Ivor Gurney

Dweller in Shadows: A Life of Ivor Gurney (Princeton University Press, June 2021)

The first comprehensive biography of an extraordinary English poet and composer whose life was haunted by fighting in the First World War and, later, confinement in a mental asylum.

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.

Praise for Dweller in Shadows:

“[A] fine, well-researched and intelligent biography. . . . This painstaking biography will do much to enhance [Gurney’s] reputation.”—Simon Heffer, Literary Review ​​​​​​​

“It is compelling and extraordinary.”—Sean Rafferty, BBC Radio 3 ‘In Tune’

“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. Kate Kennedy allows Gurney to speak for himself—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

“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

More information:

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.