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New Perspectives on Ivor Gurney’s Mental Illness

© by Pamela Blevins

Many of the behavioral patterns that characterized poet-composer Ivor Gurney were already set in place when he was a child. Looking back through the corridors of time, Gurney struggled to understand experiences that marked his development by writing about them repeatedly when he had little else to do during his 15-year incarceration in a London asylum. Cut off from social intercourse, his friends, music, nature, freedom, and everything that he loved, Gurney retreated into the world of words. They became his salvation, his one link with the remembered world outside the four grey walls that imprisoned his mind and his body.

In his poem, "What’s in Time", written when memory brought forth an unbroken flow of truthfulness and clarity about his past, he describes his "strange coming to personality", "the mother leaving", the "insurrection and desire to be one’s own and free", "The birth of creation in the heart, the touch of poetry", and the "raining steel and furious red fire" of war.(1)

These memories hint at only a fraction of the complex circumstances, behavioral traits, hereditary factors and events that shaped Gurney’s life and finally led him to waste away from an untreated, misdiagnosed and misunderstood mental illness that slowly consumed his genius.

Gurney once told his friend Marion Scott that so long as he was in the asylum, he looked upon himself as being one dead. "To spend days, months, years oppressed by delusions and physical pain; to be always in the same range of rooms and garden, cut off by locked doors from the rest of the world -- that was Gurney’s lot," Scott recalled. (2)

As a child and young teenager growing up in his native Gloucester, where he was born in 1890, Gurney was driven by chaotic forces, both internal and external, that spun him through cycles of moods and behavioral patterns that are recognized today as symptomatic of bi-polar or manic-depressive illness.(3) Yet for more than two decades Gurney has been regarded as a "paranoid schizophrenic", an incorrect diagnosis that has limited understanding of both the man and his art. The nature of Gurney’s illness is vitally important because the behavioral patterns of the bi-polar victims and the schizophrenic are markedly different even though they share some symptoms in common, particularly delusional episodes.

In his groundbreaking 1978 biography The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, Michael Hurd first defined Gurney’s illness as paranoid schizophrenia based on his own careful analysis of Gurney’s mental state at various times in his life, his behavior, social interactions, traits, hereditary factors, medical records, interviews and Gurney’s own writings. Hurd observed that "prolonged bouts of depression were a feature" of Gurney’s adult life and that "they usually followed a period of intense creativity". What Hurd is actually describing is, in fact, the recurrent or cyclic nature of manic-depressive illness. However, what Hurd learned about Gurney’s behaviour led him to conclude: "All this suggests a type of mind and body that found it difficult to reach a state of equilibrium and self-acceptance, and which was in no way aided by a satisfactory emotional life. In such circumstances the advent of schizophrenic psychosis is scarcely surprising." He also concluded that the "delusions which he then suffered were typical" of the illness. Hurd went a step further and suggested that Gurney’s mother, Florence, may have suffered from a "similar disposition, though to a much lesser degree...and may have passed on to her son all the essential ingredients of his genius and his undoing."(4)

Hurd’s conclusions were supported by the late William H. Trethowan, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Birmingham, who published his analysis, "Ivor Gurney’s Mental Illness" in Music and Letters in 1981.(5) Trethowan states that "Gurney’s mental illness...took the form of a paranoid schizophrenic psychosis (i.e. that form of schizophrenia characterized by persistent persecutory delusions) which ultimately became chronic." When Gurney was admitted to the City of London Mental Hospital shortly before Christmas, 1922, the diagnosis was "systematized delusional insanity" which Trethowan interpreted as "an old-fashioned term synonymous with paranoid schizophrenia, the term now preferred." Even though Trethowan was aware of Gurney’s dramatic mood swings, he chose instead to focus on the hallucinations and delusions that Gurney suffered. From these incidents, which began in Gurney’s mid-twenties and were most severe when he was in the asylum, Trethowan concluded emphatically: "There can be absolutely no doubt about the nature of Gurney’s illness." Like Hurd, Trethowan implies that Gurney "inherited...his mental instability from his mother", and suggests that given her personality traits she "could certainly be described as schizoid".(6)

Both Hurd and Trethowan focussed largely on Gurney’s delusional behavior in the asylum. They reached their conclusions more than 20 years ago at a time when mental illness in its various manifestations and subtleties was not as well understood or as clearly defined as it is today. For example, musicians, artists and writers, including Robert Schumann, John Ruskin, Virginia Woolfe, Vincent van Gogh, and Ezra Pound, once thought to be schizophrenic would not be classified that way today.

Distinguishing between manic-depressive illness and schizophrenia

Manic-depressive illness is a mood disorder. Schizophrenia is a cognitive, or thinking disorder. While both illnesses have some symptoms in common and primarily strike their victims in adolescence and early adulthood, schizophrenia alters the development of thought processes that are critical to the creative process while manic-depressive illness does not.

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, an authority on manic-depressive illness and professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the United States, explains that "Most clinicians are now aware that psychotic features such as flagrant paranoia, severe cognitive disorganization, delusions, and hallucinations — once thought by some psychiatrists to be more characteristic of schizophrenia — are in fact relatively common in manic-depressive illness.(7)

"The latter," she continues, "can usually be distinguished from schizophrenia by a family history of depression, manic-depressive illness, or suicide, a lifetime course of manic and depressive episodes interspersed with long periods of normal thinking and behavior, and generally healthier personality and social functioning prior to the onset of the illness. Bizarre behavior, once thought to be much more characteristic of schizophrenia, is now recognized as a frequent component of mania as well."(8) Dr. Jamison writes as both an expert on the illness and as one of its victims.

Manic-depressive or bi-polar illness is characterized by a variety of symptoms in each of its phases. According to Dr. Jamison, depressive symptoms include "apathy, lethargy, hopelessness, sleep disturbance (sleeping far too much or too little), slowed physical movement, slowed thinking, impaired memory, and concentration, and a loss of pleasure in normally pleasurable events...suicidal thinking, self-blame, inappropriate guilt, recurrent thoughts of death, a minimum duration of the depressive symptoms (two to four weeks), and significant interference with the normal functioning of life". Persistent physical problems, including digestive disorders, that do not respond to treatment can also be present. (9)

Gurney was no stranger to these symptoms of depression. "But oh, so sick of everything...I will allow anyone to say anything against my Scherzo, my slow Movement even, which show to what depths I have descended," wrote the usually strong-willed Gurney in a letter to Marion Scott. On another occasion he says his "bloody-bloody head is thick..." while he also complained of suffering from "a dry-up of thought" and a brain that "won’t move". His later correspondence and poetry are full of references to death, guilt, self-blame and suicidal thoughts.

In the manic phase, victims experience symptoms that are opposite those encountered in depression. The mood is "generally elevated and expansive (or, not infrequently, paranoid and irritable); activity and energy levels are greatly increased; the need for sleep is decreased; speech is often rapid, excitable, and intrusive; and thinking is fast, moving quickly from topic to topic," explains Dr. Jamison. Further, in a manic state, victims have "inflated self-esteem, as well as a certainty of conviction about the correctness and importance of their ideas. This grandiosity can contribute to poor judgment, which in turn, often results in chaotic patterns of personal and professional relationships...In its extreme forms, mania is characterized by violent agitation, bizarre behavior, delusional thinking, and visual and auditory hallucinations."(10)

Symptoms of this illness in its manic phase were common to Gurney. His friend John Haines told Marion Scott about spending a day with Gurney and being "horrified...After a while I began to see that his ideas about the voices and so forth, though extravagant, were in themselves ordered and sensible". Gurney was so high that day that Haines reported: "I was so exhausted and drained that I slept around the clock!" On another visit with Gurney, Haines noted that Ivor was "composing both verse and music with the same extraordinary rapidity still."(11)

All of Gurney’s friends were aware of his dramatic mood swings. "I always seem to be writing contradictory letters...about Ivor. The fact is I simply don’t know what to make of him and he varies as the wind," Haines wrote Marin Scott. "It is not easy to determine to what exact extent his present mood is based on simple restlessness," observed Gurney’s friend, composer Herbert Howells. While Margaret Hunt, a woman who had known Gurney from the time he was 15, recalled: "Ivor must always struggle hard for expression. We know him so well of course and have seen him in so many moods and the joy of life and creation is so marked, while the reaction goes deeper than with anyone I have ever seen."(12)

One of the key questions contemporary psychiatrists consider when distinguishing between manic-depressive and schizophrenic patients is: "Does the patient like people?" The answer in Gurney’s case was "yes". In fact, he not only liked people, he thrived on his relationships, and people, in turn, liked him — a strong indication that he was not schizophrenic.(13)

An important symptom of schizophrenia now recognized by psychiatrists is the withdrawal of schizophrenic victims into a world entirely their own that is characterized by a reluctance, even an inability, to make human contact and sustain relationships. Gurney did not withdraw from the world voluntarily in 1922. He did not choose to be imprisoned in an asylum or to be cut off from society. He was committed because his younger brother Ronald believed that’s where Gurney belonged despite Ivor’s episodes of sanity amid the cyclic chaos of his mind. Ivor knew he was troubled, but he also knew he was not crazy or mad. He begged for help, but it was not forthcoming. "Rescue me while I am sane," he pleaded in a letter to Marion Scott written shortly after he was first admitted to an asylum in Gloucester.

