‘First March’ is a poem penned by one of the British wartime poets, Ivor Gurney. It is about the emotional toll of war on soldiers. Gurney wrote this poem somewhere between 1920 and 1922, after he was released from military services due to his deteriorating mental state. In this poem, he shares the memory of marching back to his home in England with other soldiers, mentally broken and physically weary from the chilling February cold. He also tries to describe how pleasantries of nature and art fail to soothe a soldier’s mind.
First March Ivor GurneyIt was first marching, hardly we had settled yetTo think of England, or escaped body pain –(Cotswold or music — or poetry, the pack to forget)Flat country going leaves but small chance, small hope forThe mind to escape to any resort but its vainOwn circling grayness and stain;First halt, second halt, and then to spoiled country again.There were unknown kilometres to march, one must settleTo play chess, or talk home talk, or think as might happenAfter three weeks of February frost, few were in fettle,Barely frost bite the most of us Gloucesters had escaped.To move, then, to go onward, at least to be moved –Myself had revived and then dulled down. It was IWho stared for body-ease on the gray skyAnd watched in grind of pain the monotonyOf grit, road metal, slide underneath by dull down byTo get there being the one thought under, to get marching done.Suddenly, a road’s turn brought the sweet unexpectedPleasure. Snowdrops bloomed in a ruined garden neglected:Roman the road; as of Birdlip we were on the verge,And this West Country thing so from chaos to emerge(Surely Witcombe with dim water lay under March’s morning-falter?)One gracious touch the whole wilderness corrected.But words are only words and the snowdrops were suchThen, as some Bach fugue wonder — or some Winter Tale touch.
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‘First March’ by Ivor Gurney describes how soldiers suffer inwardly caused by the mental scar of war.
The poem is written from the perspective of a soldier marching toward his home. After a long march of three weeks in the chilling cold of February, the soldiers had hardly any scope to think about their home or any other things that soothe their minds. The speaker shares how there was little hope for his mind to escape to any resort apart from its grayness and war stain. They continued marching until they were near their country. On their way, most of them died due to frostbite. Only a few were in good shape. The speaker remembers encountering snowdrops blooming in an abandoned garden. The flower gave him unexpected pleasure, yet they failed to bring comfort to his mind.
It was first marching, hardly we had settled yet
To think of England, or escaped body pain –
(Cotswold or music — or poetry, the pack to forget)
Flat country going leaves but small chance, small hope for
The mind to escape to any resort but its vain
Own circling grayness and stain;
First halt, second halt, and then to spoiled country again.
The poem ‘First March’ begins directly without any references to the past experiences of war. Gurney’s persona, a soldier, describes how they were marching back from the battlefield. It was their first march towards home. They were hardly settled after the atrocities that occurred on the battlefield. The war was still going on inside their heads. This made it difficult for the speaker to think of England or escape his bodily pain. He could not even remember his home at Cotswold or music or poetry.
They were just moving in a mechanical fashion as they did on the battlefield. It left them a little chance and hope for their minds to escape to any resort to heal inwardly. All their efforts were in vain. The more they tried to escape from their experiences the more they were drawn into the gray war memories that stained their minds. They halted twice before entering their spoiled countryside. Everything was spoiled due to the war.
There were unknown kilometres to march, one must settle
To play chess, or talk home talk, or think as might happen
After three weeks of February frost, few were in fettle,
Barely frost bite the most of us Gloucesters had escaped.
To move, then, to go onward, at least to be moved –
Myself had revived and then dulled down. It was I
Who stared for body-ease on the gray sky
And watched in grind of pain the monotony
Of grit, road metal, slide underneath by dull down by
To get there being the one thought under, to get marching done.
While the speaker was marching, he could not find any familiar things on the way. Everything was so changed and shaken that it seemed he was in an unknown land. After such a long march, the soldiers wanted to settle down and play chess. They wanted to recall their memories of home and talk as one might do after a long, arduous journey of three weeks. The speaker describes how some of his fellow soldiers from Gloucester had died from frostbite. There were only a few left who were in good shape.
In that scenario, the speaker thinks moving or marching forward was the only thing that was on their minds. The speaker himself was somewhat revived after the war. Then he was dulled down again by the cold and physical pain. In order to relieve his mind, he stared at the sky. The “gray sky” of hopelessness once again reminded him of the horrific memories. The dull countryside beside the monotonous road made of grit and metals made him forget his pain for a moment. He wanted to get there but he continued to march leaving the countryside behind.
