Edmund Blunden (1896-1974) is a poet whose work and life were moulded by his experience of the First World War. Blunden was born in London but grew up in Kent, a childhood which laid the foundation for his deep love of the English countryside. He was educated at Christ's Hospital School in Sussex and won a scholarship to study Classics at Queens College, Oxford University. However, instead of taking up his place, he enlisted in the Army. In spring 1916 he joined the 11th Royal Sussex Regiment, serving with them through some of the bloodiest battles of the Western Front, including the Somme and Passchaendaele, his bravery winning him the Military Cross. Blunden was the longest serving of the war poets, surviving a full two years in the trenches. He wrote some poems at the time, but many more in the decades that followed: his last poem 'Ancre Sunshine', written in 1966 on the 50th anniversary of the attack on Beaumont Hamel, testifies to just how deeply his experience haunted him. On his return from the war, Blunden married Mary Daines and the couple had a daughter, Joy, whose death in infancy also profoundly affected him. The next few years saw Blunden establish himself as a writer and critic for The Nation
and the Times Literary Supplement
amongst others. He also conducted literary research, particularly with regard to John Clare: it was Blunden's discovery and dissemination of Clare's "asylum" poems that led to a re-evaluation of the poet. Similarly it was Blunden who more than anyone was responsible for bringing the work of his fellow war poets to greater public attention, editing both an edition of Wilfred Owen's poems (1931) and the first selected poems of Ivor Gurney (1954). During this period Blunden also became close friends with Siegfried Sassoon, a fellow poet and war survivor who understood the psychological burdens this imposed. Sassoon encouraged Blunden's poetry and he began to make his mark on his own account: The Waggoner
(1920) drew praise from Thomas Hardy and Walter de la Mare and The Shepherd
(1922) won the Hawthornden Prize. This was followed by his classic account of the war, Undertones of War
(1928), which has remained in print ever since. However, literary success was accompanied by personal unhappiness as his first marriage ended in divorce in 1931. The late 20s and early 30s was a period of upheaval for Blunden as he took the first in a series of teaching posts in the Far East, beginning with Professor of English at Tokyo University. This was followed by a spell in England, where in 1931 he accepted a fellowship at Merton College Oxford which provided a measure of financial stability for the next thirteen years. In 1932 he met Sylvia Norman, a reviewer on The Nation
, who was to become his second wife, but this marriage too did not last.
Blunden was deeply troubled by the onset of the Second World War and argued against it, from a humanitarian rather than a political point of view. He at least found some personal peace during the war years, marrying Clare Poynter, a former student, a relationship that endured to his death and produced four daughters. The post-war years saw his return to the Far East, first as the United Kingdom's cultural advisor in Japan, and finally as Chair of English at Hong Kong University. In 1956 he was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. In 1964 he retired from teaching, and made his final home with his family at Long Melford in Suffolk. In 1966 he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford, the culmination of a lifetime's dedication to literature. He died in 1974 and is buried in the beautiful mediaeval church at Long Melford. The Great War remained a presence in death as it had in his life: at his funeral his runner at Ypres and Passchaendaele, Private Beeney, placed a wreath of Flanders poppies on his grave.
Blunden's Archive-featured poems reflect the First World War's dominance of his imagination but also show how his approach differed markedly from contemporaries such as Sassoon and Owen. Blunden's is a more restrained voice which values deeply the camaraderie of his fellow soldiers. This is evident in his powerful rendition of 'Concert Party: Busseboom' which celebrates a rare break from the fighting. However, this respite is short-lived as the concert-goers emerge to the sound of a barrage in the near-distance, the poem's power lying in this jarring juxtaposition. 'Report on Experience' is a more general comment on the war but reflects his love of the countryside, and his anguish at its wholesale destruction in France. The poem has an ambivalent message, its last line suggesting that the memory of the war always comes between him and "faith, life, virtue in the sun". Finally the poem 'Forefathers', while not explicitly about the war, carries a sense of lost generations in its celebration of the 'unrenowned and unnamed' country men who created the landscape of rural England. The poem, which was published in his first collection, explores the link which ties Blunden to this anonymous ancestry but there is also an unspoken sense of how this continuity has been ruptured within his lifetime.