This is a hauntingly beautiful poem. When I first read it, it didn’t make complete sense. But then I realised that it’s because the speaker was in a state of shock and exhaustion from dealing with the harrowing experiences of war — if you read it aloud to yourself and read it as if it has no line breaks, only pausing when there are full stops and commas, then the imagery becomes very clear. I’ve tailored the analysis towards GCSE / IGCSE and A Level students (CIE / Cambridge, OCR, AQA, Edexcel, WJEC / Eduqas, CCEA), but it’s useful for anyone studying the poem at any level too.
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It was first marching, hardly we had settled yet
To think of England, or escaped body pain –
(Cotswold or music — or poetry, the pack to forget)
Flat country going leaves but small chance, small hope for
The mind to escape to any resort but its vain
Own circling grayness and stain;
First halt, second halt, and then to spoiled country again.
There were unknown kilometres to march, one must settle
To play chess, or talk home talk, or think as might happen
After three weeks of February frost, few were in fettle,
Barely frost bite the most of us Gloucesters had escaped.
To move, then, to go onward, at least to be moved –
Myself had revived and then dulled down. It was I
Who stared for body-ease on the gray sky
And watched in grind of pain the monotony
Of grit, road metal, slide underneath by dull down by
To get there being the one thought under, to get marching done.
Suddenly, a road’s turn brought the sweet unexpected
Pleasure. Snowdrops bloomed in a ruined garden neglected:
Roman the road; as of Birdlip we were on the verge,
And this West Country thing so from chaos to emerge
(Surely Witcombe with dim water lay under March’s morning-falter?)
One gracious touch the whole wilderness corrected.
But words are only words and the snowdrops were such
Then, as some Bach fugue wonder — or some Winter Tale touch.
First March — this is a pun with a double meaning, it means both the first march that the soldiers do in the day, as well as the First of March (March 1st), the day when Winter turns into Spring.
Cotswold — a rural district in Gloucestershire, England
First halt, second halt — stops that are made on the march, where the soldiers rest
Home talk — conversation that’s based around the home or a person’s homeland
Few — not many
In fettle — in good shape, mended or healed
Gloucesters — the Gloucestershire Regiment (Gurney enlisted in this regiment in 1915)
Frost bite — (usually written as one word: ‘frostbite’), a condition where the hands and toes become frozen and lose feeling, in the worst cases they can go black and never recover
Down — low fields covered in grass, a common term for this type of landscape in Southern England
Snowdrop — beautiful little white flowers that emerge at the end of February / beginning of March, they signal the end of Winter and the coming of Spring
Neglected — abandoned or left to cope by itself
Birdlip — a small village in Gloucestershire
Morning-falter — ‘faltering’ means to hesitate, waver or lose strength
On the verge — on the edge of something, verges are often high up
Bach fugue — Bach is a classical composer who was known for his ‘fugue’ pieces — music whether the rhythms run up and down energetically. A ‘fugue’ is also a name for a state of lost wandering, when a person suffers from shock, trauma or depression.
Winter’s Tale touch — The Winter’s Tale is a play by Shakespeare that turns from tragic circumstances into a comedy, the reference to the play here suggests a hope for the future and at least the sense that the next few months of marching will be less harrowing than the Winter marches were.
The soldiers were on their first march of the day, they hadn’t settled yet into thinking of England (the motivating force behind the reason for being a WWI soldier was to save England), or thinking of anything other than their physical suffering. In brackets we’re told that often they thought about Cotswold, music or poetry to forget their pains. Walking across a flat country only gives the mind a small chance or hope to escape its own dark thoughts (‘its own circling grayness and stain’). The soldiers make a stop in one place, then another, and then they set off back to the open countryside. They didn’t know how far they were going to have to march, when they stopped they calmed and rested themselves by playing chess or talking of their homes, or thinking what might happen to them after marching through three weeks of February frost. Not many of them were in good shape, though most of them had managed to avoid getting frostbite. They got up to move again, to keep marching, or at least they were forced to get up and move by someone. The speaker had been refreshed by the halt but then soon lost his energy and vigour. It was he who stared at the grey sky to focus on something else other than his aching body. He watched as he was in pain the regular pattern of the road — the dirt and metallic grit of the track underneath their marching as they passed by the downs (the low grassy hills). Underneath all this the one thought that he had was to get to their destination, for the marching to be over.
