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|Geplaatst: 26 Mrt 2014 17:01 Onderwerp: For Edmund Blunden, surviving the war was the easy part
|Poet Edmund Blunden’s experiences at Ypres and the Somme haunted him all his life.
What happened to the survivors of the First World War when they returned home?
So many of the war poets — Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas and Isaac Rosenberg among them — were killed, their works written in the heat of battle.
But one of them, Edmund Blunden, arrived home in one piece, after two years at the Front in some of the bloodiest fighting, at Passchendaele, Ypres and the Somme. No other poet witnessed the horrors for so long. Owen saw eight months at the front, Robert Graves a year and Siegfried Sassoon 16 months.
Blunden was 22 when the war ended, but he lived another 53 years with the war still pounding away in his mind, producing at one moment exceptional poetry, at others unbearable nightmares.
“He’s been called a war-haunted poet and I think that’s absolutely right,” says Margi Blunden, 67, one of Blunden’s four daughters from his third marriage. “He couldn’t let go of it. The images just used to haunt him.
“He went on writing about the war until he could no longer write. The very last poem he wrote, 'Ancre Sunshine’, was about survivor guilt. From 1915 to 1966, he was writing about the war.”
Blunden used to say that he lived in that world rather than this and his children had to come to terms with their father’s suffering — which would now be classified as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Blunden suffered nightmares almost every night.
“The night was filled with the war and the day job was filled with being a literary journalist or being a professor,” Margi recalls. “There was depression, anger at times and the memories that he couldn’t obliterate – and how could anyone obliterate them?”
Blunden, later the Oxford Professor of Poetry, didn’t just write poetry about the war. His 1928 memoir, Undertones of War, is a classic prose account of the conflict. He also went to reunions of the Royal Sussex Regiment, as well as returning to the battlefields themselves.
“How can we know why he had to keep going back?” says Margi, a counsellor and retired teacher, who lives in Hunstanton, Norfolk. “He was passionate about not forgetting what the men did, what the war was about. That’s why he was so desperate about the Second World War. 'Have we not learnt from what happened in the First World War?’ he used to wonder.” Another generation of young men were doomed to suffer as he had.
“When he was asked to choose a poem to represent all his war poetry, he chose a poem called 'Can You Remember?’ It was very important to remember what they’d died for. But it was also time to pay attention to what it was like to survive.”
Like many of Blunden’s poems, “Can You Remember?” combines the horrors of war with some of its incidental pleasures.
“…At the instance
Of sound, smell, change and stir,
New-old shapes for ever
And some are sparkling,
Young, heroic, mild;
And some incurable, twisted,
Shrieking, dumb, defiled.”
Again and again in his poetry, life interrupts death; pleasure interrupts the horrors. In “Third Ypres”, in the middle of the madness of the battle, Blunden saw a family of 20 field mice, with “a tame and curious look about them; (these calmed me, on these depended my salvation)”.
In another poem, “Concert Party: Busseboom”, Blunden describes the battle raging in the tunnels beneath the ground as the troops leave the theatre on a night off.
“We heard the maniac blast
Of barrage south by Saint Eloi,
And the red lights flaming there
Called madness: Come,
my bonny boy,
And dance to the latest air.
To this new concert, white we stood;
Cold certainty held our breath;
While men in tunnels
below Larch Wood
Were kicking men to death.”
Blunden, born in 1896, had only just left Christ’s Hospital School in Sussex when he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1915. The eldest of nine and the son of two London teachers, Blunden was astonishingly precocious. He picked up volumes of Horace and Tennyson from ruined houses at the Front; in Arras in 1918, he found Edward Thomas’s study of Keats in a hole in the wall by his bed. Thomas had been killed at Arras.
“He was a teenage boy going off to war – when he goes to Festubert [a shattered town on the Front], he looks for a shop he can buy chocolate in,” says Margi. “He said that the war took away his innocence and made him into an old man. You can see it in his face in the Rex Whistler picture – it’s sunken, hollow.”
Whistler was one of many artistic and literary greats Blunden met after the war. He was “a bit of a literary detective”, says his daughter. In 1920, with a fellow scholar, he discovered a hoard of missing poems by his hero, John Clare, in a cupboard in Peterborough Library - which they promptly published.
In one memorable 1922 pilgrimage, Blunden visited Max Gate in Dorset to meet the 82-year-old Thomas Hardy. They strolled to church and discussed the calligraphy on the rood screen. A year later, Blunden returned to Hardy’s house, this time accompanied by T E Lawrence.
The fourth member of the party, Siegfried Sassoon, knew about both worlds. He had been an influential figure in Blunden’s life, first coming across him when Blunden submitted poems to the Daily Herald, where Sassoon was literary editor. “I had discovered a poet,” Sassoon later declared.
Sassoon, or “Sieg”, as Margi Blunden calls him, was her godfather.
“They used to spend hours talking about the war, simply because they both knew what it was about,” she says.
It wasn’t just war that scarred Blunden. By his first marriage – an impulsive 1918 wedding to Mary Daines, an 18-year-old Newmarket girl – he had a daughter, Joy, who died at five weeks after being poisoned by contaminated milk. Joy’s death marked Blunden, and his poems, for the rest of his life. Two further children, John and Clare, named after Blunden’s favourite poet, followed, but the marriage was doomed. A second marriage, in 1933, to a novelist, Sylva Nahabedian, also failed, before Blunden found lasting love with Margi Blunden’s mother, Claire Poynting. They married in 1945 and had four daughters.
The war was a regular visitor to the lunch table as Margi grew up in Japan and Hong Kong, where Blunden taught, and then in Long Melford, Suffolk, where he spent the years before his death in 1974.
“He wouldn’t talk about what happened – it was about the men, the men he knew and the men he lost,” she says. The war caught up with him in the end. The last few years were hard for him.”
Margi believes his creativity became a form of defence. “Maybe that kept him sane after the insanity of what he’d experienced,” she says. “But there would be times, especially when I was growing up, when those defences started to crumble because he was getting old and worn out, and the war would break through. As he grew older, it was becoming harder to contain the enormity of what he’d experienced. He wrote that the war had won and would go on winning.”
At Blunden’s funeral in Long Melford, a small figure stepped up to the graveside and threw a wreath of Flanders poppies on top of the coffin. It was Private A E Beeney, of the 11th Royal Sussex Regiment, who had been Blunden’s runner at Ypres and Passchendaele.
In death, as in life, the First World War was ever present.
*Margi Blunden is talking about Edmund Blunden at Wadham College, Oxford, on April 5: english.ox.ac.uk
If any question why we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied
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