Edmund Blunden is a poet and scholar not widely known despite the considerable body of work to his credit both in verse and prose. His concern with describing English countryside and country life, his contemplative and nostalgic mood, the restraint and even temper of the verse have run a quiet course beneath the experiments, the probing of self and society, the symbolic achievement, of the major modern poets. Even Blunden’s war poems keep a restraint, a tone of both matter of factness and of pity which seldom approaches the work of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, or of Randall Jarrell, in violent imagery, anguished and angry outcry, bitter irony and social protest. His images are brutal enough, and shocking, but are presented more as a matter of sad fact, inevitability, than to shock the reader into a realization of the horror of combat. It is man’s pitiable attempts at heroism compared to the brute forces of destruction, which is Blunden’s theme, rather than the causes of the war, and the questionable ends it serves. In later years, Blunden looks back at his war experience, and, as many others have done, he feels a mixture of awe and sadness that such momentous events could be past, covered, swept away and all but forgotten.
Some of his poems contribute a major clue to Blunden’s attitude toward war. While, of course, detesting the whole bloody business, particularly the waste of static trench warfare wherein, as he explains in his classic prose work, UNDERTONES OF WAR, suicide raids were carried out only to straighten a line on a map, Blunden’s deepest feelings are reserved for the men he came to know and love under the enforced, close fellowship of combat. Under such inhuman conditions, the human virtues of kindness and brotherliness become absolute values.
In the war poems, and in UNDERTONES OF WAR, Blunden describes the everyday feelings and even the small, delicious diversions of men caught in the military mill. He never attempts to raise his voice above the crash of battle. UNDERTONES is remarkable for its quietly earnest and honest depiction of the whole range of military life.
Blunden’s verse is essentially a formal, even stately, poetry, and the inversions of word order as well as the diction are often reminiscent of Milton and even more so of the eighteenth century nature poets, Thomson and Collins.
For all the traditional flavor of his verse, both in form and content, there is another side, or depth, to Blunden. Born perhaps in the war, and certainly brought to the full there, is his sense of impending, inevitable destruction. It is this foreboding, underlying the domestic exterior of everyday life, that gives Blunden’s poems their bite. This deeper note is usually caught in a style which has an abruptness and natural strength which, while...
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