Because Gurney’s illness was never diagnosed correctly or understood, he was cast into a prison-like environment which offered nothing in the way of social contact, intellectual stimulation or even basic treatment for his illness. He was cut off from the people who cared for him and who provided the social interactions that meant so much to him. Denied this lifeline, he retreated deeper and deeper into himself in the asylum. He had nothing in common with his fellow inmates and wanted nothing to do with them. By separating himself from other patients, he was trying to protect himself as best he could from the negative atmosphere and influences in the asylum, a place in which he knew he did not belong.

Marion Scott understood this and tried to get him released to her care or into care more compatible with his true mental condition which required intellectual and artistic stimulation along with compassionate companionship and access to the curative powers of nature which always benefited Gurney. The authorities in charge of Gurney’s care would not allow this and the best Scott could do was have Gurney transferred from the asylum in Gloucester to one in London nearer to her. This move enabled her to visit him regularly, to take him out on day trips and to bring as much of the outside world to him as possible. But this was not enough to stop the steady progression of his illness. Unfortunately, between 1922 and 1937 when Gurney was in the asylum, modern drugs and sophisticated psycho-analytical treatment were not available.


Florence Gurney, a life of disappointment

"...the very thing we look forward to so much is bitter"

For the key to understanding Gurney’s mental illness and its effect on both his life and his work, it is necessary to do as he did, look at his life through the corridors of time, beginning not with Ivor himself but with his mother Florence Lugg Gurney.

By all accounts Florence Gurney was a difficult, temperamental woman whose behaviour was at times unpredictable and contradictory.

Gurney’s elder sister, Winifred, painted an unflattering portrait of their mother, describing life under her "iron rule" and "nagging" as "something akin to a bed of stinging nettles". Winifred claimed that Florence Gurney "did not seem to enjoy her children, and so far as I could see she did not win their love".(14) Gurney’s brother, Ronald, remembered a "terrible streak in mother — not mad but certainly bad with a touch of...evil about her" and called her "a menace".(15) The Gurney children favored their father, recalling him as "the more home-loving, affectionate parent" who "was not allowed to give us as much love as he had for us."(16)

Marion Scott, whose feelings for Gurney ran deeper than friendship, made a point of befriending the Gurney family in 1918.(17) She liked David Gurney, who impressed her as "gentle and slightly puzzled by life in general and his eldest son in particular". But she was brutal in her assessment of Florence, believing her to be "borderline" at times and claiming that she possessed a character "as hard as flint...and was probably incapable of feeling anything like love." Yet Scott felt that it was Florence from whom Ivor "inherited his strange power of placing ideas in unusual juxtapositions," but with a great difference between mother and son. "With him it was genius, and with her it was almost foolishness."(18)

Born at Bisley near Stroud in 1860, Florence Lugg was one of eight children of William Lugg, a house decorator, and Mary Dutton. She loved music and had received some instruction in it but like many young women of her era, she went without formal education. It is likely that as soon as she was old enough, she was sent out to work, probably as a family servant.

Life could not have been easy for Florence Gurney, raising her children, keeping house in cramped quarters above the tailor’s shop, working with her husband, and dealing with a precocious child like Ivor whose contentious relationship with Ronald was cause for much disharmony in the household. At the age of 40, this already tired and care-worn woman gave birth to her fourth child, Dorothy. She was overwhelmed. With all that she felt she had to contend with alone, including a benign, only moderately-ambitious husband, it is no wonder that her spirit soured, reducing her to nagging and making her appear spiteful, selfish, mean and emotionally barren, but she was not always that way.

Winifred recalled that her mother "possessed us as babies" and "certainly did her best to bring us up well," caring thoroughly for their material needs. She was determined to give her children enriching opportunities, particularly in music which she loved. While Winifred and Ronald were inclined to emphasize the unpleasant memories, life in the Gurney household was not miserable all the time nor was Florence always acting the shrew. She could be tender and understanding when she needed to be and she had the sense to know when those times were.

More telling about her than the bleak memories of Winifred and Ronald are her own rambling, unpunctuated letters. They hint of a woman with a sensitive nature and the eye of a keen observer, whose own vision and use of words leaned towards the poetic. She described Ivor’s hair as "straight and silver", the hair of her other children as "gold" and recalled a scene from her past in which garden tools and diggers "shone like silver".

In a 1927 letter to Marion Scott, Florence described how seeing the words "it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive" on a pulpit reminded her of life’s disappointments. "I had been looking forward to hearing the Band in the Park and oh I was disappointed twas music without a soul so that is how it is through life the very thing we look forward to so much is bitter."(19)

Nature excited Florence Gurney just as it did Ivor. Winifred recalled that her mother would "go into raptures over a beautiful sunset", while a niece once observed Florence going "into ecstasies over a flower". Florence was more sensitive than anyone realized and possessed an artistic temperament that craved expression. But she was imprisoned by circumstances and saw no way of expressing her own poetic and musical sides. Her behavior and attitudes speak loudly of a woman battling frustration, consumed by disappointment and looking for scapegoats in those closest to her, those she felt were responsible for her misery — her children and her husband. Florence Gurney undoubtedly felt that there was never enough of anything — time, money, space, quiet, freedom.

There is more to be considered about Florence Gurney’s behavior. Most of the memories of the Gurney children center on what they perceived as her inability to be warm and loving, her constant nagging, and her abrasive manner, dating primarily from their teenage years when Florence was in her forties and early fifties. By the age of 40, when she had her last child, she could have been suffering from post-partum depression.

This depression might then have flowed unbroken into menopause. Menopause can be a difficult time for many women, even in our modern age with medications to help control mood swings, irritability, sleeplessness and physical discomfort. Florence had to live with her symptoms, having no way to diminish or erase them. Her already fragile mental state combined with menopause, which affects both emotional and physical well- being, could very well have exacerbated her unpredictable behavior. The timing of her menopause symptoms also coincided with a time when her children were beginning to need their mother less. With her children seeking their own independence, it is likely that Florence Gurney no longer felt needed or loved herself.

Although Winifred remembered that Ivor was "kindly disposed" to his mother as a child, as he grew older they often clashed. Ivor had a "terrible temper" as did Florence. Ronald said that when Ivor was an adult he would hardly get in the house "before his nerves and Mother’s collide". The clashes between Florence and Ivor were not rooted so much in differences as they were in the similarities of two people of like temperament, each seeing in the other an unsettling self-reflection.

The portrait of Florence as a woman incapable of feeling love and expressing it is drawn largely from the memories and impressions of Winifred and Ronald Gurney, who were jealous of Ivor and harboured bitterness against their mother for what they felt were the sacrifices she forced other family members to make so that Ivor could study music. They undoubtedly sensed that Ivor was his mother’s favorite — or at least appeared to be — given the lengths she went to ensure his success. Their memories of life in the Gurney household, of their mother and of Ivor must be regarded with a degree of caution.

