On a great poem by one of WWI’s overlooked war poets – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
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.
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 couplets (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.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: The grave of Ivor Gurney at Twigworth (photo credit: Chris Goddard, 2004), Wikimedia Commons.