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A Short Analysis of Ivor Gurney’s ‘To God’

On a great poem by one of WWI’s overlooked war poets

Ivor Gurney is a relatively little-known poet of the First World War. Born in Gloucester in 1890, he served in the War from 1915 until 1917; he would spend most of his final years in the City of London Mental Hospital, dying in 1937. ‘To God’ was written after Gurney’s experiences in the First World War, and during his confinement, as the ‘four walls’ suggest in the poem’s second line. Here is ‘To God’, followed by a short analysis of its language and meaning.

To God

Why have you made life so intolerable
And set me between four walls, where I am able
Not to escape meals without prayer, for that is possible
Only by annoying an attendant. And tonight a sensual
Hell has been put on me, so that all has deserted me
And I am merely crying and trembling in heart
For death, and cannot get it. And gone out is part
Of sanity. And there is dreadful hell within me.
And nothing helps. Forced meals there have been and electricity
And weakening of sanity by influence
That’s dreadful to endure. And there is Orders
And I am praying for death, death, death,
And dreadful is the indrawing or out-breathing of breath
Because of the intolerable insults put on my whole soul,
Of the soul loathed, loathed, loathed of the soul.
Gone out every bright thing from my mind.
All lost that ever God himself designed.
Not half can be written of cruelty of man, on man,
Not often such evil guessed as between man and man.

‘To God’ is a powerful poem about mental illness, and Gurney has been overlooked in this respect as in many others: his is an important voice in early twentieth-century poetry written by those suffering from some sort of mental illness. In Gurney’s case, it was bipolar disorder. ‘To God’ is a cry for help, a cri de coeur.

As in the work of other war poets such as Wilfred Owen in ‘Futility’ or Isaac Rosenberg in ‘The Troop Ship’, Gurney takes a creative approach to rhyme in this poem. Although some lines rhyme conventionally, forming rhyming Ivor Gurney gravecouplets (heart/part, death/breath, mind/designed), other lines utilise simple repetition in place of rhyme (soul/soul, man/man). This creates an unpredictability to the lines, but it is the result of strict control on Gurney’s part. The repetition-as-rhyme suggests stasis, the repetition of his life in confinement, and his inability to free himself from it. ‘And I am praying for death, death, death’. Death, it would seem, is the only escape he can envision.

Indeed, the poem’s use of rhyme offers a valuable insight into what is going on inside Gurney’s head. Each of the rhyming couplets takes a part or property of the human body – the heart, the breath, the mind – while the ‘couplets’ which are actually straightforward repetition concern more abstract qualities: the metaphysical rather than physical, we might say. So soul is echoed by soul rather than some other rhyming word, just as man is paired with man. This raises questions about the other lines in the poem: is intolerable/able a traditional rhyme, or a more complex repetition of able? The poem unsettles our notions of rhyme, using (and undoing) poetry’s formalistic conventions to question the broader undoing of one man’s sanity, owing in no small part to what he had lived through during the War years.

Image: The grave of Ivor Gurney at Twigworth (photo credit: Chris Goddard, 2004), Wikimedia Commons.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on January 29, 2016, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. What a heart-rending poem. WW1 must have seemed like hell on earth to those poor men, and one from which they daily yearned for release, if not quick death. I love Ivor Gurney’s songs, and have sung quite a few of them in my time, as I also love George Butterworth’s musical settings of A.E. Houseman’s poems from The Shropshire Lad. So many amazing men lost in that war, cut short in their prime.

  2. A correction, if I may. Gurney was not “mentally scarred” by the war nor did the war undo his sanity. If anything the war proved to be his temporary salvation from the accelerating symptoms of the bipolar illness from which he had suffered starting in his teens. It was this illness that led to his incarceration in the City of London Mental Hospital in 1922, not the war. Of course he endured hardship and misery and saw the horrors that war inflicts on men, but he enjoyed a long stretches of stability and a leveling off of his mood swings. Gurney had already suffered on documented breakdown in 1913, long before he became a soldier. It has been claimed that he spent his asylum years reliving the war. This is also not true. Gurney wrote about many topics during those years; war was just one of them. His friend Marion Scott often found him “so sane in his insanity” when she visited him. The tragedy of Ivor Gurney is that he was the victim of an untreated illness that eventually washed over him “like a tide of darkness”, and from which he could find no escape once he was locked behind the sturdy walls of an asylum.

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