Petty jealousies, lack of communication, simmering resentments, clashing personalities and shattered dreams fueled the current of anger and hostility that made members of the Gurney household tense, combative and embittered. Young Ivor contributed as much to the discord in his home as anyone. No one family member was solely responsible and despite her own resentments, Winifred understood better than anyone what went wrong in part.

"If we could only have broken down this terrible barrier and had a round table conference, we would have been a happier and more united family; but obstinacy and determination was so practiced amongst us, I think, that we developed unbreakable control, because our emotions were so strong," Winifred wrote in the early 1950s. "There was always the desire to clear matters up and let bygones be bygones, but as we were all stiff and unbending, we couldn’t do it."(20)

"The strange coming to personality"

From mother to son — the genetic factor

Relatively little is known about Florence Gurney’s life so a thorough evaluation of her mental state is not possible. However, the information available does provide some significant insights.

There is little doubt that Florence was in control of the Gurney household. Her erratic behavior intimidated her husband and children, making them anxious and wary because they never knew what would trigger her outbursts of temper or prompt her nagging. It appears that she was a good, caring — even loving — mother when her children were young but that her behavior was like Ivor’s, varied "as the wind". Although Winifred and Ronald had little good to say about their mother, Ivor, by contrast wrote or said very little about her or any other member of his family. Yet there is no known record of him complaining about Florence’s treatment of him or his siblings. In late 1922, shortly before Ivor was to be moved from the asylum in Glouceser to the City of London Mental Hospital, he expressed his concern for his mother in a poignant appeal for Ronald to "Look after Mother please." He wrote this at a time when his own life was in jeopardy and it is not the response expected from a man who does not care for, or love, his mother.

Judging from her letters, Florence took pride in Ivor’s achievements and it appears that she did her best to provide opportunities for him and her other children. After Gurney’s death, she wrote" "we keep grieving about Ivor".

If read carefully, Florence Gurney’s own words cast doubt on the image of her as a cold woman who was incapable of feeling love or giving love. Like many people of her era — and even today — she could well have found it difficult to express feelings of warmth and tenderness because she might have grown up in a household where they were absent. Because she had difficulty expressing her feelings does not mean that she was devoid of them.

Florence’s letters were written with a breathless, manic energy and exude a sense of her being overwhelmed and in complete disarray as if she cannot collect her thoughts or herself in a coherent manner. In her letters, she reveals a fearfulness that sometimes goes beyond reason as well as guilt, self-deprecation, and helplessness.

The one constant in Florence Gurney’s behaviour was its inconsistency. Given her mercurial, unpredictable moods running from depression to manic highs with episodes of paranoid behaviour later in life, it is possible she suffered from a degree of manic-depressive illness.

Manic-depressive illness is a familial disease. According to Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison: "Individuals who have manic-depressive illness are quite likely to have both bipolar and unipolar relatives"; or, in other words, relatives with both manic and depressive behaviour (bipolar) or manifestations of either depression or manic behaviour (unipolar) but not necessarily both.(21) While it is not possible to trace its course through Florence Gurney’s family, it appears that her siblings were inclined toward "highly excitable" or manic behaviour while she herself experienced both manic and depressive moods. Another of Florence’s relatives — the exact relationship is not known — was remembered as "brilliant". He is said to have spent "many years of his life" as a patient at Barnwood House, where Ivor Gurney was first admitted in the early autumn of 1922.(22)

Studies conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health in the United States indicate that if one parent has manic-depressive illness and the other parent does not, the risk of either depressive or manic-depressive illness in their child is 28 percent. If both parents are affected that risk rises to 75 percent. Because the state of David Gurney’s mental health is not known, his genetic role in Ivor’s illness cannot be gauged.

What is certain, however, is that Ivor Gurney exhibited signs of manic-depressive illness from an early age and that, like his mother, nearly everything in his life was inconsistent and extreme.

A stranger to his family

"Insurrection and desire to be one’s own and free..."

When he was only a child, Gurney removed himself as best he could, both physically and emotionally, from the tension, hostility and depressing atmosphere at home. He was sensitive, but also precocious and strong willed and seemed to know instinctively how to protect himself from unpleasant situations. He possessed an out-going personality and quickly surrounded himself with sympathic friends who understood him and nurtured and enouraged him: his godfather, the Reverend Alfred Cheesman, musicians Margaret and Emily Hunt, and friends his own age, particularly composer Herbert Howells and poet F. W. "Will" Harvey.

As he grew older and drifted further from his family, he became a stranger who "did not seem to belong to us", someone who "simply called on us briefly, and left again without a word", Winifred recalled. He became "pompous and scornful" of his family and they took his attitude to mean that he felt he was too good to associate with them. His family rarely saw him. Florence, who was suspicious and possessive by nature, grew jealous of Ivor’s friendships outside the family and undoubtedly saw Ivor’s friends as taking her son away from her and filling him with high-blown ideas. She sensed that Ivor had left her and she was right.

One of the most influential adults in Gurney’s early years was his godfather, the Reverend Alfred Cheesman but it wasn’t until Gurney attended Sunday School at All Saints Church that he began to play an active role in Ivor’s life.(23)

At Cheesman’s suggestion, Ivor became a probationer in the All Saints Choir, a position that provided him with basic grounding in music. Two years later, when Ivor was ten years old, Cheesman encouraged him to compete for a place in the Gloucester Cathedral Choir, which he won. His position at the Cathedral provided him with the opportunity to attend the King’s School, where he received both a general and musical education. It was the first of many opportunities Gurney was to enjoy thanks to the intervention of Alfred Cheesman, who found him jobs, coached him for exams, taught him how to read and recite poetry, took him on trips, and raised money to help Ivor with his expenses when he attended the Royal College of Music in London on a scholarship.

In his teenage years, Gurney began to exhibit behavior that concerned those who knew him. He became daring and self-destructive and increasingly indifferent to his personal appearance. While disregard to clothing and cleanliness is not uncommon among boys, it was one of several aspects of Ivor’s behavior that presaged the onset of more serious problems.

According to Marion Scott, Gurney "adored violent exercise, exulted in storms and sailed with a daring near to madness". He was a powerful athlete whose habit of walking had pushed his capacity for sustained physical activity to a high level. He became a tough, aggressive participant in school-boy sports and so self-centered that he "seemed to think he could beat the other side on his own". His sister Dorothy recalled that once while Ivor was out hunting birds with his father’s sporting gun he accidentally shot himself in the foot.(24)

But there was more than external physical danger surrounding Gurney. His eating habits were abnormal in the extreme and alarming. In what developed into a pattern, he would starve himself for long periods and when hunger finally overtook him, he would consume food like a starving person. Instead of eating practical nutritional foods, he would eat a half-dozen ice cream cones for his meal, or unreasonable quantities of apples or a loaf of bread or even a pound of butter. He had a particular weakness for cakes. Once he gave in to his desire for food, he was unable to stop eating. When he was in his late twenties, he acknowledged his shame at this self-proclaimed "bestial" behaviour.

Gurney had been a reasonably healthy child, suffering from typical childhood diseases including chronic bronchitis and unspecified ear trouble. By Florence Gurney’s account, Ivor’s teeth "grew projecting out" and it appears that some effort was made to correct the problem by "pulling them in" perhaps aligning them by extracting other teeth that were crowding his mouth. The result was a row of uneven teeth that left him with a poor overbite which Florence felt made Ivor’s mouth worse.(25)

In his teens he began to suffer from digestive trouble which would eventually interfere with his studies and work and which was to plague him throughout his life. What he labeled "the trail of the dyspectic serpent" was frequently wrapped around him. He described his insides as "twisted". While poor teeth and a bad overbite could account for some of his erratic eating habits, Gurney’s obsessions with food — starving himself and then gorging himself, eating unsuitable combinations of food that would likely make him ill — suggest a deeper cause than having difficulty chewing his food.

The exact nature of his early digestive trouble has never been defined although Gurney described it as "dyspepsia" (indigestion). It is clear that the kinds of food Gurney ate could cause both emotional and physical problems for him. For example, the large quantities of sweets he consumed would give him a rush of sugar, or what is known today as a "sugar high", that would elevate his mood and make him hyperactive. But the sweets he ate were devoid of any nutritional value. The large quantities of cakes, apples, butter, ice cream and odd assortments of food he consumed did not provide Gurney with the balance of protein, carbohydrates, fats, minerals and vitamins the human body needs to function normally.

