Saturday, January 20, 2024

This Day in Literary History (Edmund Blunden, Acclaimed WWI Memoirist and Poet, Dies)

Jan. 20, 1974— The poet, biographer, critic, and travel writer Edmund Blunden, died at age 77 at his longtime home in Long Melford, England, mourned by intimates in academe and beyond for his sensitivity, wry sense of humor and fanatical love of cricket.

But the experience that colored his entire adult life was indicated by what lay atop his coffin: poppies from Flanders, Belgium, the WWI battleground where he fought nearly 60 years before and wrote about, in a searing memoir and poetry that sought to evoke the pastoral landscapes marred by the carnage.

Six nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature testify to high esteem from the literary community during Blunden’s lifetime.

Nowadays, he belongs to the type of understudied figures whose reputations he tried to elevate as a critic, such as William Collins, William Cobbett, Robert Southey, Thomas Hood, and Michael Drayton.

A stone inscription in Westminster Abbey’s Poets Corner, installed in 1985, points to the greatest claim for his importance: his listing among 16 “Great War Poets.”

I have blogged before about this group, either focusing on individuals (Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves) or the larger group of creative artists struggling with the violence, carnage and shock to civilization created by the conflict.

But Blunden—who enlisted and became an intelligence officer at only age 19, and won the Military Cross for “his conspicuous gallantry” during the Battle of the Somme—deserves his own extensive discussion.

While in the service the longest of these poets, he was also, according to one of his friends from this group, Siegfried Sassoon, his friend, the one most enduringly obsessed by it.

Not only did he witness the deaths of countless comrades and the dissolution of his unit, the 11th Battalion of the Royal Sussex regiment, because of all these casualties, but in the 1917 Passchendaele offensive, he was gassed.

This new form of chemical warfare left victims like Blunden with temporarily impaired eyesight and irritated skin. Worst, it blistered his throat and lungs, considerably aggravating his asthma.

For the rest of his life, Blunden would be plagued by nightmares from his wartime service. His daughter Margi, trained in counseling, said in a March 2014 Oxford Mail interview that she believed her father suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder:

“The dreams never stopped and he continued to feel guilt about having survived. But he had no treatment for it at all.”

At first, Blinden set aside his attempt at chronicling these wartime horrors, De Bello Germanico. It was only several years later, in the mid-1920s, in Japan (where he was teaching English at the Tokyo Imperial Museum), that he had sufficient physical distance and psychic space to write Undertones of War in 1928.

Privately, Blunden had been dismayed to find that Graves had exaggerated elements of his own wartime experience in Goodbye to All That. It was all the more imperative, then, that after Undertones of War was published, Blunden felt compelled to correct any mistakes for its second edition.

It was miraculous that he was able to record and remember as much as he did. Blunden’s creative work had been hampered from the start by the extreme difficulties of writing while the war raged. Blunden lost a number of his poems, for instance, amid the chaos of troop movements and trench warfare. In addition, his PTSD disrupted recollections of painful deaths.

Emily Dickinson defined the mission of the poet to “Tell the truth but tell it slant.” Blunden managed to “tell it slant” by evoking elements of pastoral poetry.

The style of Undertones of War evokes the kind of landscapes that Blunden had cherished since childhood, with archaic phrases (often switching word order) reminiscent some of his favorite poets like Thomas Hardy and John Clare:

“Acres of self-sown wheat glistened and sighed as we wound our way between, where rough scattered pits recorded a hurried firing-line of long ago. Life, life abundant sang here and smiled; the lizard ran warless in the warm dust; and the ditches were trembling with odd tiny fìsh, in worlds as remote as Saturn.

Though modern readers may be startled by this very unusual language, it enabled Blunden to underscore the damage to the natural landscape and ancient traditions that this brutally modern war represented—a contrast equally apparent in his poem “The Zonnebeke Road”:

“Look, how the snow-dust whisks along the road
Piteous and silly; the stones themselves must flinch
In this east wind; the low sky like a load
Hangs over, a dead-weight. But what a pain
Must gnaw where its clay cheek
Crushes the shell-chopped trees that fang the plain –
The ice-bound throat gulps out a gargoyle shriek.”

Throughout Undertones of War and his war poetry, Blunden paid continual tribute to the comrades he likened to a family. His subsequent memories are filled with a survivor’s guilt.

“Why slept I not in Flanders clay/With all the murdered men?” he wrote. He could not be buried with “Flanders clay,” but his coffin contained what may have meant more to him: poppies symbolizing the renewal of life in the face of the horrors.

(For an interesting discussion of how closely Blunden engaged with books—including war correspondent Mary Augusta Ward’s 1919 account, Fields of Victory—see Alexis Voisard’s blog post on the Edmund Blunden Collection in the Ohio Universities Library.)

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