The Shepherd's Farewell: John Greening on Edmund Blunden

Wednesday 12 February 2014

In January the Carcanet Blog (http://carcanetblog.blogspot.co.uk/) posted an article on Edmund Blunden by John Greening, who will be appearing at StAnza 2014 as part of our Words Under Fire theme responding to the WW1 centenary. The article is reproduced here with their permission.

Book cover from Carcanet Press

On 20 January it will be forty years since Edmund Blunden died in the Suffolk village of Long Melford. At the time, although Undertones of War was still popular, and the man was widely loved (a Festschrift for his 65th birthday had included a contribution from the Prime Minister), there did not seem to be much future for his poems.

Here was a war poetry that had never quite left Pound’s ‘dim land of peace’. It was comfortable with syntactical inversion, ‘poetic’ diction, literary allusion. It described nature. Blunden wrote of shepherds as others might mention bus conductors. He assumed readers knew the difference between an ash and an elm, could recognise a coppice, had heard of a hame, a garth. 1974 was the year of High Windows. Traditional pastoral was now either Larkin’s ‘I just think it will happen, soon’ or Ted Hughes’s ice-cream guzzling Crow. In fact, Hughes admired Blunden; and Larkin had just given him prominence in his Oxford anthology. But the fashion now was for an elevated colloquialism (1974 also saw Carol Ann Duffy’s début) and Blunden sounded like ‘one of the crew/That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were’, an echo from the world war before last.

Even in 1914, when the Christ’s Hospital schoolboy’s first book was privately printed, the work might have struck readers as old-fashioned. Of course, he would not be the first Edmund to have sounded quaint to his peers: for a poet’s voice to be heard beyond his or her century, there are less superficial requirements, and even as we catch notes from Edward Young or William Collins, something radically modern flickers beneath the surface of Blunden. Nor was he oblivious to Modernism; when he was given a first edition of Ulysses, he found himself impressed and influenced by it. His enthusiasm for the fractured bell-notes of Ivor Gurney (not to mention his championing of John Clare) reminds us that if he was ‘out of key with his time’, it was because he was ahead of it.

Second Lieutenant Blunden’s poetry was, however, traditional enough to please his Colonel in the Royal Sussex Regiment, who took young ‘Rabbit’ aside from the trenches in 1916 to congratulate him on a review in the Times Literary Supplement. And it is the poet’s experience of war—unspoken sometimes, perhaps even unconscious, but seldom absent—that is the preservative in his poems. There is that famous ‘parapet’ in ‘The Midnight Skaters’, or his pike (since swallowed, alas, by Ted Hughes’s), lurking in a ‘sandbank’ HQ ‘with stony gorgon eyes’. Even what appears the most innocuous piece of pastoral turns to allegory. ‘The Barn’ tells of a curse on an apparently prosperous farm, and features a hail-storm that sounds like an artillery attack. The labourer who experiences ‘the hideous flash’ in ‘The Scythe Struck by Lightning’ might well have been standing near Thiepval.

Of the familiar war poets, Owen and Sassoon did not need to be ‘concerned with poetry’, emerging as they did from nineteenth-century tradition. Rosenberg’s modernist aesthetic might be thought more challenging, yet his poems carry in their lineation clear instructions on how they should be read. Edward Thomas, too, was self-evidently ‘different’, and it did not require much readjustment to interpret his plain style as a new way of expressing an established melancholy. It has taken longer to come to terms with Ivor Gurney, but he too has found a readership. Now, a hundred years after that first publication, four decades since his old runner from Passchendaele threw a wreath of poppies on to his coffin, we need to find a better way of reading Edmund Blunden. Perhaps someone should stand up (as happened for Robert Frost) and tell us he is not a complacent pastoralist; he is terrifying.

John Greening’s recent Oxford Poets collection To the War Poets includes a verse letter to Edmund Blunden. He is currently editing a new edition of Undertones of War for OUP.

Category: