Born in Gloucester, Gurney sang as a chorister in Gloucester Cathedral, becoming friends with Herbert Howells there. He began composing music at the age of 14 and won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1911. He studied there with Charles Villiers Stanford who also taught Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Ireland and Arthur Bliss but thought that Gurney was potentially "the biggest of them all". Gurney's studies were interrupted by World War I where he was wounded and gased. But his poetic gift also revealed itself at this time, resulting in two volumes of poetry, Severn and Somme (1917) and War's Embers (1919).
After his discharge from the Army, Gurney returned to London to resume his music studies, now with Vaughan Williams. Unfortunately, he had been suffering since his early adulthood from bipolar disorder, made only worse by his war experiences. By 1922, his mental unstability had increased to a serious degree of schizophrenia so that his family had to have him declared insane. He spent the last 15 years of his life in various asylums, mainly the City of London Mental Hospital, Dartford, where he eventually died of tuberculosis. During those years, he continued to write poetry and music which were edited by his friends Edmund Blunden, Gerald Finzi, Marion Scott and others.
Gurney wrote hundreds of poems and more than 300 songs and was, before his institutionalization, considered one of the most promising men of his generation, in music and poetry alike. Interestingly, he only ever set one of his own poems, Severn Meadows, into music. His best-known compositions are the song-cycles Ludlow and Teme and The Western Playland to lyrics by A. E. Housman. Gurney was "a lover and maker of beauty", as it says in his gravestone, and there is something of Schubert and Schumann, but considerably less of the prevailing folk idiom of the time, in the intensity of his musical language. He also wrote some instrumental music, primarily for the piano.
While Gurney is still best remembered as a composer, his reputation as a poet has been continually rising, especially after the publication of a Blunden edition of his poetry in 1954. He is one of the great English World War I poets, and like the others of them, such as Edward Thomas whom he admired, he often contrasted the horrors of the front line with the beauty and tranquillity of his native English landscape. His Collected Poems appeared in 1982.