Through mid-September 1922, Ronald Gurney could no longer cope. Just two months earlier, he had married and moved to a new home in Gloucester, hoping to put his experiences as a World War I soldier behind him. Instead, Ronald’s brother, composer and poet Ivor Gurney, showed up unexpectedly on the doorstep, announcing his intention to stay with the newlyweds.
Where did Ivor Gurney serve in WWI?
It would have been a difficult situation anytime, but Ivor’s mental disorder made it much worse. He too had been a soldier in World War I, fighting in Ypres, the Somme and Passchendaele. Injured and gassed at 1917, Ivor was eventually struck down from frontline action. But when the war ended, what we now call âpost-traumatic stress disorderâ began to take its toll on his personal behavior.
Why and when was Ivor Gurney first certified insane?
At his brother’s home, Ivor had fits of rage, claimed that “electric tricks” were being played on his brain and threatened to kill himself. Unable to cope, Ronald arranged for Ivor to enter a convalescent home near Bristol, in the hope that he could recover. This does not happen. A few days later, on September 22, 1922, Gurney was transferred to Barnwood House, an asylum in Gloucester. There he was certified insane, although modern medicine indicates that manic depression is another possible diagnosis. He was 32 years old.
What caused Gurney’s calamitous mental collapse?
Why had his hugely promising career as a creative artist – three song cycles and two collections of his poetry already been published – had she so catastrophically imploded? Perhaps Gurney’s war experiences were a factor. “Nervous breakdown from delayed shell shock” was the official military verdict, and there is no doubt that Gurney, like many soldiers, saw horrors on the battlefield that were impossible to overcome. do not see later.
But there is more to what one biographer called “the trial of Ivor Gurney” than that. In truth, his mental instability had caused concern long before he joined the military. As a schoolboy at King’s School in Gloucester, he often seemed to “live in a world of his own” and was wickedly labeled “Batty Gurney”. He dressed chaotically, slept rough, had binge eating and generally “didn’t seem to belong” to his family.
While a student at the Royal College of Music he suffered from severe bouts of depression, exacerbated by the hustle and bustle of London life and its stark contrast to the peaceful Gloucestershire countryside. Gurney himself said he suffered from “neurasthenia,” which he associated with having to “behave”, “feeling nervous” and being emotionally overworked. According to him, military service helped him in many ways – camaraderie with his comrades and a sense of belonging were things that did not come easily to him in civilian life.
What happened to Ivor Gurney?
Throughout his work, Gurney was constantly writing poems or music, often in wild explosions of creativity. He wrote over 300 songs in total, and the best of them – the Five Elizabethan Songs and the cycle Ludlow and Teme, in particular – ranks among the best in the English-speaking tradition. But his demons were relentless.
In December he was transferred to the City of London Psychiatric Hospital in Dartford and remained there until his death of tuberculosis at the age of 47 on December 26, 1937. While at the hospital, Gurney heard “many kinds of voices”, wrote rambling letters, and professed himself to be an author of Shakespeare’s works, Beethoven and Haydn.
Gradually he lost the ability to compose music on his own. “His suffering, mental and physical, went beyond healing,” a Gloucestershire journal wrote in its obituary. âThe sensitive mind was so far from being able to distinguish reality from illusion that withdrawal from the world became necessary.
Best Image Credit: Gloucester County Council