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
Sunday 08 December 1996
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.
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