Biography of Edmund Blunden
Edmund Charles Blunden was an English poet, author and critic. Like his friend Siegfried Sassoon, he wrote of his experiences in World War I in both verse and prose. For most of his career, Blunden was also a reviewer for English publications and an academic in Tokyo and later Hong Kong. He ended his career as Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford.
Early Years and WWI
Edmund Charles Blunden was born in London in 1896, moving with his family to Kent shortly afterwards. He was educated at Christ's Hospital and Queen's College, Oxford. Blunden was commissioned into the Royal Sussex Regiment in 1915 and served in France and Belgium from 1916 to 1919, fighting on the Somme and at Ypres. He was awarded the Military Cross.
Career as a Writer
In 1920 his collection of poetry The Waggoner was published after he sent a privately printed collection of verse to the then Literary Editor of The Daily Herald, Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon had immediately realised Blunden's abilities and wrote him an encouraging letter, starting a lifelong friendship between the two cricket-playing poets. In 1922 Blunden's The Shepherd followed, winning him the Hawthorden Prize. The Shepherd included poems from five previously privately printed collections published between 1914 and 1916. In 1928 Blunden published his chronicle of the First World War, Undertones of War, which gained him a wide reputation that was further enhanced by his collection The Poems of Edmund Blunden 1914-1930 published in 1930.
Edmund Blunden is largely underestimated today as a war poet, mainly because the work of other poets such as Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and Siegfried Sassoon has eclipsed that of Blunden. It is ironic that it was Blunden's edition of Owen's poetry (published in 1931) which aroused the public interest in Owen which has never died since.
Further irony is to be found in that fact that Blunden took over the editing of Owen's poems after Siegfried Sassoon found he was still too upset over the death of his friend and fellow Craiglockhartian poet to continue. Blunden's own war poems are far more restrained than those of either Owen or Sassoon, but Blunden's hatred of the war and his grief for the war's dead, were just as intense as that of Owen or Sassoon. Blunden commemorated the dead in a passionately lyrical elegy, Their Very Memory. He also expressed his dismay at the destruction of the French countryside in his poetry, a theme missing from the poetry of either Owen or Sassoon (the latter preferring to glory in the beauty of the English countryside when he wasn't describing life in the trenches).
Blunden was also unusual amongst the war poets for acknowledging that even amidst the senseless slaughter there could be, and were, moments of happiness. His poem At Senlis Once is a celebration of a brief interval of rest and refreshment, whilst Concert Party : Busseboom recalls an hour of innocent entertainment.
Blunden, like Sassoon, wrote poems about the English countryside; it was Blunden's description of a Kentish barn that had alerted Sassoon to Blunden's talent. His poems about the English countryside are often considered his finest; they have been described as combining "a formal, at times, archaic utterance with an exact portrayal of the scene, a delicacy of perception, and an air of unease and foreboding." Blunden's poems feature alms-women, lovers, village forefathers, midnight skaters and even a cornered weasel in Winter : East Anglia.
Between the wars Blunden earned his living as a literary journalist, as a Professor of English Literature at Tokyo University from 1924-27 (succeeding Robert Nichols), and as a fellow and tutor of English at Merton College, Oxford from 1931-43. During the ten years following the outbreak of the Second World War Blunden published three volumes of poetry : Poems 1930-1940 (1940) shows traces of his continuing preoccupation with the conflict of 1914-18. Although in the Preface he denies "morbidly wishing to go back that road" he yet acknowledges "that tremendous time does not easily give up its hold". Shells by a Stream (1944) and After Bombing (1949) reflect his sombre thoughts about the darkness of the age, although these are lightened by his hope of renewal and his belief in traditional values.
After leaving Merton, Blunden worked for the Times Literary Supplement before he joined the UK Liaison Mission in Tokyo in 1948. In 1950 he began a second stint at the TLS before being appointed Emeritus professor of English Literature at Hong Kong University in 1953. He won the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1956, and returned to England in the early 1960s.
Blunden's last two collections of poetry were A Hong Kong House : Poems 1951-1962 (1962) and Eleven Poems (1965). He was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1966, but he was forced, by ill health, to resign in 1968. His final years were spent with his third wife, Claire and their four daughters in the village of Long Melford, Suffolk. There in 1966 he wrote a guide to its magnificent parish church.
Much of Blunden's time was devoted to editing and writing biography and criticism. He edited volumes of poetry by John Clare in 1920 (with Alan Porter), and of Ivor Gurney in 1954 - rendering them the same service he had previously rendered Wilfred Owen in 1931 - that of bringing their poetry to a wider audience. His most important studies were of minor and major writers of the late-seventeenth to mid-nineteenth centuries, reserving a particular affection for Shelley, Keats, Lamb, Leigh Hunt and their friends, and among later writers for Thomas Hardy.
Blunden is, however, better known for his poetry and Undertones of War. In the preface to his 1930 collection of poetry Blunden spoke of the Great War as an experience so early in his life "as to mould and colour the poetry throughout the book". In fact, as with so many other poets of the First World War, the conflict continued to colour his work throughout his life. His other major theme was the one he shared with the early Siegfried Sassoon, the English countryside in which he was born and to which he returned after his journeyings were over.
Edmund Blunden died in 1974.
Blunden was married three times. While still in the army he met and married Mary Daines in 1918. They had three children, the first of whom died in infancy. They divorced in 1931, and in 1933 Blunden married Sylva Norman, a young novelist and critic. That marriage, which was childless, was dissolved in 1945, and in the same year he married Claire Margaret Poynting, a former pupil of his; they had four daughters. Blunden then met Aki Hayashi in Japan, and Aki moved to England with Blunden. The relation later changed from a partner to a friend, but they remained in contact for the rest of her life.
