Strange Hells

What happened to John, the soldier who was great-aunt Mary’s one-time sweetheart in the short story 'Secrets'? What can war do to a person?

One of the many soldier-poets from the First World War was Ivor Gurney, who served on the western front as a private with the Gloucester regiment. In his poem “Strange Hells” he lets us see what the war did to people’s minds. (By “state-doles” Gurney means unemployment benefits paid by the state.) You might like to know that Gurney was also a composer.


  1. Can a poem like this help us understand what can have happened to John?
  2. A poem is, surely, a neat and well-controlled thing. War is horribly messy and uncontrolled (whatever the generals’ plans). Can poetry express the reality of war? How effectively do you think Gurney’s poem expresses it?
  3. Can you find other poetry from any war that, in your view, “does the job”?


Strange Hells

by Ivor Gurney

There are strange Hells within the minds War made
Not so often, not so humiliating afraid
As one would have expected - the racket and fear guns made.
One Hell the Gloucester soldiers they quite put out;
Their first bombardment, when in combined black shout
Of fury, guns aligned, they ducked low their heads
And sang with diaphragms fixed beyond all dreads,
That tin and stretched-wire tinkle, that blither of tune;
"Apres la guerre fini" till Hell all had come down,
Twelve-inch, six-inch, and eighteen pounders hammering Hell's thunders.

Where are they now, on state-doles, or showing shop-patterns
Or walking town to town sore in borrowed tatterns
Or begged. Some civic routine one never learns.
The heart burns - but has to keep out of face how heart burns.


Web resource

On Gurney, with access to lots of sites on the war:

On Gurney (and the war):

Cappelen Damm

Sist oppdatert: 19.06.2008

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