Edmund Blunden (1896 – 1974) ranks among the most prodigious literary talents of his time. As an author and soldier-poet of the Great War, his literary career as a teacher, scholar, biographer and editor culminated in his election as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University in 1966. His pioneering literary work on John Clare, Wilfred Owen and Ivor Gurney made these poets available to the twentieth century reader for the first time.
He wrote from his own experience, of war, humankind and nature. Beloved by his students worldwide, he was a scholar and teacher of English Literature. His long friendship with Siegfried Sassoon was born of their war experiences and sustained by their many shared interests including cricket, which was an enduring passion for them both. Through Sassoon he met Thomas Hardy, after the meeting Sassoon commented that Blunden had ‘a good deal in common with old Hardy.’ Like Sassoon and Robert Graves, Blunden also wrote of his war experiences, his account was titled Undertones of War. This classic recollection of the Great War does not over emphasise the horrors of armed conflict, but paints an immediate picture of what it must have been like through the use of Blunden’s characteristic understatement.
Much of Blunden’s work continues to be particularly relevant today. Some of the themes he explores through his poetry and writing include:
- the environment and the relationship between man and nature. (For example the poem ‘A Hong Kong House’, from ‘A Hong Kong House, Poems 1951-1961’, Collins, 1962)
- the dangerous relationship between man and war in which the urge for aggression can betray the desire for peace. (For example, ‘A House in Festubert’ from ‘Overtones of War’, edited by Martin Taylor, Duckworth, 1996)
- the community spirit between soldiers during conflict. (For example, ‘The Watchers’ from ‘Overtones of War’, edited by Martin Taylor, Duckworth, 1996)
- the importance of recognising the undertones and paradoxes of life in order to enhance our understanding of ourselves and our motivations as human beings. (For example, ‘Values’ from ‘Overtones of War’, edited by Martin Taylor, Duckworth, 1996)
1896 - 1919
The eldest of nine children Edmund Blunden was born in London on 1 November 1896, where his parents were both schoolteachers. In 1900 the family moved to Yalding in Kent. Yalding was a typical nineteenth century working village and inspired over fifty of Edmund�s poems. In 1909 Edmund moved from the local Grammar School to the boarding school Christ’s Hospital in Horsham, Sussex having won a Classics scholarship. Christ’s Hospital was a unique school founded by Edward VI for the boys of parents with little or no means. Following a successful and enjoyable time at Christ’s Hospital he gained a place at Queens College, Oxford to read Classics. However like so many other young men at the time he volunteered for the Army in 1915, and put aside the opportunity to study for a degree, joining the community of army life instead and finding himself plunged into the chaos of the Great War.
In the spring of 1916 he joined the 11th Royal Sussex Regiment and saw active service at Festubert, Cuinchy and Givenchy, and later on that year he was at the Somme, the Ancre valley, and Thiepval. He won the Military Cross for his ‘conspicuous gallantry in action’ when he and a runner completed a reconnaissance mission, an almost suicidal action under constant shelling. In November 1916 the battalion was transferred to the Ypres Salient, where he remained through the battle of Passchendaele until January 1918 when the battalion was returned to the Somme. He was eventually de-mobbed on 17 February 1919, but ‘Undertones of War’ was not published until 1928. He was the longest serving war poet having spent two years in the trenches
In 1918, while at training camp in Suffolk, he met Mary Daines who he later married that year. Their first child, Joy, was born in July 1919. After visiting Edmund’s parents, Joy was suddenly taken ill – possibly through infected cow’s milk. She was rushed to Great Ormond St Hospital, where Edmund gave his own blood in an attempt to save her, but it was too late and she died later that evening. Joy’s death inspired a number of poems, including ‘The Child’s Grave’, and ‘To Joy’ which was set to music by his friend, the English composer Gerald Finzi. The death of Joy, his experience of war and the loss of his fellow soldiers haunted him for the rest of his life.
It was during this period that Edmund first met Siegfried Sassoon, then literary editor of the Daily Herald to whom he had sent some early poems. Their deep friendship and vast correspondence lasted over forty years.
In 1919 he took up his deferred place at Oxford University changing from Classics to English literature. However his personal literary research which now included the rediscovery of the poet John Clare, and contributions to a wide range of periodicals, meant that his undergraduate studies took second place. On top of this his financial situation became precarious with a young family to support, so he decided to take up the offer of a job on the journal ‘The Athenaeum’, and ‘The Nation’ (later the ‘New Statesman’) in London.
1920 - 1929
By 1920, he had prepared a volume of verse for publication ‘The Waggoner’. When published it attracted considerable attention from many including Thomas Hardy and the poet Walter de la Mare. On 29 October 1920 Mary gave birth to their second daughter Clare, who would be followed later by their son John, both were named after John Clare. During his research Blunden unearthed many unpublished poems by Clare, including the asylum poems. These were published in 1920 as ‘Poems Chiefly from Manuscript’. The publication of this edition created much interest in the ‘lost’ poems of John Clare.
