Virtual Event: Kate Kennedy with Literature CambridgeDweller in Shadows

Letters from the Asylum: how to write when no one will read it

An introduction to the powerful and poignant writings of Ivor Gurney, with Kate Kennedy.

Ivor Gurney (1890–1937) was unique in being both a poet and a composer. He survived the worst of the trenches of the First World War, only to find himself so mentally unstable that he was forcibly locked in a lunatic asylum for the last 15 years of his life.

From there he could do nothing but write – letters that were poems, poems that were letters, to people, places, imaginary recipients. These letters have been forgotten about in archives ever since, but they are beautiful, tragic and eccentric in equal measure. Most importantly, they are an unprecedented window into the mind of an asylum patient – a voice that speaks articulately for a generation of silenced men incarcerated after the war.


Kate Kennedy, a writer and broadcaster, is the Associate Director of the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing and a Research Fellow in Music and English at Wolfson College, Oxford. She has published widely on early twentieth-century music and literature, and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 3. Website drkatekennedy.com. Twitter @DrKKennedy


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under the floor” were torturing him, he nevertheless continued to write and compose, leaving behind a vast body of unpublished work when he died of tuberculosis.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.