Gurney was ill-nourished and it is likely that he suffered from severe vitamin and mineral deficiencies. If the memories of his friends are accurate, he ate virtually no foods containing protein, which among other functions, synthesizes enzymes, hormones and other substances that regulate vital body processes, including digestion. Gurney’s natural defences against illness were diminished. He was not only jeopardizing his digestive system but endangering the function of his entire body. His chemically imbalanced system undoubtedly affected his mental function, intensifying his pre-existing disposition to mood swings.

He was also getting very little sleep. "But night to labour/To work, read, walk night through," he wrote of the pattern of his early years that continued into his adulthood. Even as a teenager when he was spending long hours with friends like Margaret and Emily Hunt, he would leave in the evening and walk out into the countryside. Thrilled by the sights and sounds of nature and absorbed in his own thoughts, he might return home and work through the night composing music.

Ivor Gurney was living a very full life, one in which there was little time for rest or relaxation. His days were brimming with activity between school and studies, the Cathedral Choir, and later his music lessons, reading, his walks, his visits with friends, his own attempts at composition and his part-time work as an organist. He was over-extending himself and working in a white heat which he could not sustain indefinitely despite his desire to do so. Overcome by exhaustion, he would be forced to stop working. Incongruously, he came to view his need to rest as a defect in his character. What Gurney regarded guiltily as "sloth" in himself was more likely illness induced by his poor nutrition, irregular sleep, obsessive work habits and digestive problems rather than laziness. It was also indicative of depression. He was already experiencing a pattern of extremes ranging from highs and euphoria to lows and despair with little level ground in the middle on which he could stand firmly.

Gurney’s erratic behaviour continued at the Royal College of Music. By this time, 1911, he possessed a great deal of charm, which coupled with his good looks and intelligence made him a most attractive young man with many friends. He attended concerts, socialized, even became a member of the elite Beloved Vagabonds Club, which met at Holland Park to perform music, and an associate member of Marion Scott’s newly founded Society of Women Musicians.

Gurney’s strong will and arrogance made him a difficult student and he often clashed with his composition teacher, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, who later declared that Gurney was "potentially the most gifted pupil" that ever came his way but that he was "unteachable".(26) While Gurney’s close friends Herbert Howells and Arthur Benjamin were getting along well in their studies, participating in college events and, in Howells’ case, working on large-scale compositions, Gurney was not keeping pace. He talked big about writing operas, symphonies and concertos and was as full of himself and his dreams as ever. But he was producing very little accomplished music at this point in his life — a string quartet, a theme and variations for piano, a violin sonata, an orchestral march, a string trio, student exercises and a scattering of songs in which his original voice was beginning to emerge. His manuscripts were disorganized and illegible and reflected the turmoil of an illness simmering inside him.

In the meantime, Gurney watched Howells advance rapidly to become the star composition student at the RCM while he seemed to plod along on his own resenting Stanford’s discipline and feeling trapped by the rules that were the very making of Howells’ early success.

The first breakdown

Euphoria and despair

Eventually Gurney lost control of his life and in the spring of 1913 suffered a seemingly mild breakdown in London. He was 23 years old.

"My brain, heart, nerves, and physique are certified sound, but...I am overworked and quite run down," he explained in a letter to Marion Scott.(27) There are few letters from this period and no official known documentation of his illness so it has not been possible to determine precisely when Gurney suffered the collapse, but he was showing signs of both physical and mental problems, namely depression, as early as January. Some weeks later, perhaps in late March, his condition worsened to the point where he consulted a doctor who gave him orders to return to Gloucestershire, which he did in late April or early May.

Once away from the chaos of London, Gurney threw himself into hard physical labour and turned also to sailing and walking, activities that were his own means of combatting the effects of stress, overwork and depression throughout his life. During the dark times when his excessive mental activity seemed to overwhelm him, he shifted the focus of his attention from his mind to his body and became a physical force. Gurney seemed incapable of resting completely and ceasing all activity. One part of him was always in motion. By July, his depression was lifting and he was "taking risks in pure glory of soul and joy of heart and yelling and quoting and singing and hauling at the sheet...and breaking my arm with the tiller". He was making an effort to write poetry and was reading books at a rapid rate. His health, both physical and mental, might have been improving in his eyes but in truth, he was far from well. His chief complaints remained attacks of "the Blues" and stomach problems.

Although the cause of Gurney’s 1913 breakdown is generally laid to "overwork", his actual production that year and in 1912 was relatively slim. If he sat down to write music, he could only "stare at blank paper until I was sick at heart!" His studies, assignments and college rehearsals undoubtedly occupied much of his time but certainly his friends, Howells, Benjamin and others, were equally challenged while Howells was remarkably productive.

However, as a disorganized and careless individual, who had difficulty focusing on his work, Gurney might have found it too much of a burden to keep up. Further, regimen annoyed and frustrated him and often sparked his anger and rebellion. He much preferrred to experiment with original ideas and to follow his own direction, erratic though it may appear, than to conform to rules imposed on him by others. "Any routine irked him," observed Marion Scott many years later.

After his creative dry spell, he dived headlong into work and activity again and was able to write to his friend Will Harvey: "Gradually the cloud passes...I have done 5 of the most delightful and beautiful songs you ever cast your beaming eyes upon. They are all Elizabethan — the words — and blister my kidneys, bisurate my magnesia if the music is not as English, as joyful, as tender as any lyric of all that noble host."(28) The songs were Gurney’s Five Elizabethan Songs and he knew that he had done something great. In one breath of genius, he equalled the song achievements of his teacher Stanford as well as those of other notable composers of the day, including Elgar, Vaughan Williams, John Ireland and Hubert Parry.

Gurney had told Harvey about the songs in early 1914, probably January, and was excited by the prospect of the "sacred hunger for Spring that nourishes the fire in you" but as had happened in 1913, Gurney slipped again into depression. The cycle of his manic-depressive illness was repeating and the space of time between his manic moods and his depression seemed to be shrinking. Gurney knew something was wrong with him and described his affliction as "neurasthenia" — exhaustion from overwork or prolonged mental strain. For the rest of his life, he would try to find ways to overcome it, but he had no way of knowing that there was nothing he could do to stop the illness from accelerating and eventually overpowering him.

Gurney’s lethargy or "sloth", as he described it, his apathy and confusion, his inability to concentrate, the unevenness in quality and quantity of his work, his carelessness, insomnia, restlessness, indifference to his surroundings and appearance were all symptoms of depression. During these periods, he appeared withdrawn, self-absorbed and "dreamy". As his condition worsened in his mid- and late-twenties, Gurney began to experience symptoms that indicated his illness was indeed advancing. He began to have suicidal thoughts, indulged in self-blame and inappropriate guilt, and had recurrent thoughts of death as an escape from his troubles — all signs that he was deteriorating.

In these early stages of his illness, he was clearly exhibiting symptoms of manic behavior as well. As his black mood lifted — "Gradually the cloud passes" — he was flooded with energy and his mood became elevated and expansive. He switched from a brooding introvert to a gregarious extrovert. In the manic state he felt he was invincible. He became impulsive and reckless, undertaking daredevil physical actitivity that put him in danger.

He was like a sponge, absorbing everything around him and firing it back in a flood of monologues that left his listeners breathless and unable to take it all in. His physical and mental energy were overwhelming, almost out of control, and his creativity was greatly heightened. After a bout of depression, he would throw himself into his work with such fervor that he forgot about sleeping and eating and seemed able to survive on a minimum of both.

By contrast, during a depression, he berated himself for his bad habits, his failures, his slowness, or any number of self-perceived deficiencies. But once the depression lifted, his confidence and self-esteem were restored, he became cocky, arrogant and vain.

Then with his candle burning at both ends, the string drawn as tightly as possible, Gurney would begin to come down from his high and stumble back into the darkness.

War — an unlikely respite

"Saner and more engaged with outside things"

A temporary respite from his illness would come from an unlikely source — war.

