If only bits of paper could speak! This manuscript, rescued from the roundabout of circulation these manuscripts often find themselves on, has found its purpose in a way it could never have dreamt of.
In 2001 the Imperial War Museum purchased an unpublished poem by Edmund Blunden. Why it was never published is a mystery. How it travelled from 67 Pembury Road, Tonbridge, (Blunden’s home at the time, as written on the top left hand corner of the manuscript) to destination unknown, remains hidden.
It is entitled V Day and addresses the ending of WW2 in Europe. But it does more than that and therein lies its interest.
Blunden was never one for the one layered poem. As a reader, he gives you plenty of value in exchange for your attention. This ‘new’ poem seems, on first reading, to be quite formally structured and laden with a language of scale and solemnity appropriate for a poem written for an occasion and concerning the immensity of the event of WW2. It begs to be spoken aloud – even from a stage.
Now the great vision which we dared believe
Through slow and savage years is all our own.
It almost has a Shakespearean ring to it…
There are many instances in the poem of such dignified lines capturing us and urging us to take note – this is important. A world war is being concluded –
a widening wonder glitters on our view
Peace lies on the immediate horizon.
After years of conflict, anxiety, suffering, pain and unknown losses, a drama measureless, the opportunity has come to
live triumph now.
…once more we have come through
This potent line with its offering of release and relief has its source in his prose work ‘Undertones of War’ (published 1928). He describes the final exit from the Somme area where he and his companions went through the indescribable; now the battalion has marched and trained north towards Ypres and it is midwinter, a frosty December midnight when they arrive at Camp M. They are greeted and taken to warm themselves by hot stoves. With relief and gratitude he writes: We have come through.
However if there is irony infused in this line it is that he is only half way through – he still has the Battle of Passchendaele waiting for him.
Thus this link, this echo, for him and other survivors who have already experienced one world upheaval underlines and expands the enormity of the current situation giving his poem V Day another layer of meaning.
Blunden is not all reassurance. This is a poem which takes the long view.
There are lines in it which jerk the reader into a dark place, a place of question and challenge. And of course he is the man, the poet, who can from the perspective of a WW1 soldier-witness, write with authenticity.
He suddenly plunges the reader into an old hell, one he knew intimately.
…we are mindful still
Of yesterday’s red shadows and fierce toil
Of this man’s death and that man’s master-stroke
Note the we he uses which is in keeping with the objective approach he has adopted for much of the poem. But then:
Blastings, soul-witherings, hungers, eyes of death on you.
There is no escape here into victory. Blunden is in the trenches again. The language has changed, pushing us right up against his truth of war.
He moves on to address the issue of sacrifice. Not a word we use much in our every-day speech nowadays. But it is a word inextricably linked to war and one which challenges the modern reader to think about its significance.
The sacrifice of multitude. An enormous word. This was a world war. People all over the globe gave themselves to carry out the vast strategies of world leaders.
There is a chill in the phrase from which escape was none.
The net spread wide, the trap was total.
Those people whose gift of service, and in many cases life, was given for
Reunion, restoration, freedom deep and true.
In an essay Blunden wrote entitled ‘The Somme Still Flows’ (to be found printed in Edmund Blunden , Fall In, Ghosts, Selected War Prose, edited by Robyn Marsack 2018 and published by Carcanet), he wrote of his experience as a soldier in the Battle of the Somme:
Neither race had won, nor could win, the War.
The War had won and would go on winning.
War is an ancient impostor, but none of his masks and smiles and gallant trumpets can any longer delude us; he leads the way through the cornfields to the cemetery of all that is best. The best is, indeed, his special prey. What men did in the battle of the Somme, day after day, and month after month, will never be excelled in honour, unselfishness, and love; except by those who come after and resolve that their experience shall never again fall to the lot of human beings.
The final verse of ‘V Day’ poses a complex question: What is our responsibility to those who died in any war?
Blunden asks of us some serious thinking.
If we had solved the conflict of WW1 the world would be in a better place so how shall we find our way forward to create a warless future?
What if we fail to understand the sacrifice?
There is a direction suggested here; in order to honour the memory of those who died we have to work out how to solve conflict other than through war. Only then can we say we have finally come through.
…how shall we then
But by their memory rule what lies before
And from their genius light such ways that men
Through such convulsion never labour more?
The repetition in the final line of “We have come through” on my first reading of the poem sounded like a victory cheer. However I now think the word in the penultimate line Thence gives us a nudge towards a different interpretation.
Thence shall the final victory ever new
Sing in the lives of all that live, “We have come through”.
If we can understand the sacrifice made by people who die in war and subsequently change our ways, only then may victory be ours.
25 April 2020, amended 10 May