Suddenly, the turn in the road reveals a sweet and unexpected pleasure — they see a neglected garden, where snowdrop flowers are blooming. Though they are far away from home, the road is an old Roman road, and it reminds them of England and Gloucestershire — like being on the edge of the village of Birdlip. The snowdrop is a ‘West Country thing’, something that he associates with home. The speaker thinks that surely Witcombe, a village next to Birdlip, would be just behind this view. With one tiny bloom of flowers, the whole monotony of the landscape is changed into something refreshing and beautiful — but it also transports him for a moment back to home, as if he were in familiar territory.
The speaker undermines the beauty of the experience with the snowdrops, by saying ‘words are only words’ and the snowdrops were like this — they were not really transported back home to safe and familiar territory, but finding the flowers was still wondrous in the way that a piece of Bach music or the Winter’s Tale is wondrous — a fleeting ‘touch’ of beauty in a difficult, repetitive world.
The speaker is a soldier who talks about his personal experience of being a soldier in the Gloucestershire regiment — he and the other soldiers are marching through the Gloucestershire countryside, an exhausting and repetitive task. February has been brutal to them, and so the snowdrops representing the first sign of Spring are a welcome and unexpected sight.
First person plural ‘we’ — the use of the first person shows that the speaker is narrating the story from a personal point of view, but from the collective experience of the soldiers and how they felt. The story feels like an anecdote, an important life event that may have happened to Gurney himself.
Fricative alliteration — ‘After three weeks of February frost, few were in fettle’ — the ‘f’ sounds in this line underscore the hardship and difficulty of February marching, emphasising the abstract noun ‘frost’ to show the conditions that soldiers were required to endure.
Infinitive verbs — ‘To move, then, to go onward, at least to be moved’ — the infinitive verbs emphasise the continuous and abstract state that the soldiers were put in during their marching. The active verb ‘to move’ becomes a passive verb ‘to be moved’, emphasising the passivity and lack of control that the soldiers have — they are tired but they are forced to go on regardless.
Plosive alliteration — ‘dulled down’ / ‘slide underneath by dull down’ — to dull something down means to make it stupider or less energetic and vibrant, and so Gurney is playing around with the meaning of this idiomatic phrase in these lines. Firstly, he and the soldiers feel dulled — their spirits are suppressed, their energy sapped by the marching. They also pass by dull landscape — such as the downs, low fields that seem endless and are boring to look at. This suppressed state of mine and repetitive landscape makes the encounter with the ‘snowdrops’ all the more powerful.
Visual imagery — ‘Snowdrops bloomed in a ruined garden neglected:’ — this image stands out in the poem, as it is beautiful and unexpected, the language even adapts to a more poetic register in order to describe it. Even though the garden is ‘ruined’ and the flowers are ‘neglected’, it is an expression of the beauty and resilience of nature, the way in which humans may destroy the world around them but nature will always find a way to grow back.
Tautology — ‘words are only words’ — this phrase just seems like a tautology, like it’s repeating itself, but if we delve deeper into the meaning we can see that Gurney is saying words are not the same as experiences, perhaps suggesting that it is difficult for him to properly express the beauty in what he saw and felt.
Metaphor — ‘Bach fugue’ — Bach’s music is known to be hauntingly beautiful, and his fugues are pieces that travel up and down in scales — perhaps the reference to the fugue suggests a similar movement that the soldiers have taken through the seasons — they have gone marching into Winter and are now coming back out. There is also a double meaning of the word ‘fugue’ as it can refer also to a state of panic or stress where a person feels the need to wander and get out into nature, so we could also interpret that the soldiers are in a kind of fugue state from the shock of war or the difficulty of the marches.
STRUCTURE / FORM
Ode — the poem is in the form of an ‘ode’. Odes are a type of lyric poetry with irregular lines and metre that explore a single idea. They are often quite musical, Gurney was a musical composer as well as a poet, and so we can see this musicality present in the language of his poem too.