Concerns about Edmund’s health (which we may now recognise as post traumatic stress syndrome), and domestic difficulties with Mary, prompted his friends to persuade him to take a trip on a coal boat from Wales to Buenos Aires. His account of which was published in 1922 as ‘The Bonaventure’. However, the trip failed to help him escape from the ghosts of war and ease his troubles at home. On his return home Edmund discovered he had won the Hawthornden Prize for ‘The Shepherd’, a collection of poems of peace and war, published in 1922.
Hard pressed to support his family with part time journalism, Edmund took up the position of Professor of English at Tokyo University. The offer came from Takeshi Saito, a distinguished Keats scholar who was to become one of Edmund’s greatest lifelong friends, and with whom he felt there was a meeting of minds.
On leaving for Japan Blunden could look back on a rich life – he had survived three years of war, won an Oxford scholarship, published five volumes of poetry, two books of prose, edited Clare and Smart and become a prolific literary journalist: he had met Hardy, Sassoon, Graves, De la Mare and many established writers; he had married and had fathered three children; he was about to become a professor and he was still seven months short of his twenty-eighth birthday. (‘Edmund Blunden, A Biography’, Barry Webb, Yale, 1990).
He remained in Japan between April 1924 and July 1927. His teaching position with his students was almost unique. He developed a warm and gentle rapport with the students providing them with a window on a western culture that was otherwise impossible for them to access. As well as his punishing lecturing schedule, he also wrote amongst other published works ‘Undertones of War’ – almost entirely from memory, from the desk at his hotel. Mary could not be persuaded to join him in Japan so she and their two children had remained behind in Suffolk. Consequently the relationship deteriorated, resulting in divorce in 1931.
The period between 1927 and 1931 was characterised by frenetic literary activity, poor health (he suffered from asthma all his life) and personal unhappiness. His secretary in Japan, Aki Hayashi (with whom he had also had an affair), had accompanied him back to England. Although the affair ended in Japan, Aki still had hopes for a relationship with Edmund, and Edmund felt obliged to satisfy her desire to come to England, and was consequently supporting her in a London flat. Having filed for divorce from Mary in 1929 when reconciliation proved impossible, Edmund moved into a bed sit in Talbot Rd, London. His daily life brimmed over with engagements with friends, the literati of London, lectures and writing, and also the first of many pilgrimages to the rebuilt town of Ypres. But despite his continuing literary acclaim he was personally unhappy. He had lost some of his friends through the separation with Mary, and his friendship with Robert Graves suffered after his publication of ‘Goodbye to All That’, a book both he and Sassoon considered to contain inaccuracies. The rift was not healed until 1966.
1930 - 1939
In 1930 Edmund was in need of a domestic retreat so he moved to Hawstead, Suffolk with his brother Gilbert and his German wife Annie. He also took up a new appointment as literary and assistant editor of another journal, ‘The Nation’. The financial pressures showed no signs of easing; he was now responsible not only for his own bed and board at Hawstead, but also for Mary, the children, and for Aki Hayashi. In 1931 leasing the old school house, Cleaves, he returned to Yalding briefly. He spent his time there editing the poems of Wilfred Owen which were published later that year. Like his pioneering work on John Clare, this edition was the first to bring the poems of Wilfred Owen to the reading public, and remained the standard text for the next thirty years. In October he took up a fellowship and tutorship in English at Merton College, Oxford. This appointment was to last for the next 13 years.
During his time at Oxford he was mentor and tutor to a wide range of undergraduates including future poets, university professors and lecturers. Merton College was the type of small and familiar community that Edmund loved – a successor to the communities of Yalding, Christ’s Hospital, and the Battalion.
In 1932 he succumbed to the advances of a reviewer on The Nation:Sylva Norman. The relationship that followed was founded in a shared love of literature. His divorce with Mary had only been finalised the year before, he was still supporting Aki Hayashi, and also his sister in law Annie in Hawstead. Despite all this, at the age of 35, he married Sylva on 5th July 1933. Once married they moved into a flat in Woodstock Rd, Oxford, next door to the novelist Graham Greene.
Despite the literary work they enjoyed together, the marriage did not survive. By the autumn of 1939, with Sylva stationed away from Oxford having joined the army, Edmund became aware of the attentions of one of his students: Claire Poynting.
Claire and Edmund shared a love of literature, poetry, and particularly, cricket. Claire, who was studying English Literature at St Hilda’s, was a member of Lancashire Cricket Club. She was a regular attendee at Old Trafford, and had first seen Edmund at a University match at Oxford. When Edmund suffered from pleurisy in 1940, Claire nursed him through it. By the end of 1942, Edmund and Claire had made unofficial plans to marry and have a family. Claire was now also in the army and the couple kept in contact through letters. This began a five year correspondence of over 1200 letters.
