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
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.