Midnight in the fields of war: Books

Peter Parker celebrates the centenary of Edmund Blunden's birth
Overtones of War: Poems of the First World War by Edmund Blunden, edited by Martin Taylor, Duckworth, pounds 16.95

The centenary of Edmund Blunden's birth on 1 November, 1896 was marked this month by a small gathering in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey. In the presence of Blunden's widow, Claire, and other members of his family, as well as friends and admirers from as far afield as America and Japan, his biographer, Barry Webb, spoke of a long life overshadowed by two years' service as a subaltern on the Western Front. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Blunden survived the war, but he never quite escaped it. "My experiences in the First World War have haunted me all my life," he wrote in 1973, the year before his death, "and for many days I have, it seemed, lived in that world rather than this."

Blunden's prolonged involvement with that world is evident from Martin Taylor's exemplary centenary edition of his war poetry. Since to some extent Blunden never stopped being a "war poet", Taylor has gathered poems from the whole of his career and arranged them chronologically, starting with "October 1914", written while he was a schoolboy at Christ's Hospital, and ending with "Ancre Sunshine", written on a return to the battlefields in February, 1966. His selection consequently gives the reader a real sense of the enduring legacy of the war in Blunden's life, and the way in which the poet used his gradually receding but still vivid memories. Some of the later poems are explicitly about the war; others, such as the beautiful, Wordsworthian "The Midnight Skaters", simply but effectively borrow war's vocabulary.

The book is doubly welcome since until now the only available edition of Blunden's poetry has been a small selected volume. It should be admitted at once that a selection is all one really needs of Blunden's poetry. He was extremely prolific (an early "selected" volume, published in 1930, included 300 poems), and could turn his hand to almost any subject - including "the Eighth Congress of the International Society of Blood Transfusion". Inevitably, not all of this poetry is of the highest quality. Even this volume, which collects around 170 poems, contains some duds, but that is not really the point. As Taylor comments of one early verse: "Although not a good poem - Blunden never reprinted it - it is a revealing one". It is the inclusiveness of this volume, and Taylor's searching introduction to it, that give it its particular value.

Although Blunden wrote some of the best known and most enduring poems of the war - "Vlamertinghe: Passing the Chateau", "The Zonnebeke Road", "Concert Party: Busseboom", "Trench Nomenclature" - his work is rather old-fashioned, true to its beginnings in the pastoral tradition. The poetry of such contemporaries as Owen and Sassoon was transformed utterly by the war, but Blunden merely adapted his verse, remaining (as he famously put it) "a harmless young shepherd in a soldier's coat." As Taylor observes: "The understated style he had developed for his pastoral poetry took on a more ironic tone and perspective, but he was not seduced into an explicitness or savagery he could not have sustained." Except for the occasional shocking image, violence in Blunden's poetry is concentrated upon landscape rather than flesh.

Part of the reason for this is that the majority of Blunden's war poems were written after he had retired from active service. All those he wrote in the summer of 1917, during which he saw action at Passchendaele, were "lost in the mud", and only 25 of the poems in this volume were composed at the front. Taylor suggests that at least half the poems printed as a "Supplement" to Blunden's Undertones of War were written at the same time and in the same place as the memoir: in 1924, in a hotel room in Tokyo. These poems are, however, particular and refer to locations and incidents connected with Blunden's war service. His identifying annotations (made in 1929 and 1954) have been included in Taylor's edition, along with an essay from 1934 which gives details of the various battles in which his regiment (the 11th Royal Sussex or First Southdowns, appropriately nicknamed "Lowther's Lambs") was involved.

Martin Taylor was working on this edition right up to his death in June at the age of just 39, and he oversaw its final stages from a hospital bed. He had spent most of his working life in the Department of Books at the Imperial War Museum and, with his wide knowledge of the period and his meticulous attention to detail, he was the ideal choice as editor. The book now stands as a fitting memorial to both its author and its editor.

It is wholly appropriate that the sense of continuity which characterised Blunden's career should have been echoed in the celebration at Westminster Abbey, where poems from this collection were read by Taylor's partner, the actor David Goudge, and Jill Balcon, the widow of C. Day Lewis, whose own generation of writers owed so much to Blunden's.