For Ivor Gurney military service was an "experiment" undertaken not so much out of patriotic duty as out of the need for self-preservation and to escape, if only temporarily, from increasing emotional disturbances he could neither control nor understand. He believed that in the hard, disciplined army life with its demands for order, attention to detail and routine, he might find some stability and perhaps come away with his fragile mental and physical health restored.

In the early months of his training, his experiment seemed to be working. He claimed he was was in "a much happier frame of mind" than he had been for some four years and believed that his health was slowly improving. Although the rigorous training exhausted him, he found that he was experiencing "healthy" fatigue, not "nervous exhaustion". Perhaps for the first time in his life, Ivor Gurney was eating regular, balanced meals, including meat which he seemed to have avoided in the past.

Although he complained about the boredom and pettiness of military life, the artist in Gurney was alive and alert to the sensations, sights and sounds in his new world. The language in his letters is poetic, his descriptions vivid, his observations keen, his arguments and discussions about books, music and ideas are philosphical, searching and profound. His ready wit graced many of his letters. He enjoyed the comradeship and diverse backgrounds of his fellow soldiers and, as he had done when he was a civilian, he made friends. He wrote hundreds of letters to friends in England and they wrote back. Had Gurney possessed the withdrawn and potentially dangerous anti-social behavior of a schizophrenic, it is unlikely that he would have made friends or that he would have made it through basic training much less become a reliable soldier at the Front.

Once Gurney landed in France, he claimed he found war "damned interesting" and told Marion Scott that it would be "hard indeed to be deprived of all this artists material now." He felt that he was more able to shut introspection out of his mind as he became "saner and more engaged with outside things". He expressed concern that "the Lord God [might] have the bad taste to delete me" and "the thought of leaving all I have to say, unsaid" made him "cold".

Prior to joining the army, Gurney had begun thinking seriously about writing poetry, but it wasn’t until he reached France and found himself in the thick of battle that, according to Marion Scott, his poetic "genius suddenly flowered".

Gurney started sending poems with his letters to Marion Scott and by the winter of 1916/1917 they were collaborating on what would become Gurney’s first book, Severn and Somme, which was published through Scott’s efforts in November 1917.(29) Typically, Gurney, excited by the possibilities around him, was working in his usual white heat, writing poems and even several songs, reading, writing long letters and doing his job as a soldier. War had carried him from the Somme to Ypres and into some of the worst confrontations of the Great War. Yet he seemed to take soldiering in stride and was proud that he had earned a reputation for being "extremely cool under shellfire". His excessive activity indicates that he was experiencing one of his manic phases but it did not interfere with his ability to carry out his duties nor did he plunge into depression.

A romantic interlude

"Love has come to bind me fast"

On Good Friday, April 7, 1917, Gurney was wounded in the upper arm and spent six weeks recovering before he was returned to action. In September he was gassed at St. Julien. He described the effects of the gas as "no worse than catarrh or a bad cold" but doctors thought otherwise and sent him to the Edinburgh War Hospital for treatment. He was pleased to have earned the "blighty" that got him out of battle and it wasn’t long before he fell in with hospital routines. He played the piano, wrote poetry, made new friends and enjoyed the company of the Scottish nurses, particularly that of V.A.D. Annie Nelson Drummond.(30) Prior to his relationship with Drummond, Gurney appears to have had little experience with women beyond his friendships with the Hunt sisters and Marion Scott. His closest companions had always been male and he held his friend Will Harvey as dearest of them all.

As the eldest of five children in a family dominated by successful businesswomen, Annie became responsible for the primary care of her four brothers. Despite her practical background, she possessed the sensibilities of an artist and was searching for a way to express her own great love of beauty and nature when Gurney arrived at the hospital. He was unlike any soldier who had come into her care before and it wasn’t long before a relationship developed between them. Gurney dreamed of getting her to settle down and make "a solid rock foundation for me to build on — a home and a tower of light". He neglected to say what he could provide for her. After he was released from the hospital they exchanged letters and saw each other when Gurney could get away from his duties. According to Marion Scott, they became secretly engaged.(31)

Gurney’s spirits were soaring. Then by mid-March, Annie Drummond was gone from his life. As much as she cared about Gurney, it is likely that as a nurse, she began to see that Ivor Gurney was an unstable young man, a fact she might not have been willing to allow herself to admit earlier. She knew what it was to dream, but she knew that living in a dream was not the way to build a life together. She had already been caregiver for her four younger brothers and did not want to become the caregiver for a husband as well. Gurney was devastated. The situation with Annie Drummond was complex and appears to have been the catalyst for a severe episode of depression in Gurney. As he had done in early 1913 and in early 1914, he felt himself sliding towards depression.

One of the characteristics of manic-depressive illness is its seasonal cycle in some of its victims. Two thousand years ago, Hippocrates observed that "mania and melancholia were more likely to occur in the spring and autumn". According to Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison "Modern research bears out these early observations...Two broad peaks are evident in the seasonable incidence of major depressive episodes: spring (March, April, May) and autumn (September, October, and November)...Individuals who have manic-depressive or artistic temperaments may share an uncommon sensitivity to seasonal fluctuations in light as well as pronounced changes in mood as a result of those fluctuations."(32) Seasonal cycles of manic-depressive illness vary with individuals. In Gurney’s case he seemed most vulnerable to the depression cycle in the spring with a slow climb to his manic phase taking place during the summer months.

After the break with Annie Drummond, however, he entered a period of depression that seemed deeper and more prolonged than in previous years. He experienced delusional episodes and for the first time he openly threatened and attempted suicide but found that he could not take his own life.(33) He would be hospitalized from April to October 1918.

While it is easy to blame his war experience for his breakdown, there is no evidence that he ever suffered symptoms of the "deferred shell shock" that qualified him for discharge from the army in October. The Ministry of Pensions recognized what was really wrong with Gurney and declared that his disability was "Manic Depressive Psychosis" but added that his condition was "Aggravated by but not due to service".(34) Gurney knew full well that he had not suffered from shell shock but felt it was to his benefit to let military authorities believe he had, especially where his meagre pension was concerned. When applying for the pension, Gurney admitted that he had given the reason for the application as "‘after shell shock’, which was false...".(35) The war certainly left its imprint on Gurney, but it did not destroy him as so many people came to believe.(36)

Ultimately what did destroy Ivor Gurney was his untreated manic-depressive illness.

The asylum

"Evil flowed black like a tide of darkness over me"

After six months in military hospitals, Gurney returned to civilian life "piteously thin...his uniform hanging about him like a flag around a pole."(37) At first his friends were alarmed by his erratic behaviour but eventually with his health restored, he was able to resume his writing, his work as an organist and his studies at the Royal College of Music. By 1919, a second collection of his poetry, War’s Embers, had been published and his music was being performed.(38) He moved comfortably in London music and literary circles and earned a reputation as one of the most promising men of his generation. Writers like Walter de la Mare and John Masefield took an interest in his poetry while singers like Steuart Wilson, Gervase Elwes and Harry Plunkett Greene performed his songs. He threw himself back into his music and poetry, juggling both arts. From late 1918 through late 1921, he worked at a manic pace, composing over 200 songs, including some of his finest, and forging a new direction in his poetry.

Although his beloved friend Margaret Hunt died in March 1919 and his father in May, Gurney seems to have kept his usual cycle of depression at bay that spring.(39) He was productive but still not anchored firmly in any one place, either physically or emotionally. In October he complained of "nerves and an inability to think or write at all clearly" but he managed to stay ahead of his depression and by 1920 was enjoying the most productive and financially-secure period of his life. However, it was not to last. He was restless, his behaviour became unpredictable and inappropriate, and he could not hold a job. He took to wandering between Gloucester and London, often walking the 120-mile distance, sleeping in barns and earning a little money singing folksongs in country inns. In London, he slept on the embankment, and was picked up several times by the police, once suspected of being a spy. His friends tried to help but Gurney was losing control of his life and was heading for a severe breakdown.

By September 1922, "evil flowed black like a tide of darkness" over Gurney. The emotional storms that had swirled around him all his life intensified. He was beginning to suffer from hallucinations and claimed he was being tormented by "tricks of electricity". He had become violent and suicidal. Ronald Gurney, feeling he had no other choice, had his brother declared insane and committed to an asylum in Gloucester.