Suddenly, a road’s turn brought the sweet unexpected
Pleasure. Snowdrops bloomed in a ruined garden neglected:
Roman the road; as of Birdlip we were on the verge,
And this West Country thing so from chaos to emerge
(Surely Witcombe with dim water lay under March’s morning-falter?)
One gracious touch the whole wilderness corrected.
But words are only words and the snowdrops were such
Then, as some Bach fugue wonder — or some Winter Tale touch.
In the last two stanzas of ‘First March,’ Gurney describes how difficult it was for the soldiers to forget and escape the horrid memories of war. While marching, the speaker encountered an abandoned garden on a road’s turning point. There were snowdrops blooming in the ruined garden. The sight was somewhat unexpected, yet pleasing. For the speaker, the snowdrops were like a “gracious stroke” that could correct the “whole wilderness.” He did not imagine that after a series of destructive events there was still something that could bring a smile to his face.
In the final couplet, the speaker talks about the futility of these pleasant scenes in a realistic and cynical fashion. He says these are “only words.” The snowdrops seemed like some fugue composed by Bach that lasted but for a short time. Then the speaker alludes to The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare. He tries to compare the sad and emotional plot of the play with the events of their lives. Though the play ends on a happy note, the ending was not that pleasant for the soldiers. They still bear the scars of war.
Structure and Form
Gurney’s ‘First March’ is written in free-verse as there is no set rhyme scheme or meter. Readers can find a number of end rhymes across the text. For instance, in lines, one and three, “yet” rhymes with “forget.” In the following lines, “vain” rhymes with “stain” and “again” respectively. This version of the poem differs from the older versions. Lines three and twenty-two and the last couplet were later additions. Besides, this poem is written in a manner to provide the firsthand experience of the poet after getting released from the service. The marks of war were still visible on soldiers’ minds even after the war had ended.
In ‘First March,’ Gurney makes use of a number of literary devices that include:
- Metaphor: In the sixth line, Gurney refers to the mind’s “grayness and stain.” Metaphorically, he tries to point at hopelessness and emotional pain by using these terms.
- Caesura: The poet uses this device to add dramatic pauses. For instance, in the first two lines, the use of caesura hints at the weary mental state of the speaker: “It was first marching, hardly we had settled yet/ To think of England, or escaped body pain –”
- Alliteration: It occurs in “poetry, the pack,” “march, one must,” “February frost, few were in fettle,” “dulled down,” etc.
- Aside: Gurney uses two asides in the poem. The first aside is used to refer to the things that could relieve the soldiers from their emotional pain. The next aside that occurs in the second stanza is used to pose a rhetorical question to readers.
Ivor Gurney’s poem ‘First March’ is a poem about the futility and meaninglessness of war. In this poem, Gurney talks about the emotional toll of war. Even after the war had ended, the soldiers could not shed off their experiences and escape. The war kept continuing inside their heads in the form of horrid memories of the battlefield.
The poem ‘First March’ was written somewhere between 1920 and 1922. In February 1915, Gurney joined the Gloucestershire Regiment. After suffering a serious mental breakdown in 1918, he was discharged from the army. The poem was written after he finally recovered.
‘First March’ is a free-verse lyric without a set rhyme scheme or meter. This poem is not an ode to a specific subject written in an elevated tone, but rather a lyrical piece pointing out the trauma of war. The text consists of three stanzas and is written from the first-person point of view.
Ivor Gurney is known for his musical compositions. He wrote more than 300 songs in his lifetime. Besides, he is one of the lesser known First World War poets whose works feature the futility and pointlessness of war.
Here is a list of a few poems that tap on themes featured in Gurney’s poem ‘First March.’ You can also read more poems by Ivor Gurney.
- ‘Disabled’ by Wilfred Owen — This poem is about the haunting loneliness of life as an injured post-war soldier.
- ‘Ultima Ratio Regum’ by Stephen Spender — In this piece, Spender describes the effects of war on innocent lives.
- ‘The Soldiers Came’ by John Agard — This poem explores the idea of a post-war environment and takes place in an emotional landscape.
- ‘Boots’ by Rudyard Kipling — This usually moving poem focuses on the marching motion of an infantry column.
You can also explore these best-known poems about war.