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A sentry hardly waking

Ivor Gurney’s plain style reflected the common view of life during wartime

Ed. Note: November 2018 marks 100 years since the end of World War I. The San Diego Reader will devote this month’s poetry columns to the poets who wrote about their experiences of that war.

Bach and the Sentry

  • 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?

Ballad of the Three Spectres

  • As I went up by Ovillers
  •    In mud and water cold to the knee,
  • There went three jeering, fleering spectres,
  •    That walked abreast and talked of me.
  • The first said, ‘Here’s a right brave soldier
  •    That walks the dark unfearingly;
  • Soon he’ll come back on a fine stretcher,
  •    And laughing for a nice Blighty.’
  • The second, ‘Read his face, old comrade,
  •    No kind of lucky chance I see;
  • One day he’ll freeze in mud to the marrow,
  •    Then look his last on Picardie.’
  • Though bitter the word of these first twain
  •    Curses the third spat venomously;
  • ‘He’ll stay untouched till the war’s last dawning
  •    Then live one hour of agony.’
  • Liars the first two were. Behold me
  •    At sloping arms by one – two – three;
  • Waiting the time I shall discover
  •    Whether the third spake verity.

Strange Hells

  • There are strange Hells within the minds War made
  • Not so often, not so humiliating afraid
  • As one would have expected - the racket and fear guns made.
  • One Hell the Gloucester soldiers they quite put out;
  • Their first bombardment, when in combined black shout
  • Of fury, guns aligned, they ducked low their heads
  • And sang with diaphragms fixed beyond all dreads,
  • That tin and stretched-wire tinkle, that blither of tune;
  • ‘Apres la guerre fini’ till Hell all had come down,
  • Twelve-inch, six-inch, and eighteen pounders hammering Hell’s thunders.
  • Where are they now on State-doles, or showing shop patterns
  • Or walking town to town sore in borrowed tatterns
  • Or begged. Some civic routine one never learns.
  • The heart burns - but has to keep out of face how heart burns. 
Ivor Gurney

Ivor Gurney (28 August 1890 – 26 December 1937) was an English composer and one of the War Poets of World War I. Like his contemporary and fellow War Poet Isaac Rosenberg, Gurney served as a regular soldier (not an officer) during the war, and his plain style reflected the common view of life during wartime that he and his fellow private soldiers experienced in the trenches. In April 1917, he was wounded in the shoulder, and after recovering, returned to battle. In September of the same year, he was gassed, which may have exacerbated his already frail mental condition, and served the remainder of the war in England.

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Ed. Note: November 2018 marks 100 years since the end of World War I. The San Diego Reader will devote this month’s poetry columns to the poets who wrote about their experiences of that war.

Bach and the Sentry

  • 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?

Ballad of the Three Spectres

  • As I went up by Ovillers
  •    In mud and water cold to the knee,
  • There went three jeering, fleering spectres,
  •    That walked abreast and talked of me.
  • The first said, ‘Here’s a right brave soldier
  •    That walks the dark unfearingly;
  • Soon he’ll come back on a fine stretcher,
  •    And laughing for a nice Blighty.’
  • The second, ‘Read his face, old comrade,
  •    No kind of lucky chance I see;
  • One day he’ll freeze in mud to the marrow,
  •    Then look his last on Picardie.’
  • Though bitter the word of these first twain
  •    Curses the third spat venomously;
  • ‘He’ll stay untouched till the war’s last dawning
  •    Then live one hour of agony.’
  • Liars the first two were. Behold me
  •    At sloping arms by one – two – three;
  • Waiting the time I shall discover
  •    Whether the third spake verity.

Strange Hells

  • There are strange Hells within the minds War made
  • Not so often, not so humiliating afraid
  • As one would have expected - the racket and fear guns made.
  • One Hell the Gloucester soldiers they quite put out;
  • Their first bombardment, when in combined black shout
  • Of fury, guns aligned, they ducked low their heads
  • And sang with diaphragms fixed beyond all dreads,
  • That tin and stretched-wire tinkle, that blither of tune;
  • ‘Apres la guerre fini’ till Hell all had come down,
  • Twelve-inch, six-inch, and eighteen pounders hammering Hell’s thunders.
  • Where are they now on State-doles, or showing shop patterns
  • Or walking town to town sore in borrowed tatterns
  • Or begged. Some civic routine one never learns.
  • The heart burns - but has to keep out of face how heart burns. 
Ivor Gurney

Ivor Gurney (28 August 1890 – 26 December 1937) was an English composer and one of the War Poets of World War I. Like his contemporary and fellow War Poet Isaac Rosenberg, Gurney served as a regular soldier (not an officer) during the war, and his plain style reflected the common view of life during wartime that he and his fellow private soldiers experienced in the trenches. In April 1917, he was wounded in the shoulder, and after recovering, returned to battle. In September of the same year, he was gassed, which may have exacerbated his already frail mental condition, and served the remainder of the war in England.

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