Gurney’s initial response to his imprisonment was to escape because he was afraid that he would go "quietly mad". He had already experienced the trauma of being in asylum-like conditions when he was hospitalized at Lord Derby’s War Hospital in Warrington for two months after his 1918 breakdown.(40) His first escape was dramatic. He hurled a clock through a window and scaled a high wall, but he cut himself so badly on the glass that he had to give himself up after only a few hours of freedom. That was in October. He escaped again in November. By December, his doctors had decided it would be best for Gurney to be moved away from Gloucester. They called on Marion Scott to make the arrangements to have him transferred to the City of London Mental Hospital at Dartford. As he had done in Gloucester, he escaped but was quickly recaptured. "I am treated like a lunatic," he complained to Scott.

The responsibility for Gurney’s care ultimately fell to Marion Scott who became his legal guardian for the remainder of his life. As time passed, Scott found Gurney so "agonizingly sane in his insanity" that he felt "every thread of the suffering all the time", certainly an indication that he was lucid and functional on most of the occasions when Marion went to visit him or took him out on day trips.(41)

Gurney’s behaviour in the asylum was more delusional than it had been on the outside and he complained of "a twisting of the inside" and pain in his head so bad that he felt he would be better off dead. His actions were violent and threatening, his words obscene and sexual.

He wrote dozens of letters to the police and others appealing to them to rescue him. The letters were never posted. He suffered from insomnia and was given medications to help him sleep. He endured a bout of "scurvy", which, if the diagnosis was correct, indicates that his eating habits and nutrition remained poor despite the availability of regular meals. "He will miss a meal or two and then eat an abnormal amount of food at another meal," says a note in his medical records. But worse than his natural illnesses was a "treatment" thrust upon him without his consent and one that made him very ill.

In July 1923, Marion Scott was informed that Ronald Gurney had given hospital authorities permission to innoculate Ivor with a "mild form of Malaria" in a misguided effort to quell his psychological symptoms. At the time, Malarial treatments were experimental and were sometimes used on men still suffering from the effects of war. However, injections of malaria were more commonly used to treat syphilis. It was a dangerous and barbaric treatment that produced potentially fatal fevers and hallucinations. Individuals who experience high fevers can also suffer brain damage. Gurney was already hallucinating enough without having more hallucinations induced. According to his medical records, he was ill with malaria for at least a month enduring "daily paroxysms of malaria fever" for part of that time. By November 5, Gurney’s physical health was "much improved but the malaria has had no beneficial effect mentally".(42)

Marion Scott believed that Dartford was "the best place for him", but it appears that Gurney was just another patient to the doctors and attendants. While his medical records tell the story of a man in decline, virtually no mention is made of how Gurney, the artist, was filling his time. "...said to have been a capable composer, and approved poet", noted one doctor almost as an aside while another reference reveals that Gurney "continues to write music". "He...busies himself with private matters," observed another doctor.

What those "private matters" were seemed to have been of little or no interest to his doctors or hospital authorities but for Gurney they were his salvation — he had continued to write both music and poetry. As he had done when he was a child, he simply removed himself as best he could from the unpleasant situation of the asylum by retreating into the world of words and deeper into himself, an act that, for a time, helped keep his illness from completely consuming him. While his doctors were coping with Gurney’s general health, his delusions, his violent behaviour and concerns that he might attempt suicide, Gurney was composing some of the finest poems he was ever to write and which became a memoir not only of his suffering in the asylum but of his entire life.

The last years

"Gone out every bright thing from my mind"

Although he had more difficulty sustaining his musical voice, Gurney had more to say in his poems and he said it with greater honesty, conviction and freedom during his asylum years than at any other time. He laid himself bare. Many of his asylum poems are autobiographical and reveal a depth of experience, despair, anger, loss, disappointment and self-loathing that is absent from his earlier work. However, some of these poems are also infused with tenderness, longing, beauty, a richness of language and sparkling images that suggest nothing about his life trapped "between four walls" of an asylum cell.

1925 was a remarkably productive year for Ivor Gurney. His medical notes reveal that he was suffering from headaches and other physical complaints, depression and delusions and was "no better mentally", yet he managed to write at least nine collections of poetry and compose some 50 songs and a few instrumental pieces. The music is generally of no interest and meanders off into incoherence while the poetry is uneven in quality. However, during this manic outburst and another episode in 1926, Gurney wrote some of his finest poems: "Epitaph on a Young Child", "The Silent One", "The Coppice", "Hell’s Prayer", "The Love Song", "The Poets of My County", "I Would Not Rest", "The Sea Marge", "The Dancers", "December Evening".

Today, studies and analyses of Gurney’s complete poetic achievement refer to the "impatience of his language", "the queer contortions and omissions which become part of his manner", how he "telescoped his thoughts so much that they are sometimes very difficult to unravel", his "new, idiosyncratic mode of expression", his "imagined world" that "deals with parallels and comparisons", or how he "began many a poem [that] winds into another, and possibly yet more...". When Edmund Blunden was editing Gurney’s poetry for his 1954 collection Poems by Ivor Gurney, he described the difficulty he faced in choosing the poems and concluded that: "...the solution of the editorial puzzle appears to be to take examples in which the principal topic survives least entangled with one or two of the others always crowding upon Gurney’s memory."(43)

Critics attempt to justify these characteristics in Gurney’s writing as signs of innovative genius or as the "actions...of a skilful artist striving to create a wholly new kind of poetic utterance" when, in fact, they are the fingerprints of his mental illness.

Gurney’s music also contained these fingerprints. For example, Herbert Howells in the Music and Letters tribute to Gurney published in 1938 wrote: "There were piano preludes thick with untamed chords; violin sonatas strewn with ecstatic crises...an essay for orchestra that strained a chaotic technique to breaking-point." Michael Hurd observed: "It would be wrong to pretend that Gurney’s songs are without blemish...His songs are like his poems...‘gnarled’ and full of quirks" and have "a tendency to allow a rhapsodic manner to degenerate into general aimlessness. There is also a factor that pulls in the opposite direction — a tendency, parallelled in the syntax of his poetry, to telescope events so that modulation, in particular, is achieved under pressure and is guaranteed, sometimes, only by the most tenuous link."(44)

Both Gurney’s poetry and music clearly mirror the manic thinking patterns that are classic signs of manic-depressive illness.

Early clinical researchers into manic-depressive illness observed that the thought processes of its manic victims showed "heightened distractibility", a "tendency to diffusiveness" and "a spinning out the circle of ideas stimulated and jumping off to others".(45) Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler found that "The thinking of the manic is flighty. He jumps by by-paths from one subject to another, and cannot adhere to anything". (46)

According to Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, contemporary researchers have shown that "manic patients, unlike normal individuals or schizophrenics, tend to exhibit pronounced combinatory thinking. Characterized by the merging of ‘precepts, ideas, or images in an incongruous fashion’, the ideas formed in this way become ‘loosely strung together and extravagantly combined and elaborated’."(47)

After 1926, there was little Gurney, himself, could do to stop the debilitating effects of his untreated illness. He needed help but none was given. Marion Scott tried but her efforts were rebuffed by hospital authorities. He also needed to be allowed supervised freedom to be outdoors and to enjoy the company of companions who could stimulate his thoughts and his feelings. He was allowed none of this. Consequently, he lost all hope. He grew more hostile to his environment and the people in it. His rage at being confined must have been enormous and he released it in abusive and violent behavior. His asylum keepers described him as "sullen, solitary, silent and self-centered". His hallucinations continued. He claimed that he was the author of Shakespeare’s plays, that Beethoven had never existed and that he, Ivor Gurney, had composed Beethoven’s music. Yet doctors would also find that he could be "quite sensible and coherent" when dealing with the "normal affairs of life" but he rarely enjoyed such opportunities.

