Friday 23 December 2016

Harvey: Ducks and more

Browsing sleepily in an anthology last night, I came across this:

(to E.M., who drew them in Holzminden Prison)

From troubles of the world

I turn to ducks,
Beautiful comical things
Sleeping or curled
Their heads beneath white wings
By water cool,
Or finding curious things
To eat in various mucks
Beneath the pool,
Tails uppermost, or waddling
Sailor-like on the shores
Of ponds, or paddling
– Left! Right! – with fanlike feet
Which are for steady oars
When they (white galleys) float
Each bird a boat
Rippling at will the sweet
Wide waterway…

It's the first (and best) part of a poem by Frederick William Harvey, and I half remembered it, probably from other anthologies. It's a lovely piece of work - a vivid sketch deftly drawn (check out the rhyme scheme) - but who was F.W. Harvey?
He was, I discovered, a close friend of Ivor Gurney, whom he met at the King's School, Gloucester, and, like Gurney, he was a 'war poet' of the Great War, but in a far more straightforwardly nostalgic and good-humoured vein (like an upbeat Housman, if such a thing is imaginable - his first collection was called A Gloucestershire Lad at Home and Abroad). Ducks was written while he was a prisoner of war, inspired by a chalk drawing a fellow prisoner had made above his bed. Before being taken prisoner, Harvey had won a DCM for conspicuous gallantry.
After the war, he returned home to work as a lawyer, but his willingness to waive his fees, while making him popular as 'the poor man's solicitor', meant his business never thrived. He continued writing, made radio broadcasts, and was a tireless champion of the Forest of Dean, its people and traditions. As well as 'the Laureate of Gloucestershire', he was also known as 'the Forest Poet'. 'Will' Harvey was hugely popular in his home county, and was clearly an all-round good egg. Look at the picture of him - genial, open, relaxed, full of life, even in uniform. There could hardly be a more striking contrast to his troubled friend Ivor Gurney.
 His poems lend themselves particularly well to music and have been set by a range of composers, from Gurney and Herbert Howells to Johnny Coppin. One of Ivor Gurney's best-known songs, In Flanders, is a setting of a Harvey poem - I hadn't realised. Here are the words -

I'm homesick for my hills again -
My hills again!
To see above the Severn plain,
Unscabbarded against the sky,
The blue high blade of Cotswold lie;
The giant clouds go royally
By jagged Malvern with a train
Of shadows. Where the land is low
Like a huge imprisoning O
I hear a heart that's sound and high,
I hear the heart within me cry:
'I'm homesick for my hills again -
My hills again!
Cotswold or Malvern, sun or rain!
My hills again!' 

- and here is the song.

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