Ivor Gurney (1890–1937) wrote some of the most anthologized poems of the First World War and composed some of the greatest works in the English song repertoire, such as “Sleep.” Yet his life was shadowed by the trauma of the war and mental illness, and he spent his last fifteen years confined to a mental asylum. In Dweller in Shadows, Kate Kennedy presents the first comprehensive biography of this extraordinary and misunderstood artist.
A promising student at the Royal College of Music, Gurney enlisted as a private with the Gloucestershire regiment in 1915 and spent two years in the trenches of the Western Front. Wounded in the arm and subsequently gassed during the Battle of Passchendaele, Gurney was recovering in hospital when his first collection of poems, Severn and Somme, was published. Despite episodes of depression, he resumed his music studies after the war until he was committed to an asylum in 1922. At times believing he was Shakespeare and that the “machines under the floor” were torturing him, he nevertheless continued to write and compose, leaving behind a vast body of unpublished work when he died of tuberculosis. Drawing on extensive archival research and spanning literary criticism, history, psychiatry and musicology, this compelling narrative sets Gurney’s life and work against the backdrop of the war and his institutionalisation, probing the links between madness, suffering and creativity.
Facing death in the trenches, Gurney hoped that history might not “forget me quite.” This definitive account of his life and work helps ensure that he will indeed be remembered.
Awards and Recognition
- Shortlisted for the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Awards
"The most comprehensive [biography] to date. . . . Dweller in Shadows has many virtues. . . . The deepest impress of [the] book, however, is that it grows into the portrait of a hero."—Anthony Lane, New Yorker
"Kate Kennedy finally does justice to the neglected poet, whose musician’s ear for the sounds of the war captures the reality of trench life like no other . . . . Enthralling, meticulously researched and deeply sympathetic."—Andrew Motion, The Spectator
"[A] poignant biography of Gurney. . . . [Kennedy] captures not only her subject’s melancholy and angst but also his unique artistic accomplishments. For this Ms. Kennedy is particularly well-suited. . . . Her longtime interest in the intersection of words and music is evident in her sensitive analysis of Gurney’s songs and her careful, probing readings of his verse."—David Yezzi, Wall Street Journal
"This substantial and, for the most part, unusually readable biography gives us a rich picture of the world and terrible existence of an astonishing, multitalented artist whose true time is long overdue."—Lachlan Mackinnon, Times Literary Supplement
"Compelling and extraordinary."—Sean Rafferty, BBC Radio 3 ‘In Tune’
"[A] fine, well-researched and intelligent biography. . . . This painstaking biography will do much to enhance [Gurney's] reputation."—Simon Heffer, Literary Review
"[An] admirably detailed and perceptive biography. . . . [Kennedy] examines in some detail the extraordinary depth and talent of Gurney’s creative genius—she is particularly illuminating in talking about his poetry—while being candid about his erratic behaviour and impractical approach to adult life."—Daniel Jaffé, BBC Music Magazine
"A particularly rich and detailed account. . . . This will certainly prove to be a valuable reference tool."—Jeremy Dibble, Gramophone
"This is an impeccably and thoroughly researched biography, carefully analytical and elegantly presented. Kate Kennedy has left no stone unturned in her endeavours. It certainly makes for rewarding reading. Although Gurney has long dwelt on the shadowy periphery of musical life, this outstanding biography does much to redress the balance. It has to be one of the most heart-rending books I’ve ever read."—Stephen Greenbank, MusicWeb International
"Written with enormous empathy, Kennedy’s account is heart-wrenching in places. A compelling work"—Elizabeth Fitzherbert, The Lady
"Gurney deserved much better treatment. He deserved a much better society. His work began to give expression to his incipient sense of the need for social change. It’s to be hoped this thorough, sympathetic book will bring him the attention he was denied while he lived, and perhaps also prevent today’s or tomorrow’s Gurney suffering a similar fate."—Alan Dent, Penniless Press
"This is a wonderful book that is an affectionate tribute to a truly great man."—Candia McKormack, Cotswold Life
"The book deftly sheds light on how Gurney produced his much respected work.
"Kate Kennedy’s comprehensive biography of the early-20th-century British poet and composer Ivor Gurney, Dweller in Shadows, is an enormous feat of meticulously detailed scholarship. No stone has been left unturned and no aspect of his life has been left untouched (or at least not speculated upon) by Kennedy.. . . . In Dweller in Shadows Kennedy has created a fully realized portrayal of a complex historical figure’s life and reclaimed it for the good of historians and laypeople alike."—Walter Holland, Rain Taxi Review of Books
"A stunning contribution to the fields of psychiatric historiography, musicology, literary studies, psychoanalytical scholarship, and many more disciplines, I learned a great deal from this beautifully constructed text, and I hope that Dr. Kennedy will continue to produce other such gripping biographies in years to come."—Brett Kahr, Confer
"Authoritative and exhaustively researched"—Roger Ebbatson, Journal of the Friends of the Dymock Poets
“Kate Kennedy has written a wonderful book, the first comprehensive account of one of Britain’s most misunderstood poets and composers. A keen-eyed critic and literary commentator, she also proves herself a consummate storyteller, piecing out and pulling together the episodes of Gurney’s remarkable life and work in flowing, compelling chapters, producing a biography worthy of the thoughtful recognition and generous appraisal that Gurney had hoped for.”—Simon Armitage, UK Poet Laureate
“This inspiring biography of the poet and composer Ivor Gurney treads carefully and sensitively over a vast terrain of archives and original, unseen work. Reading Dweller in Shadows, I was drawn into the intimate relationship between music and poetry in Gurney’s literary and musical imagination. Kate Kennedy allows Gurney to speak for himself—through his poems, letters, and music—and so we hear him speaking directly to us, in the midst of creation.”—Sally Bayley, author of Girl with Dove: A Life Built by Books
“A vividly told, impeccably researched, groundbreaking, and transformative account of the complex, painful life of an exceptional English poet and composer.”—Hermione Lee, University of Oxford
“This engaging biography is without doubt the most comprehensive book on the life and work of Ivor Gurney to date. It is a remarkable achievement. Dweller in Shadows will be indispensable for those interested in early twentieth-century music and literature.”—Ian Venables, composer and Chairman of the Ivor Gurney Society
“Ivor Gurney has been too little regarded both as poet and composer. Perhaps the darkness of his mood and consequent instability have left him overshadowed by others who also endured the Great War. But this ‘Lover and maker of beauty,’ composer of chamber music and songs especially, now takes centre stage in Kate Kennedy’s wonderful biography.”—Thomas Allen, opera and concert singer and Chancellor of Durham University
“Building on meticulous research, Kate Kennedy writes with deep sympathy and understanding of the complex, talented, and often tormented Ivor Gurney. Her book will deservedly become the standard biography.”—Margaret MacMillan, University of Oxford