‘To God‘ is a poem written sometime between 1922 and 1937, during poet Ivor Gurney’s confinement in City of London Mental Hospital, where he died of tuberculosis. Through the war poet’s sullen musings and dominant use of apostrophe, we gain insight into his unstable mental state at the time. Due to this, Ivy Gurney’s ‘To God‘ can be seen as a plea to escape the “confines” of the asylum, and ultimately, life.
Explore To God
‘To God‘ by Ivor Gurney is an early twentieth-century free verse poem. It expresses the plight of the poet persona, stemming from his mental illness.
Contrary to what the title may imply, ‘To God‘ is not a spiritual poem per se. Though religion is a major influence, courtesy of our poet being a spiritual person. While making use of the literary device, apostrophe, Ivor—as the persona in the poem—asks God why he’s suffering within “four walls” (in other words, his asylum). As the poem progresses, he laments about his time at the mental hospital. Ivor calls it “a sensual Hell”. “A dreadful hell”, however, is how he refers to his mental illness. It slowly eats away at him as we read on until he’s asking for death.
With the last few lines, Ivor summarises his maltreatment at the asylum. Or perhaps, his time fighting in World War I. By speaking little of the cruelty he’d witnessed at either place/time, Ivor Gurney ends his poem on an impassioned note.
You can read the full poem here.
The speaker, or poet persona, is the poet himself. In ‘To God,’ Ivor Gurney talks to God about his condition in the asylum and the torture of his mental illness, later diagnosed to be bipolar disorder. Eventually, he pleads for an escape from life. In other words, death.
Structure and Form
‘To God‘ comprises nineteen lines, not broken into stanzas. In this way, you can read the poem as one unit (or one whole stanza).
The poem makes regular use of line breaks, creating enjambment. Nonetheless, as a free verse, it doesn’t have a regular meter or rigid rhyme scheme. In the poem, there are end rhymes, alternate rhymes, and in one case, no rhyme. But this flexible pattern seems carefully structured to produce a thought-provoking effect.
Why have you made life so intolerable
And set me between four walls, where I am able
Not to escape meals without prayer, for that is possible
Only by annoying an attendant. And tonight a sensual
Hell has been put on me, so that all has deserted me
The opening lines of ‘To God‘ introduces the poet persona—who is the poet himself—his listener, and his environment. Ivor begins his poem by asking God, referred to as “you” in Line 1, why he’s “made life so intolerable”. As the poem progresses, readers can tell why exactly Ivor sees his life this way. He alludes to the feeling of confinement within a building we come to recognize as a mental institution. The poet reveals his lack of freedom in this place, as he risks irritating people if he doesn’t do what’s expected of him.
The speaker also talks about losing his sense of self, as a “sensual Hell” befalls him. This is an allusion to treatment by sedation, something Ivor may have experienced more often than not.
From these first lines, the poet clearly feels trapped, and he blames God for his situation. Despite that, his talking to God alone connotes a level of spirituality in the poet. A common feature in his other poems.
And I am merely crying and trembling in heart
For Death, and cannot get it. And gone out is part
Of sanity. And there is dreadful Hell within me,
And nothing helps, forced meals there have been and electricity
And weakening of sanity by influence
That’s dreadful to endure, and there is orders
In the next lines of ‘To God‘, the speaker reveals to readers the reason for and effect of his confinement. Apparently, Ivor is in so much pain, he sees Death as his only escape and begins to wish for it. The repetition of “And…”, as it starts the majority of lines—and sentences—here, denotes the rawness of the speaker’s thoughts at this point. It also alludes to the possibility that the poet may have written ‘To God‘ in a frenzy. Nevertheless, Ivor uses his poetic licence to the maximum. Not bothering about grammar rules, he pens down his thoughts as they come.
He reveals his mental illness to readers as “a dreadful hell within him” later on. And despite the efforts of his asylum (namely, “forced” feeding, among other things) to curb its effect on him, he gradually descends into madness.
The bone of contention in the poem lies between these lines. Here, the poet brutally examines his mental illness as the poem’s central theme.
And I am praying for death, death, death
And dreadful is the indrawing or out-breathing of breath
Because of the intolerable insults put on my whole soul
Of the soul loathed, loathed, loathed of the soul.
Gone out every bright thing from my mind.
All lost that ever God himself designed.
While the previous lines focus more on the hospital and its treatment of the speaker, these heart-rending lines zoom in on his unstable mental state. Ivor is so much disturbed on the inside that his plea for “death” only intensifies.
The poet suffers from manic depression, and these lines portray the effect of such illness. Readers can spot self-loathing, pessimism, and even a fear of living, among others. Mental health awareness is also key to these particular lines of ‘To God‘. They paint a picture of what people like Ivor in this contemporary time experience. With (or without) the speaker knowing it, he sparks a form of empathy within his readers.
Another thing to note is the speaker’s consciousness of his own breathing. Some see this as the poet’s extreme attention to detail, as shown in his other poems. Whereas, others see this as a character trait common among schizophrenic patients, according to psychological research.
Not half can be written of cruelty of man, on man,
Not often such evil guessed as between Man and Man.
Finally, Ivor rounds off his poem with a brief note on the “cruelty of man”. Some believe “man” here refers to the people he’d fought in the First World War. Others say the poet refers to the workers at the hospital. Either way, the suffering is apparently so great that “Not half (of it) can be written…”. This is probably why Ivor chooses to end the poem here; his suffering couldn’t be exhausted on paper.