Blunden's love of cricket, celebrated in his book Cricket Country, is described by the biographer Philip Ziegler as fanatical. Blunden and his friend Rupert Hart-Davis regularly opened the batting for a publisher's eleven in the 1930s (Blunden insisted on batting without gloves).An affectionate obituary tribute in The Guardian commented, "He loved cricket ... and played it ardently and very badly", while in a review of Cricket Country, George Orwell described him as "the true cricketer":
The test of a true cricketer is that he shall prefer village cricket to 'good' cricket [.... Blunden's] friendliest memories are of the informal village game, where everyone plays in braces, where the blacksmith is liable to be called away in mid-innings on an urgent job, and sometimes, about the time when the light begins to fail, a ball driven for four kills a rabbit on the boundary.
In a 2009 appreciation of the book and its author, Bangalore writer Suresh Menon writes,
Any cricket book that talks easily of Henry James and Siegfried Sassoon and Ranji and Grace and Richard Burton (the writer, not the actor) and Coleridge is bound to have a special charm of its own. As Blunden says, "The game which made me write at all, is not terminated at the boundary, but is reflected beyond, is echoed and varied out there among the gardens and the barns, the dells and the thickets, and belongs to some wider field."
Perhaps that is what all books on cricket are trying to say.
Blunden had a robust sense of humour. In Hong Kong he relished linguistic misunderstandings such as those of the restaurant that offered "fried prawn's balls" and the schoolboy who wrote, "In Hong Kong there is a queer at every bus-stop."
His fellow poets' regard for Blunden was illustrated by the contributions to a dinner in his honour for which poems were specially written by Cecil Day-Lewis and William Plomer; T. S. Eliot and Walter de la Mare were guests; and Siegfried Sassoon provided the Burgundy.
Edmund Blunden's Works:
Poems 1913 and 1914 (1914)
Poems Translated from the French (1914)
Three Poems (1916)
The Barn (1916)
The Silver Bird of Herndyke Mill ,Stane Street,The Gods of the World Beneath, (1916)
The Harbingers (1916)
The Waggoner and Other Poems (1920)
The Shepherd, and Other Poems of Peace and War (1922)
Old Homes (1922)
To Nature: New Poems (1923)
Dead Letters (1923)
Masks of Time: A New Collection of Poems Principally Meditative (1925)
Japanese Garland (1928)
Winter Nights: A Reminiscence (1928)
Near and Far: New Poems (1929)
A Summer's Fancy (1930)
To Themis: Poems on Famous Trials (1931)
Constantia and Francis: An Autumn Evening, (1931)
Halfway House: A Miscellany of New Poems, (1932)
Choice or Chance: New Poems (1934)
Verses: To H. R. H. The Duke of Windsor, (1936)
An Elegy and Other Poems (1937); On Several Occasions (1938)
Poems, 1930-1940 (1940)
Shells by a Stream (1944)
After the Bombing, and Other Short Poems (1949)
Eastward: A Selection of Verses Original and Translated (1950)
Records of Friendship (1950)
A Hong Kong House (1959)
Poems on Japan (1967).
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Edmund Blunden Poems
Preparations For Victory
My soul, dread not the pestilence that hags The valley; flinch not you, my body young. At these great shouting smokes and snarling jags Of fiery iron; as yet may not be flung
Report on Experience
I have been young, and now am not too old; And I have seen the righteous forsaken, His health, his honour and his quality taken. This is not what we were formerly told.
1916 seen from 1921
Tired with dull grief, grown old before my day, I sit in solitude and only hear Long silent laughters, murmurings of dismay, The lost intensities of hope and fear;
The Midnight Skaters
The hop-poles stand in cones, The icy pond lurks under, The pole-tops steeple to the thrones Of stars, sound gulfs of wonder;
Here they went with smock and crook, Toiled in the sun, lolled in the shade, Here they mudded out the brook And here their hatchet cleared the glade:
To-day’s house makes to-morrow’s road; I knew these heaps of stone When they were walls of grace and might, The country’s honour, art’s delight
At Senlis Once
how comely it was and how reviving, When with clay and with death no longer striving Down firm roads we came to houses With women chattering and green grass thriving.
So there's my year, the twelvemonth duly told Since last I climbed this brow and gloated round Upon the lands heaped with their wheaten gold, And now again they spread with wealth imbrowned -
What's that over there? Thiepval Wood.
Chinese Paper Knife
For the first time ever, and only now (Long waiting where I should see) The tiny carved bird, the bony bough Start sharp into life for me.
Can you Remember?
Yes, I still remember The whole thing in a way; Edge and exactitude Depend on the day.
The Child's Grave
I came to the churchyard where pretty Joy lies On a morning in April, a rare sunny day; Such bloom rose around, and so many birds' cries
Vlamertinghe: Passing the Chateau
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest - But we are coming to the sacrifice. Must those flowers who are not yet gone West? May those flowers who live with death and lice?
At Quincey's moat the squandering village ends, And there in the almshouse dwell the dearest friends Of all the village, two old dames that cling
Report on Experience
I have been young, and now am not too old;
And I have seen the righteous forsaken,
His health, his honour and his quality taken.
This is not what we were formerly told.
I have seen a green country, useful to the race,
Knocked silly with guns and mines, its villages vanished,
Even the last rat and the last kestrel banished -
God bless us all, this was peculiar grace.