Tag Archives: War poet

Edmund Blunden

Edmund Blunden

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Edmund Blunden (1 November 1896 – 20 January 1974) is one of the most underrated poets of the Great war. I admit I struggled to get to grips with his autobiographical account of his front-line experiences – Undertones of War – but I find some of his poetry to be wonderfully subtle, and much in need of sharing.

Fresh out of Christ’s Hospital, Blunden was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Sussex Regiment in August 1915, and served with them throughout the war, taking part in the actions at Ypres and the Somme, and receiving the Military Cross in the process.

Unusual for a junior infantry officer, Blunden survived nearly two years in the front line without physical injury (Sassoon, for example, was invalided to England 3 times). However, he bore the mental scars from his experiences for the rest of his life. As well as composing his own poetry, Blunden was crucially responsible for bringing the work of his fellow war poets to greater public attention. In particular, he edited an edition of Wilfred Owen’s poems (1931) alongside Siegfried Sassoon. A war survivor himself, Sassoon understood the psychological burdens this imposed, and the two men became close friends. At a dinner in Blunden’s honour, Sassoon provided the burgundy.

Blunden’s poetry avoids the graphic edge that characterises the work of Sassoon or Owen, which I suspect is one of the reasons why it is not as widely appreciated. Instead it dwells on how the ghosts and memories of war can haunt a man every time he shuts his eyes. I have selected two poems for your consideration. The second was published in 1936, almost 20 years after the ending of the war.

The Ancre At Hamel: Afterwards
 
Where tongues were loud and hearts were light
I heard the Ancre flow;
Waking oft at the mid of night
I heard the Ancre flow.
 
I heard it crying, that sad rill,
Below the painful ridge
By the burnt unraftered mill
And the relic of a bridge.
And could this sighing river seem
To call me far away,
And its pale word dismiss as dream
The voices of to-day?
The voices in the bright room chilled
And that mourned on alone;
The silence of the full moon filled
With that brook’s troubling tone.
 
The struggling Ancre had no part
In these new hours of mine,
And yet its stream ran through my heart;
I heard it grieve and pine,
As if its rainy tortured blood
Had swirled into my own,
When by its battered bank I stood
And shared its wounded moan.
 
Can You Remember?
 
Yes, I still remember
The whole thing in a way;
Edge and exactitude
Depend on the day.
 
Of all that prodigious scene
There seems scanty loss,
Though mists mainly float and screen
Canal, spire and fosse;
 
Though commonly I fail to name
That once obvious Hill,
And where we went and whence we came
To be killed, or kill.
Those mists are spiritual
And luminous-obscure,
Evolved of countless circumstance
Of which I am sure;
 
Of which, at the instance
Of sound, smell, change and stir,
New-old shapes for ever
Intensely recur.
 
And some are sparkling, laughing, singing,
Young, heroic, mild;
And some incurable, twisted,
Shrieking, dumb, defiled.

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Filed under Beyond The Grave, Real War Poetry

Rupert Brooke

Rupert Brooke

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Rupert Brooke (3 August 1887 – 23 April 1915) was by some measure the most idealistic of the war poets. By the time the war started in 1914, the man who Yeats allegedly described as the ‘handsomest young man in England’ had already made something of a name for himself, both for his poetry and for his good looks, among the Bloomsbury group of writers and the Georgian Poets.

Brooke is most famous for the 5 sonnets he wrote about the war. The poems were published as a collection, entitled 1914, in May 1915 and were used as a part of Kitchener’s propaganda programme.

On 28th February 1915, having been commissioned as a Sub-Lieutenant into the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, Brooke set sail  for Gallipoli with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. On the way, he developed sepsis from an infected mosquito bite. He died at 4:46 pm on 23 April 1915 in a French hospital ship moored in a bay off the island of Skyros in the Aegean. As the expeditionary force had orders to depart immediately, he was buried at 11 pm in an olive grove on Skyros, Greece, where his grave remains today.

Brooke’s poems painted a picture of war as the sort of place where right fought wrong, and men died in noble pursuit of a worthy cause. He is often contrasted in this regard with Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, but it is worth remembering that Sassoon’s earlier poems followed a similar pattern to Brooke’s. Just as Sassoon would go on to be arguably the anti-war poet of his time, I cannot help but feel that Brooke might have also changed his tune, if he had survived to bear witness to the horrors at Gallipoli and the slaughter on the Western Front. But he didn’t. He died with an idealised image of war untarnished in his mind, no doubt confident that he was playing his part, like so many of those young men who joined up without understanding what they were getting themselves into.

Here is the fifth and best known of Brooke’s sonnets.

The Soldier

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
 
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
 

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Filed under Beyond The Grave, Real War Poetry