If Gurney had been schizophrenic, he would not have been able to sustain his productivity or his interest in his work and in books for as long as he did. Schizophrenia, like Alzheimer’s disease, is a dementing illness and is usually chronic and "relatively unrelenting". Among other things, it renders its victims incapable of reasoning clearly. Gurney was not demented nor did he lose his ability to reason even though his medical records chronicle a slow, steady decline to the point where his conversation was "rambling and disjointed" and his memory "very defective". Individuals who are institutionalised for long periods of time and have little or no outside stimulation often lose touch with reality and become confused, disoriented and apathetic. The only person who visited Gurney regularly was Marion Scott who took him for rides and visits to the theatre. Otherwise, he had no contact with the outside world. He would not have seen films or attended concerts or had friends with whom he could talk. His life in the asylum was a void.

As late as 1932, Gurney proved that he was neither demented nor that he had lost his reason. Marion Scott asked Helen Thomas, the widow of poet Edward Thomas, to visit Gurney, who had greatly admired Thomas’s work. "...we were met by a tall gaunt dishevelled man...to whom Miss Scott introduced me. He gazed with an intense stare into my face and took me silently by the hand. Then I gave him the flowers which he took with the same deeply moving intensity and silence. He then said: ‘You are Helen, Edward’s wife, and Edward is dead.’" Gurney remarked on her pretty hat, "the gay colours gave him pleasure," she wrote. "I sat by him on the bed and we talked of Edward and myself, but I cannot now remember the conversation." Although Gurney did make some delusional comments, Mrs. Thomas found that his "talk was generally quite sane and lucid".(48) Had he been schizophrenic, it is less likely he would have welcomed a visit from Helen Thomas or that he would have understood or cared who she was. It is also unlikely that he would have noticed what she was wearing and commented on it, or that he would have been interested in carrying on a "lucid" conversation.

Madness "occurs only in the extreme forms of mania and depression; most people who have manic-depressive illness never become psychotic," according to Dr. Jamison. "Those who do lose their reason — are deluded, hallucinate, or act in particularly strange and bizarre ways — are irrational for limited periods of time only, and are otherwise well able to think clearly and act rationally".(49)

Gurney proved that both his reason and his memory were intact when Helen Thomas brought Edward’s old ordnance survey maps with her on another visit. He eagerly spread them out on his bed and "spent an hour re-visiting his beloved home, in spotting a village or a track...and seeing it all in his mind’s eye, a mental vision sharper and more actual for his heightened intensity".(50)

He continued to have periods of lucidity right up to the end although they became fewer and of shorter duration. During these periods, he was aware of his surroundings, the life going on around him and his own feelings.

In late November 1937, just a month before Gurney died, Marion Scott gave him proof copies of the special issue of Music and Letters devoted to him. She told him about the forthcoming publication of two volumes of his songs by Oxford University Press. He was lucid enough to respond: "It is too late." A month later on December 26, as dawn began to lighten the winter sky outside the City of London Mental Hospital, Ivor Gurney died, ending his long struggle with manic-depressive illness.

Gone out every bright thing from my mind.

All lost that ever God himself designed.

- Ivor Gurney

from "To God", an asylum poem

©Pamela Blevins 2000


1. "What’s in Time" from the Collected Poems of Ivor Gurney, edited by P. J. Kavanagh, Oxford University Press, 1984, p. 246

2. Marion Scott, The Monthly Musical Record, February, 1938, p.43

3. Bi-polar is the preferred medical term, however, for the purposes of this article, I will use manic-depressive illness because it is more expressive description of Gurney’s behaviour

4. Michael Hurd, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, Oxford University Press, 1978, pp. 197-198

5. William Trethowan, "Ivor Gurney’s Mental Illness", Music and Letters, July/October 1981, pp. 300-309. In the research into Gurney’s mental illness which resulted in the incorrect "paranoid schizophrenia" diagnosis, Trethowan and others focussed only on his condition during the asylum years. They failed to track the course of his illness from his teens. Had they done so, they would have seen a clear pattern of manic-depressive behavior and symptoms. Gurney was NEVER label schizophrenic in his lifetime. He was, however, diagnosed as manic depressive by the army, a fact that has been ignored for years.

6. Trethowan, ibid

7. Kay Redfield Jamison, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, Free Press (Macmillan) 1994, p.59

8. Jamison, ibid, pp59-60

9. Jamison, ibid, p. 13

10. Jamison, ibid, p.13

11. Hurd, ibid, p. 128

12. Margaret Hunt letter to Marion Scott, May 8, 1917, Gurney Archive, Gloucester

13. Gurney’s friends and aquaintances ranged from the lock keeper, Mr. Harris and his family at Framilode in Gloucestershire to Will Harvey, Herbert Howells, Sydney Shimmin, John Haines, Arthur Benjamin, the Chapman family, Marion Scott and members of her family, Ethel Voynich and members of her family, which included the scientist Geoffrey Taylor, the Reverend T. Ratcliffe Barnett, Annie Drummond, Margaret and Emily Hunt, Alfred Cheesman; fellow soldiers including Basil Cridland, Private T. Evans, Fred Bennett. He was at ease meeting or corresponding with the literary and musical luminaries of his time, including A.E. Housman, Walter de la Mare, John Masefield, Eddie Marsh, Edward Shanks, Harold Monro, Scott Montcrieff, Edmund Blunden, Gervase Elwes, Steuart Wilson, Wilfrid Gibson and others.

14. Winifred Gurney letter to Don Ray, Gurney Archive,

15. Ronald Gurney letter to Don Ray, Gurney Archive

16. Winifred Gurney, Gurney Archive

17. Marion Margaret Scott (1877-1953), violinist, critic, lecturer, editor, writer, biographer of Beethoven, international authority on Haydn. Gifted, dynamic, youthful appearing and possessing poetic beauty, Scott enjoyed the company of younger men and was always eager to help them advance their careers. Although she was 13 years older than Gurney and came from a wealthy and socially prominent family, Scott, who was half American, did not stand on convention when she fell in love with Gurney. It is likely that he became infatuated with her and used his achievements as a way to impress her and gain her attention. Their friendship began in 1911 at the Royal College of Music but developed into more on Scott’s part, particularly during the war when she and Gurney exchanged hundreds of letters and developed a special bond of understanding. Gurney was undoubtedly aware of her feelings towards him because he made every effort to conceal his relationship with Annie Drummond from Scott. He feared losing her friendship if she found out. Once Gurney was in the asylum, she never stopped loving him, but did have relationships with other men. Scott had left her personal journal among Gurney’s papers which she had willed to composer Gerald Finzi, a champion of Gurney. One of her entries is a poem that could only have been written for Gurney: "In time to come when we have done with time...we two will climb/Some sunny height of air, you chanting rhyme,/And well contented songs, innocent as a boy,/I by your side quite silent in pure joy". Her journal is in the Gurney Archive.

18. Marion Scott notes, Royal College of Music, London

19. Florence Gurney letter to Marion Scott, August 22, 1927

20. Winifred Gurney to Don Ray, Gurney Archive

21. Jamison, ibid, p. 194

22. Trethowan, ibid, p. 308

23. Alfred Cheesman (1864-1941), born in Bosham, educated at Worcester College, Oxford, curate of All Saints Church Gloucester from 1888-1912, vicar of Twigworth from 1912 until his death. Honorary Canon of Gloucester from 1925.

24. Another version of the story claims the Ivor Gurney shot himself in the hand

25. According to Don Ray in his Ivor Gurney His Life and Work, (MA dissertation, California State University at Long Beach, 1980, when Gurney transferred to the Cathedral Choir in 1900, it was "with the provision that he have his teeth fixed: an overbite was effecting his speech".