1940 - 1946
In April 1940 Edmund wrote to the Times to deplore plans to bomb German cities, fearing for the inevitable killing and wounding of civilians. As a result, Annie’s home in Tonbridge was raided by the police who took all Sylva’s letters to Edmund, and returned to the house to go through all Edmund’s books. Edmund told the Warden of Merton that he had already written to his old Commanding Officer, [Col. Harrison in Undertones of War] to offer his services, and soon found himself in uniform again as an officer in the University’s Officers Training Corps.
Blunden was not interested in politics but was vehemently opposed to war. He refused to be drawn into the politics of pacifism. His refusal to politically engage in the late 1930’s led to him being labelled a Nazi and subsequently, in the 1950s, a communist, following his visit to China, shortly after the end of the Korean war. His belief in the fundamental goodness of the ordinary man and the need to avoid war at all costs, consistently led him to being politically misunderstood, particularly during the tumultuous events of the 1930s. He used his writing, public speaking and visits to Germany in an ambassadorial attempt to influence opinion against any recurrence of the 1914-18 conflagration. This was emphatically not a political voice but one that believed in bringing nations together by talking to each other and building strong human ties. He was convinced that were his battle-weary generation in positions of power, war would naturally be averted. He was devastated when it became clear that lessons from the tragedy of the Great War were being ignored and in many cases trodden upon.
Having secured his divorce from Sylva Edmund married Claire in Tonbridge on 29 May 1945. Later that year, he rejoined the Times Literary Supplement as an assistant editor, and his daughter Margaret was born in 1946. Once again the international stage beckoned and he was invited to take up professorships in China and Korea, but he settled on a role as cultural adviser to the United Kingdom liaison mission to Japan. At last, Edmund was in a position to follow his belief that literature could heal wounds between peoples where politics could not.
1947 - 1952
His second visit to Japan at the end of 1947 was preceded by his reputation, and included a vast number of official engagements to speak or give lectures as part of the liaison mission. Their astonishing success meant that Edmund’s contract was extended from one to two years, and his pace of work became ever more demanding. In two years he delivered more than 600 lectures all over Japan – the majority prepared or adapted for specific occasions, some crafted in long hand the night before. Living in the Embassy compound in Tokyo he was daily sought after by editors, aspiring poets, translators and students seeking study scholarships in Britain. His role required sensitivity as well as stamina as the events at Hiroshima and Nagasaki had broken up all sections of Japanese life and he delivered this in good measure. His lectures were published as textbooks and talks, and in 1950 he was elected to the Japan Academy. All over Japan, commemorative tablets inscribed with Blunden poetry were put up between 1950 and 1975.
On his return to England in 1950, he re-joined the Times Literary Supplement. His work began to take new directions as he became involved with the Imperial War Graves Commission, visiting Normandy and Italy. His connection with Christ’s Hospital was re-invigorated when he wrote a pageant like portrayal of the school’s 400 year history which was performed both at Horsham and the Fortune Theatre. His musical association with Gerald Finzi continued working together on several joint projects, including a piece written for Coronation Day in 1953. That same summer, encouraged by Finzi, Edmund published the first selection of Ivor Gurney’s poetry, as well as an edition of Shelley’s selected poems. Life had returned to its previously hectic pace (there is not space here to adequately represent the quantity and breadth of his work). Having declined a nomination for the Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, his old pupil Bernard Mellor, who was now Registrar at Hong Kong University, offered him the Vice Chancellorship. Edmund refused, preferring the position of chair of English which became vacant in 1953. A free house and financial security helped him make the decision to move his family to Hong Kong in September 1953.
1953 - 1974
His life in Hong Kong was typically no less busy, despite the distance from home. The family had now increased to a total of four daughters: Margaret in 1946, Lucy (1948), Frances (1950) Catherine (1956). From Hong Kong he visited China twice, both times meeting the prime minister, Chou En Lai. He was constantly surrounded by people and memories of the past. The Hong Kong house was always full of students, friends and literary personalities passing through. He made several return visits to England from where he would tour the battlefields of Flanders, visit his old friend Siegfried Sassoon, Christ’s Hospital, and his ever widening range of contacts, including lecturing and taking part in literary occasions.
In 1956 he was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, and in 1957 his ‘Poems of Many Years’ was published, selected and arranged by his long term publisher, Rupert Hart Davis. In 1958 he was created ‘Companion of Literature’ and wrote ‘War Poets 1914-18’. In 1962 he published ‘A Hong Kong House’, his last major volume of poetry.
In 1964 at the age of 67 he retired and returned to England. The family settled in Long Melford, Suffolk, and initially a busy life took shape in the form of talks and lectures, articles and the publication of what would be his final poems. New friendships were also made, one such was with the poet Vernon Scannell. He was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1966. His final poem ‘Ancre Sunshine’ was written in 1966 on the fiftieth anniversary of the attack on Beaumont Hamel, and illustrates how the Great War haunted him to the end of his life. The year 1967 brought the death of Siegfried Sassoon, and with that the rapid demise of his own health. He resigned his professorship, and put down his pen.
Edmund Blunden died on January 20 1974. Private Beeney, his runner at Ypres and Paschendaele attended his funeral, placing a wreath of Flanders poppies in his grave.