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This item is taken from PN Review 171, Volume 33 Number 1, September - October 2006.

Letter from John Lucas
Thomas and Gurney


 David Gervais’s term ‘secular spirituality’, which he uses to discuss aspects of Edward Thomas, is, I think, a variation on the phrase ‘secular mysticism’, which I seem to recall being used, with various degrees of justification, in discussions of Montale, Pasternak and, perhaps most persuasively, Jacottet. There’s probably a book, or at all events an essay, to be writ-ten about that. But with regard to his question ‘is there another, grittier Thomas than the sweetly native poet who appealed so much to Larkin and others?’, the answer is: yes, that his name is Ivor Gurney, and that books and essays on him are already in existence. This is not to discount the fact that Thomas himself is a good deal grittier than Gervais’s account makes him, though to understand this will require that attention be directed to poems which are customarily avoided, especially perhaps ‘Up in the Wind’. (Stan Smith’s excellent Faber monograph is the only study I know to give the poem its due.) Gurney, who revered Thomas, was conscious of being in some senses his heir, rather as Keith Douglas was in some senses conscious of being Isaac Rosenberg’s; but Gurney’s poems reveal and explore a more complex sense of English history than do Thomas’s, and, because he survived the war, he knew that the ‘England’ Thomas fought for was indeed well on the way to becoming, Gervais’s’ word, ‘extinct’. Gurney’s poems are rarely suffused with the pathos Gervais finds characteristic of Thomas. He has a tragic, angry awareness of what has been and is being lost and, at the same time, a vivid feeling for the possibilities of recovery. It may be that Thomas’s England was one of ‘innumerable holes and corners’, but Gurney’s included Woolwich and a thronged city road (‘throng’ was a key word for him) that led to the Cotswolds and, as is the way of roads, back again.

 I love Thomas’s poetry, but I really don’t understand how we can go on talking about it as though it’s definitive, for better or worse, of what Englishness once meant and for some continues to mean. Not when there’s the poetry of Ivor Gurney to set beside – and against – it.
John Lucas

This item is taken from PN Review 171, Volume 33 Number 1, September - October 2006.

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