An Average Revenge (Acumen, 1992), Coal (Taxus, 1994), Mr Eliot's Summer Honeymoon (Salzburg, 1995), Observing Dr Freud (Salzburg, 1995), War (Salzburg, 1996).
As a publishing venture, the Salzburg poetry list edited by James Hogg ought to be heralded, and the work of John Gurney forms a major part of that venture. Acumen and Taxus have also published separate volumes, making available a substantial and ambitious body of work. Gurney's 1996 Salzburg lecture did much to define that ambition in its study of Coleridgean idealism and the idea of an aesthetics of unity.
An Average Revenge explores the theme in twenty-four sonnets which see poets from Cowper to Eliot as seekers for unity and transformation. Thus the sonnet on 'Traherne' sees reunification in the restoration of innocence, whilst the poem on Blake, '17 South Molton Street', sees the use of white paint for the building as a parodic, artful form of unity. For Coleridge, in a manner echoing Hughes's recent essay, the Primary Imagination becomes demonic and infernal, a reflection of the divine wrath, and Swinburne, Rossetti, Lawrence, Emily Bronte and Emily Dickinson are seen as being damaged by their own neurotic myths of eros. In Dickinson's case eros fuses with thanatos. Conscious myth-making, as Yeats knew, is not enough, and only Eliot emerges as 'the one who has come through'.
Eliot's disillusionment with sexual love is explored in Mr Eliot's Summer Honeymoon. The sonnets here explore Eliot's failed attempt to fmd a mode of mystical experience in sexual love, and the subsequent regression and 'horror feminae' in which Vivienne becomes the awful opposite of Beatrice. The writing of The Waste Land is seen as Eliot's conscious attempt to save himself in a sort of re-birthing through fantasy.
This theme of life-death, eros-thanatos is taken further in Observing Dr Freud, where there is a chance of some kind of liberation (such as offered by the resolution of the Oedipus complex) but as the high price in Freud's own case of the loss of the metaphysical soul. Thanatos intensifies, and the notorious death-wish causes Freud to inflate his own personal significance. There is something very moving about the way Gurney explores Freud's stoicism, despite an unconscious desire for the mystical. There may be something here of Bruno Bettelheim's Freud and Man's Soul.
Coal transposes the eros-thanatos dualism to the colliery, in language enriched by Zola's Germinal and Simone Well's argument that without eternal light or poetry or religion, work becomes mere slavery. The present Pope has written passionately about this exploitation. Here, the colliers are victims of affliction or a blind purposeless suffering whose outcome is annihilation. There are moments of 'quick luminous renewal' in sex and religious music and almost mystical freedom in the contemplation of the natural world, 'luminous as pit-lamps,' but on the whole the vision is of an unceasing battle between miner and overman as ruthless and destructive as the Cornish tin-mining world explored in Gurney's Wheal Zion. All the volumes are illustrated with the work of the late Paul Peter Piech, and the graphics in Coal are especially moving.
War is the most recent volume, and the hardest to talk about. The hero of the epic is an unnamed Royal Flying Corps pilot. His skills as a pilot keep his men alive, but he himself is being destroyed fighting for the values he upholds. The drama is a conscious response to Wilfred Owen. Gurney's disintegrating hero has mediumistic gifts, and a large part of the epic deals with William Blake. It is dense, dazzling stuff, and the detail of war is often upsetting, especially in the climax where the hero kills a German pilot, is reduced to terror in the process, and then has to endure the adulation due to a 'hero'. His withdrawal into insanity and an asylum for officers leaves him free to explore an alternative spiritual life as a war-poet. This massive poem is far too ambitious and richly textured to be reduced to paraphrase like this, but there seems hardly any other way to approach such a work. It is magnificent.
Note: Salzburg publications are available from Drake International Services, Market House, Market Place, Deddington, Oxford OX 15 OSF.