26. Herbert Howells, manuscript on Ivor Gurney, reprinted in Herbert Howells A Centenary Celebration by Christopher Palmer, Thames Publishing, 1992

27. Ivor Gurney letter to Marion Scott, summer 1913, The Collected Letters of Ivor Gurney, edited by R.K.R. Thorton, MidNAG & Carcanet, 1991, p. 3

28. Ivor Gurney to Will Harvey, early 1914, Collected Letters, p. 10

29. Severn and Somme, published November 1917, Sidgwick & Jackson

30. Annie Nelson Drummond (1887-1959) born at Armadale, West Lothian Scotland. Emigrated to Massachusetts in 1921, married James L. McKay, on September 4, 1922, shortly before Gurney was committed to Barnwood House. The McKays had two children, a son, who died at the age of 8 in an accident, and a daughter, who is a photographer

31. Marion Scott letter to Don Ray, Gurney Archive

32. Jamison, ibid, pp. 131 and 136

33. Gurney hinted in a letter to Ethel Voynich in February 1915 that he contemplated suicide in 1913. "It is indeed a better way to die...than the end which seemed near me and was so desirable only just over two years ago". The Collected Letters, p. 14

34. Ministry of Pensions document, Gurney Archive

35. Gurney asylum letter of appeal, quoted in Hurd, p. 3

36. Gurney was also struggling with his sexuality at the time he became involved with Annie Drummond. It is possible that he viewed his affair with Drummond as an attempt to have a normal relationship with a woman to prove to himself that he was not homosexual. When it failed he was devastated. It is possible, too, that he suffered sexual abuse in his teens. Gurney’s friend Arthur Benjamin, himself a homosexual, believed that Gurney was also homosexual. In 1922 he wrote frankly to Marion Scott telling her: "I think that psycho-analysis is the only cure for him; but that, of course, would mean entire confidence on Ivor’s part, which is doubtful...I used to know a good deal about Ivor and on that knowledge — the details of which it is impossible for me to discuss with you — I think that psycho-analysis is the only chance." Benjamin was Gurney’s confidant at the Royal College of Music.

37. Scott, ibid

38. War’s Embers was Gurney second volume of poetry. It was published by Sidgwick and Jackson in May 1919

39. Margaret Hunt was the younger of two sisters who, at the suggestion of Alfred Cheesman, befriended Gurney when he was 15. Both had been teachers in South Africa and had settled in Gloucester around 1907. Margaret was 15 years older than Gurney and encouraged his passions for music and nature. He became infatuated with her. Later in life, he acknowledged her as his muse. "My work was meant for her," he wrote. He came to believe that he had failed Margaret by not fulfilling his early promise to become the great man that she believed he was destined to be.

40. Prior to the war, Lord Derby’s War Hospital in Warrington had been an insane asylum. Gurney’s friend John Haines described Warrington as "the most detestable place I have ever spent six hours in, without exception, and the place would drive me mad, despite my lack of genius." Gurney attempted suicide while at Warrington. Marion Scott got him transferred to the Middlesex War Hospital at St. Albans. It is likely that Gurney was terrified by what he saw at Warrington, where shell-shock victims were forced to endure faridisation, or electrical charges applied to their bodies in a barbaric effort to "cure" them. There is no evidence that Gurney endured faridisation. But he might have seen what his own fate would be if he was committed to an asylum.

41. Marion Scott personally paid £26 per quarter towards Gurney’s support in the asylum.

42. It is possible that Gurney’s doctors thought that syphilis was contributing to his mental problems although they do not say so in his medical records. The note to Marion Scott, written by the Medical Superintendent at the asylum, informing her that the Malaria treatments had been approved by Ronald Gurney, is vague. It simply states that the doctors were "very anxious to try the effect of inoculating" Gurney with a "mild form of Malaria which can easily be stopped". The note does not explain why they were injecting him with malaria. No medical data are available on Gurney prior to his hospitalization at the City of London Mental Hospital so it is not possible to know if he did indeed suffer early and secondary symptoms of syphilis such as lesions, enlarged glands, skin rash and aches and pains in the bones. Once the secondary symptoms subside, the disease can become latent and remain so for as long as 20 or 30 years. In the asylum Gurney did have some symptoms of syphilis -- headaches, pain in his bones or muscles, sores in his mouth, loss of appetite and possibly a rash on his legs and feet -- but it is not possible to state that these symptoms were a direct result of syphilis. In 1925, doctors diagnosed one of Gurney’s physical problems as "evidently a scurvy", which resulted in his teeth becoming "quite loose". He eventually had six pulled. Scurvy and syphilis both produce mouth sores and aches and pains in the joints or more specifically in the bones in the case of syphilis and in the joints in the case of scurvy -- distinctions that might not be clear to a patient in pain. Gurney complained of pains in his legs and back and was eventually treated with "light infra-red" for what was described as "muscular rheumatism". It is extremely difficult to assess Gurney’s physical condition because from 1926 on, he steadfastly refused to allow a doctor to examine him. Siegfried Sassoon, a contemporary of Gurney, had an aunt and uncle who suffered from syphilis. When Sassoon described their lives and behaviour to a doctor friend, the doctor advised him to stop using the words "raving" and "dementia" in reference to them cautioning him that these behaviours were regarded "as possibly the most tell-tale indications of syphilis". Although Gurney was not demented by our modern standards, he might have been regarded as such in the early 1920s when another aspect of his behaviour might be interpreted as "raving". When William Trethowan deposited Gurney’s medical records in the Gurney Archive, he apparently felt that there was something embarrassing or damaging in them because he stipulated that access to them be restricted until the year 2037, one hundred years after Gurney’s death.

43. Edmund Blunden, introduction to Poems of Ivor Gurney, Chatto & Windus, 1973, pp.22/23

44. Hurd, ibid, p. 208

45. Emil Kraepelin, Manic-Depressive Insanity and Paranoia, first published in Edinburgh by E&S Livingston in 1921; reprinted by the Arno Press of New York in 1976

46. Eugen Bleuler, Textbook of Psychiatry, English edition, A. A. Brill, Macmillan, 1924

47. Jamison, ibid, p. 107

48. Helen Thomas’ account of her visit with Gurney appears in her memoir Under Storms Wing published by Carcanet in 1988.

49. Jamison, ibid, p. 96

50. Thomas, ibid

Medical Consultants

Dr. Joseph Corbo, Virginia

The late Dr. Harald Johnson, California and Massachusetts

Phyllis Sullivan, R.N., C.S. (Clinical Specialist in Adult Mental Health), Virginia

Karen Wheelock, MSW, Massachusetts


The Ivor Gurney Archive, Gloucester, England

The Royal College of Music Library, London

American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic Criteria, Washington, D.C. 1988

Blevins, Pamela, "Ivor Gurney and Annie Drummond: The Bright Light on the Edge of Darkness", London Magazine, London, Volume 32, Numbers 9 and 10, December/January, 1993

— Ivor Gurney: "There is dreadful hell within me..." British Music, The Journal of the British Music Society, Volume 19, 1997

Blunden, Edmund, Poems of Ivor Gurney 1890-1937 with Bibliographical note by Leonard Clark, London: Chatto & Windus, 1973

Claridge, Gordon; Pryor, Ruth, and Watkins, Gwen, Sounds for the Bell Jar Ten Psychotic Authors, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Malor Books, 1990, 1998

Gurney, Ivor, The Collected Letters, edited by R.K.R. Thornton, MidNAG/Carcanet, 1991

Collected Poems, edited by P. J. Kavanagh, Oxford University Press, 1984

Best Poems and The Book of Five Makings, edited by R.K.R. Thornton and George Walter, MidNAG/Carcanet, 1995

80 Poems or So, edited by R.K.R. Thornton and George Walter, MidNAG/Carcanet, 1997

Rewards of Wonder, Poems of Cotswold, France, London, edited by George Walter, MidNAG/Carcanet 2000

Hurd, Michael, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, Oxford University Press, 1978

Jamison, Kay Redfield, Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, New York: The Free Press, 1994

An Unquiet Mind, A Memoir of Moods and Madness, New York: Vintage Books, (Division of Random House), 1996

Palmer, Christopher, Herbert Howells: A Centenary Celebration, London: Thames, 1992

Ray, Don Brandon, Ivor Gurney: His Life and Works, MA Thesis, California State University, 1980

Sandblom, Philip, Creativity and Disease, New York: Marion Boyars, revised edition, 1997

Scott, Marion, The Musical Monthly Record, February, 1938

— "Ivor Gurney, The Man", Music and Letters, January, 1938

— Personal Notes, Royal College of Music

— Letters, Royal College of Music

Thomas, Helen, Under Storms Wing, Carcant, 1988, pp. 239-241

Trethowan, William," Ivor Gurney’s Mental Illness", Music and Letters, LXII, 1981

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