- Apostrophe. As apostrophe entails a speaker addressing an entity not physically present or an inanimate object, it remains the dominant device in this poem. With every line, Ivor laments to God, who is not physically present in his environment. One can also get a clue from the poem title.
- Enjambment. Enjambment is the next dominant device, after apostrophe. Throughout the poem, full sentences break off midway, only to start the next line. Ivor introduces enjambment to generate end rhyme, as prominently seen in the first four lines of the poem, alongside line 6 and line 7. In addition, Ivor uses this poetic device to create a pause-and-think effect, as in lines 7 and 8.
- Repetition. Repetition in poetry is for emphasis. And in ‘To God‘, the repetition of words like “intolerable” (lines 1 and 14) and “dreadful” (lines 8, 11, and 13) underscore the overall sullenness of the poem. In line 12, “death” is repeated thrice to emphasize Ivor’s desperation to escape the “dreadful hell within him”. Meanwhile, the repetition of “loathed” in line 15 alludes to Ivor’s likely hatred for himself, as his mind torments him.
- Oxymoron. An instance of oxymoron lies between lines 4 and 5, where Ivor mentions “a sensual/Hell”. We believe “Hell” here is the asylum. Either that, or the poet refers to his “treatments” at the hospital (which may have included sedation) as “a sensual/Hell”.
- Personification. The poet gives “sanity” (lines 8 and 10) human attributes in the poem. For one, between lines 7 and 8, “sanity” exhibits the action of “going out”. Again, in line 10, “sanity” is weakened. All are actions done by—or done to—humans.
- Rhetorical Question. Although the poet doesn’t punctuate it with a question mark, the poem opens with a rhetorical question. Thus, underscoring the use of apostrophe. Line 1 is a question Ivor throws at God, before delving into the dark details of his depression.
- Anaphora. The occurrence of “And…” at the beginning of lines 9 and 10 and 12 and 13 introduce this literary device. It also appears in lines 18 and 19, which start with “Not…”. Furthermore, the word, “And…”, starts many other sentences in the poem. This attests to the rawness of Ivor’s thought process when he wrote the poem. He uses his poetic licence very liberally in this poem, seemingly penning down the words as they came.
- Metaphor. The poet refers to his mental illness as a “dreadful hell within him” (line 8). He also refers to the asylum—or their treatment of him—as a “sensual Hell”.
- Synecdoche. “Four walls” (line 2) is a synecdoche for an entire building, which is, in this case, City of London Mental Hospital.
The central theme for the poem is mental illness. The speaker laments about it ‘To God‘. Other themes include death, as the poet ultimately wishes for it; war, as there are likely references to it towards the end of the poem; spirituality—despite the poem not being exactly spiritual—as the persona speaks to God, after all.
Tone and Mood
The mood throughout the poem is serious, sad, and somewhat traumatized. Through the repetition of words like “dreadful”, we sense some amount of fear in the speaker as well. Due to this, his tone comes out desperate and of course, solemn.
About Ivor Gurney
Ivor Gurney is a poet and composer of the early twentieth century. He is belatedly recognized as one of the prominent poets of the First World War. Unlike other poets, however, and according to the BBC 4 documentary presented by Professor Tim Kendall, he is known as “The Poet Who Loved the War”. Ultimately, Kendall says Ivor depended on military discipline to ward off his manic-depression, which began as early as his mid-teens. He craved stability, and despite the blood and gore of war, it provided that for him.
Unfortunately, he lost that stability when the military sent him home—after he was shot and gassed. Depression overtook him sometime in 1921, and he was eventually institutionalized in 1922. After passing through a number of asylums, he finally settled at City of London Medical Hospital, where he died of tuberculosis in 1937.
While some believe “electricity” refers to “electroconvulsive therapy”—a kind of treatment used for people with bipolar disorder—this form of therapy was introduced in 1938, after Ivor’s death. So it doesn’t refer to that. Dr Iain McGilchrist in his YouTube video, however, points out that the buzz of electricity is something bipolar or schizophrenic patients experience in their heads.
Ivor is more recognized for his music, not poetry. As a talented composer of around 300 songs (not including instrumentals), he often turned poems of other poets, like Will Harvey, into music.
Contrary to common belief, no. It didn’t trigger his mental illness. In fact, Ivor found order in the chaos of World War I. Not because of the violence, but due to the military routine. It was a welcome distraction from his manic-depression. Without all that, he quickly fell apart.
It’s most likely because his musical work tended to overshadow his talent as a poet. He himself was more inclined to—and interested in—exploring and expanding his musical skills.
He officially published two poetry collections: Severn and Somme (1917), and War’s Embers (1919). Both collections talk about the chaos of war, as well as the camaraderie among his fellow soldiers. His love for his home, The Gloucester countryside, also shines through these collections.
Readers who enjoyed ‘To God‘ should consider reading poems sharing similar themes of spirituality and war:
- ‘Battle-Hymn of the Republic‘ by Julia Ward Howe: a poem that talks about Christ’s reappearance on earth to do justice with those who were suffering or being oppressed.
- ‘Beat! Beat! Drums!‘ by Walt Whitman: a poem written in 1862, when the Civil War was beginning.
- ‘Untitled Poem‘ by George Henry Boker: a poem depicting the cost of war.
You can also read about ten of the best war poems here.