In Heroes’ Twilight (1965, 1996), a study of World War I literature, the critic Bernard Bergonzi emphasizes the literariness of the average British officer, who “had received a classical education and [was] very well read in English poetry, so that [William] Shakespeare and [John] Milton, [William] Wordsworth and [John] Keats would be constantly quoted or alluded to when they wrote about the war.” However true this observation may be of others, it is perfectly suited to Edmund Blunden. Blunden was the epitome of the well-educated, humane, and literary-minded British officer of World War I. Support for this argument comes in Blunden’s Undertones of War when Blunden’s commanding officer summons him to headquarters to express his admiration on learning that a published author serves under him. The respect accorded poetry is almost unbelievable until one considers Bergonzi’s further point about the value of poetry during the war. Poetry provided “a sense of identity and continuity, a means of accommodating to life in a bizarre world as well as a source of consolation.” As a form of shared experience and as a form of therapy, poetry helped many British soldiers endure the barbaric conditions they faced.
In the 1960’s, Bergonzi pointed out that Blunden could be distinguished from his contemporaries by “the intensity of his absorption in the countryside.” Blunden was almost always considered a nature poet; that is, his interest lay in representing the interconnection between humans and the natural world. The critical status of nature poetry varies greatly over time; correspondingly, Blunden’s critical reputation also varied. During the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, he was compared unfavorably to more experimental poets like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound; in the mid-1960’s, his poetry seemed hopelessly old-fashioned to many Oxford University undergraduates, who vocally opposed his candidacy for Professor of Poetry. It is questionable whether either set of critics truly understood the value of nature for Blunden. Nature was to Blunden a complex and compelling subject for poetry.
Nature as the art of God
The strongest of Blunden’s reasons for writing nature poetry was to convey his deep love for the English countryside. As Bergonzi points out, “He knows the country with a deep knowledge and a deep love and it pervades the whole structure of his mind and feelings.” This sense of deep intermingling of nature and the human mind is central to Blunden’s poetry. In another critical study of Blunden’s work, Thomas Mallon makes the same point, writing, “Poetry’s chief task in describing nature [is] to capture its spirit, to communicate those feelings it gave to man.” In a public address, Blunden endorsed the belief that “Nature hath made one World, and Art another. In brief, all things are artificial; for Nature is the Art of God.” Thus, through his poetry Blunden could posit himself within this process of creation and understand more deeply the proper relationship of human beings, nature, and God. Seen in this way, Blunden’s poetry is classifiable in terms of a series of interpenetrations of human beings and nature: the effect of nature on the human being, the effects of war on nature, the effect of war on humanity, and, finally, the effect of humans on nature.
This collection of previously published works contains some of Blunden’s earliest and most accessible poems. Blunden often offered a straightforward view of nature as therapy for suffering humanity, particularly those who are facing death during war. In “The Pagoda,” the speaker dwells on the crumbled building and the animals that inhabit it:
The small robin reconnoitres,Unabashed the woodmouse loiters: Brown owls hoot at shadow-fall And deathwatch ticks and...
(The entire section is 1638 words.)