Parenthesis — (Cotswold or music — or poetry, the pack to forget) — the use of brackets creates a digressive tone as if the speaker is conversationally losing his train of thought, or otherwise his memory is skipping as he tries to recount the experience. This creates quite a modernist feeling to the poem, as modernist poems use free verse and often explore the imperfection of memory.
Hypometric line — Own circling grayness and stain; — this line stands out as being significantly shorter than those around it, it also uses the continuous verb ‘circling’ to convey the constant torment that can be found in a person’s own mind once they experience trauma or depression — see context for more info on Gurney’s mental health and how this affected his life and poetry.
Volta — ‘Suddenly, a road’s turn brought the sweet unexpected / Pleasure.’ — this line signifies a volta, a turning point in the poem — the mundane repetition of the march has gone, the regular landscape is also disrupted, and in the same way the speaker’s mind is also able for a second to break free from its ‘circling grayness’ and instead experience something beautiful: the snowdrops in the ruined garden, The adjective ‘ruined’ juxtaposed with the flowers suggests that this vision also creates an epiphanic moment of realisation for the speaker — he sees beautiful things growing out of the destroyed landscape, and he sees life growing out of the dead Winter. There is perhaps a turning point also in his own mind at this point, as he feels hopeful for the future after the War has ended.
Written between 1920–22
In 1915 Gurney took time out from his education (aged 24 at the time) to enlist in the Gloucestershire Regiment and fight as a soldier in the First World War (WWI 1914–1918), it was during this time that he began writing poetry seriously. He experienced several harrowing experiences in war, including suffering damage to his shoulder in 1917, and when he returned to battle he was gassed later that same year.
In 1918 Gurney was diagnosed with ‘shell shock’, a type of post traumatic stress disorder that soldiers suffered from after experiencing extreme violence and stress. He was also diagnosed with manic depression (which he had suffered from since his adolescence). Though just after the war he experienced success and seemed to be doing well, his mental condition worsened and his family declared him insane in 1922. For the last 15 years of his life, he was hospitalised in mental asylums until he died of tuberculosis in 1937.
Fellow war poet Wilfred Owen wrote on Gurney’s grave: ‘My subject is War, and the pity of War.’
The hardest part of being a soldier was the waiting for action — the monotony of marching along the road and staring at the same straight paths and fields for days on end is psychologically and physically harrowing for the soldiers, especially as they are stuck in a state of inaction, not knowing when they will suddenly have to fight. Gurney experienced many periods of waiting, as well as moments of action during his war years, he seems to feel that the part where a person is waiting to find out whether they die or not, and whether their side wins or loses, is the most difficult.
Soldiers in WWI experienced tough, harrowing and life changing events — Gurney, like many other soldiers, suffered from shell shock and wrote this poem when he was in recovery from the war. He was gassed (though he said it was only ‘mildly’), as well as suffering damage to his shoulder, recovering and then returning to action. It is thought that the gassing he experienced may have led to a decline in mental health, as he suffered increasingly in later life from delusions and was hospitalised in an asylum.
Beauty can break up the monotony of everyday existence — On a more general level, we can interpret the poem as expressing the idea that boredom, oppression and ‘dull’ states of mind can come from repetition and regularity. The dullness is lifted by seeing the flowers, which is a new, unexpected and refreshing experience.
Nature is wild and chaotic, whereas humans are regular and orderly — the garden is ‘ruined’ and ‘neglected’, yet these conditions are just how a human would perceive it. To nature, it is the perfect spot for flowers to bloom. There is a contrast between the forced regularity and repetitiveness of the soldiers’ marching and daily routine, and the chaotic, random and beautiful wildness of nature.
Life can grow anew from death and destruction — Coming out of Winter, the snowdrops are the first sign that life is starting to grow again and that warmer, better times are to come. We could see this metaphorically as implying that the war efforts, while awful to experience, have created a better future for ‘England’ and its people — thinking of ‘England’ is the motivating force at the beginning of the poem that the soldiers are supposed to do whilst marching, to give them the power to keep going. The poem was written a few years after the war ended, and so perhaps Gurney is looking back at this experience as a turning point for himself during the action.
- Nature Vs. Humans
- Order Vs. Chaos