As Long as Cotswold's High or Severn's Deep: Ivor Gurney and FW Harvey's Love of Home - Kathryn's history blog

Sunday, 5 May 2019

As Long as Cotswold's High or Severn's Deep: Ivor Gurney and FW Harvey's Love of Home


In the war poetry of both Ivor Gurney and FW Harvey, their mutual love of their Gloucestershire home shines through, intensifying as their separation from their beloved county grew. Having grown up in Gloucestershire myself, their vivid images of 'forest and vale and high blue hill' often make me homesick, even if I am only at university on the other side of the Cotswolds. I'm sure it is nothing compared with that which they felt during the war, stationed in a foreign land, unknowing if they would see home again.

Gurney and Harvey were educated together at King's School in Gloucester and shared a friendship which in their pre-war years often found them walking in the countryside together, usually alongside their friend the composer Herbert Howells. They served separately in the Gloucestershire Regiment during the war: Gurney with 2/5th battalion from 1915, serving on the Somme before being gassed near Ypres in 1917 and invalided out; Harvey with 1/5th as a pre-war territorial, awarded the DCM and commissioned following his bravery in trench raids, before being taken prisoner at the Battle of the Somme. Yet they retained their connection, with Gurney dedicating a number of his poems to Harvey both during and after the war.

But their greatest connection is seen through their poetry, of their shared love of the Gloucestershire countryside. Harvey declared in his 1916 poem 'In Flanders' the lines 'I'm homesick for my hills again - My hills again! Cotswold or Malvern, sun or rain! My hills again!' On the flat lands of France and Flanders it was his wish to be able 'to see above the Severn plain' again, a wish shared by Gurney in 'Strange Service'. He longed for his homeland 'under the Cotswold hills', a favoured landscape in which they were 'not only hills, but friends of mine', so familiar and reassuring he could be 'safe in its bosem'.
The River Severn at Framilode
My love of the Gloucestershire landscape largely comes from cycling its lanes and hills and I can clearly envisage the views described by the poets, of the beautiful vistas off of the Cotswold escarpment and the blue skies lighting up the Severn plain. In 'The Strong Thing' Gurney talks of his post-war dream to 'marvel how sweet's the air down Framilode way'. This was a special village for Gurney, who had spent a few weeks rest here beside the Severn in 1914. He wrote to "Willy" Harvey of how here 'gradually cloud passes and beauty is a present thing'. I fully understand what Gurney was talking about: often on a sunny day I will cycle down to Framilode just to sit on the wall in front of St. Peter's Church and to watch the river flow past.

The river features prevalently in both of their reminiscences, almost as the spine running north to south through the county and the backbone of their identification with the landscape. This was not just any river but The River; their Severn. In 'The Fire Kindled' Gurney describes his service in France:

'Here we go sore of shoulder,

Sore of foot, by quiet streams;

But these are not my rivers ...
And these are useless dreams.'

Nothing could come close to the familiarity of home. For Harvey, he was even nostalgic for how the Severn's 'soft warm mud comes squelching through your toes!' when scrambling aboard a small riverboat. It seems quite something to be missing mud while stationed on the Somme!

At other times, familiar sights in nature could be comforting reminders of home. Harvey described the 'English Flowers in a Foreign Garden' where 'Snapdragon, sunflower, sweet-pea' were 'Flowers which fill the heart of me'. He similarly wrote of the 'Thrushes, finches, birds that beat/ Magical and thrilling sweet'. Gurney felt this same connection in his poem 'Migrants' which detailed how the 'Starlings shall come to us', 'out of the country peace' to be 'war birds to skies of strife'. For both, it was nature which remained the thread tying them to home while fighting in an unfamiliar, brutalised landscape.
The Cotswold Escarpment from Frocester Hill to Downham ('Smallpox') Hill and Stinchcombe
As the war progressed both poets' nostalgia grew, intensified for Harvey by his imprisonment in Germany. In his foreword to Harvey's second volume of poems, Bishop Frodsham wrote of how 'memory is at once the joy and torment of all who are forced to think'. This is certainly true in the war poetry. Gurney's poem 'Hark, Hark, the Lark' appears to have been written for Harvey, with the line 'I think of you, shut in some distant prison', and concludes 'not daring to snatch a thought of Severn meadows, Or old blue-days'. There is pain in this love of home.

But where there was pain, there was also fear. Harvey seems to have suffered particularly from this, worrying both whether he would return home at all, but also asking 'If we return, will England be/ Just England still to you and me?'. His concern here was that the perfected images of home would be forever altered as 'We, who have walked among the dead'. Gurney shared this worry, crying out 'Do not forget me quite, O Severn meadows'.

However, Gurney largely seems less troubled by Harvey's fears. He wrote in 'After-Glow', a poem dedicated to Harvey, that there would be a time when 'Once more at home together, you and I'. He was similarly confident of a return home in 'Time and the Soldier':

'Some day I shall again,

For all your scheming,

See Severn valley clouds
Like banners streaming.'

Perhaps the source of his certainty is to be found in 'The Strong Thing', where he describes his perception of death from which 'The love of my county, Gloster, rises afresh'. Gurney was confident that 'on the Day of Days, the Judgement Day', he would be reunited with Gloucestershire, such as it was his Heaven on earth.

It is then with great sadness that Gurney spent the last 15 years of his life away from his beloved county as he battled severe mental illness in a London hospital. Harvey, conversely, was fortunate to return and live out his years in Yorkley, overlooking the river. Maybe there was something in the luck he prayed on during the war that 'as long as Cotswold's high or Severn's deep', 'you shall live'.

Kathryn

Photos by the author
Sources:
Ivor Gurney, Severn and Somme
Ivor Gurney, War's Embers
FW Harvey, A Gloucestershire Lad: At Home and Abroad
FW Harvey, Gloucestershire Friends: Poems from a German Prison Camp
The Fifth Gloster Gazette
https://ivorgurney.co.uk/biographical-outline/

2 comments:

  1. What an enjoyable post. I taught at King's for five years and led three battlefield tours to the Somme and Flandes with them. I'm not a native but Gloucestershire is my home now. The imagery in their poetry captures all that is lovely and sweet in this beautiful part of the world. Thank you for bringing that back for me. I'm reaching for my Severn and Somme now...

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    Replies
    1. Thank you so much for your lovely reply, it's wonderful poetry.

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