The shepherd in a soldier's coat

OVERTONES OF WAR: Poems of the First World War by Edmund Blunden ed Martin Taylor Duckworth pounds 16.95

The centenary of the birth of one of the more neglected of the First World War's soldier-poets fell this year on All Saints' Day, 1 November. Edmund Blunden's war poems, although the subject of critical attention, have never been as widely known as those of contemporaries like Sassoon, Owen, Graves or Rosenberg, although he spent more time at the front than any other recognised First World War writer, and left behind the greatest body of poetry.

Unlike Sassoon or Owen, Blunden provoked no revolution in style or technique; and although he adapted his pastoralism to the war's ironic cruelty, its deceptive simplicity, coupled with an over-reliance on rhetorical literary flourishes, is not obviously to modern taste, and has sometimes led to Blunden being dismissed as a late- Romantic reactionary.

Related to this is Blunden's depiction of himself in his prose memoir, Undertones of War, as "a harmless young shepherd in a soldier's coat". Barry Webb's 1990 biography revealed the extent to which darker, more troubled forces lurked beneath the surface of the literary legend, but it remains true that the lack of a more adversarial voice, in his criticism as well as his poetry, has tended to make Blunden less immediately attractive to a modern readership. His refusal to take a more combative stance was at the root of his famous disagreement in 1929 with Robert Graves over the "cold use and slaughter of others" in Goodbye To All That. Graves's satiric attitudes, his readiness to attack and abuse fellow officers and men, were anathema to Blunden, who had dedicated himself to keeping faith with the memory of the dead.

Blunden continually emphasises the poet's special responsibility to remember. His 1933 poem "From Age to Age" laments the failure of war memorials and cemeteries, "history's marble eyes", to remind the world of the sacrifice of the dead. The spectre of war was never far away: a row of trees which appeared distantly reminiscent of the Somme landscape, or a glass of lime juice, which when tasted suggested French lemonade, could transport him mentally back to the fields of Flanders. And so his greatest war poems are like acts of remembrance, of the violence done to nature by the destructive force of war, and of the love and comradeship he felt for those from his battalion who had been killed.

Overtones of War, which is astonishingly the first edition of Blunden's war poetry, is not intended to be a definitive collection. As Martin Taylor explains in his introduction, it includes, with one exception, only published work, though he has accepted variants of punctuation and language derived from Blunden's own annotations. There is the problem of how to define a war poem. No other participant in the war was as much concerned with its aftertones, its "impacts and delayed actions", as with its undertones. Taylor's sensible solution is to include only those pre-war service poems which mention the war, but to collect all the poems written during Blunden's war service, and also the post-war poetry which is clearly subject to the enduring legacy of the conflict. The final poem in the volume is "Ancre Sunshine", written in 1966 on Blunden's last visit to France.

This collection emphasises the effects of Blunden's irony on his pastoral vision, what Paul Fussell once called the "steely glitter" in Blunden's work. Blunden could find refuge from the distress of war in contemplating the rural landscape of his youth, and portray the menace and violation inflicted on nature by modern warfare. But the singularity of his poetic voice lies in his recognition that the war made a retreat into pastoralism no longer an adequate response. As Taylor puts it, "The ironic inability to enjoy scenes that comforted him in war now they have returned to peace is Blunden's special pain."

This is a worthy centenary tribute to the man whose coffin in 1974 was covered by Flanders poppies, in recognition of the way in which the First World War moulded his writing and scarred his life. It is also, sadly, a tribute to its editor, Martin Taylor, who completed the task only weeks before his untimely death in June. Although not the large-scale work his friends and colleagues at the Imperial War Museum had hoped for, Overtones of War provides clear evidence of his finely tuned critical intelligence, and will stand as a fitting memorial.

Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs
artSistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer, Lord Alan Sugar, Karren Brady are returning for The Apprentice series 10

TV
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder star in 'Girl, Interrupted'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Time to stop running: At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity

    Time to stop running

    At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence