The poets and the World War: "The Silent One" by Ivor Gurney

Ivor Gurney (1890-1937)
Ivor Gurney is one of the rare figures to join a work of poetry and a work of music. We should keep this in mind while reading today his books and the wonderful poem we selected (see where he writes "And thought of music" in the poem). The Silent One can be considered today the Great War in compendium: the difference between being dead or still alive, the scourge of war, the trap of overwhelming barbed wires, the feeling between comrades and the relation between different levels of the army, the nightmarish journeys through the no man's land, the contrast between friendly tones and the "finicking accent" of orders, the torment of recalling a familiar voice ("Bucks accent") now silenced forever, the alternation between dialogues and the whizz of weapons, the contrast between past memories and future possibilities in the bleak present of the fight. Beside all these things (and beside all the things that each reader can find in such short and rich poem) there's one extra important thing that could be pointed out: we could call it proprioception in poetry, the great awareness of the body's position often recalled in writing. Similar to what we experienced in the poem by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson we posted here a few months ago, what emerges from a comprehensive analysis of the Great War poets is the new entry of proprioception in the verses. It's not only an English thing, we can find this in the Italian poets or in the French ones. It's not the first time that poetry discovers the centrality of body and proprioception (think about Dante in the Divine Comedy). But a global rethinking of the First World War poetry is today allowed thanks to this new category and is probably sorely needed, maybe under a comparative umbrella. Try to recall the war poems you know. Maybe an idea for a conference and a call for papers...


Who died on the wires, and hung there, one of two–
Who for his hours of life had chattered through
Infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent:
Yet faced unbroken wires; stepped over, and went
A noble fool, faithful to his stripes– and ended.
But I weak, hungry, and willing only for the chance
Of line– to fight in the line, lay down under unbroken
Wires, and saw the flashes and kept unshaken,
Till the politest voice– a finicking accent, said:
‘Do you think you might crawl through there: there’s a hole.’
Darkness shot at: I smiled, as politely replied–
‘I’m afraid not, Sir.’ There was no hole no way to be seen,
Nothing but chance of death, after tearing of clothes.
Kept flat, and watched the darkness, hearing bullets whizzing–
And thought of music– and swore deep heart’s deep oaths
(Polite to God) and retreated and came on again,
Again retreated– and a second time faced the screen.

(From Collected Poems by Ivor Gurney)

Here is the link to the poem's manuscript in "The First World War Poetry Digital Archive" of the University of Oxford, an essential source for all people studying and reading the "war poetry".