of cowardice.  This is addressed to all poets before they fight, that they "Remember they great craft's honour, that they may say / Nothing in shame of poets."  Fight with bravery he says, and let your might and mettle be equal to those you honor in poetry.

Poets and poetry of the first world war run such a wide range of attitudes, styles, and goals.  Gurney seems to revel in the poetic glory of mass conflict.  There's very little of the grim description of battle that one might find in Sassoon's poetry or the misty eyed optimism of Rupert Brooke.  Rather, Gurney seems to acknowledge that war is indeed a terrible time, and yet for all that, he presents war in dramatic poetic terms.  Rolling drums, bugles' strident cries, these all stir the blood.  That's the point, I suppose.  I feel as though Gurney knew full well how terrible war was (he fought it, after all) but he did not want anyone to think of poet soldiers as anything less than heroes in their own right.

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