Wednesday, November 11, 2015

`That Strange World Insists on Torturing'

Included in Edmund Blunden: A Biography (Yale University Press, 1990) by Barry Webb is a photograph of five English army officers in the 11th Royal Sussex Regiment, including Blunden, taken at St. Omer on the Western Front in June 1917. All were Old Blues, alumni of Christ’s Hospital in London, the school where Lamb and Coleridge had become lifelong friends more than a century before. They called themselves the “Feast of Five.” On the left stands W.J. Collyer. In his memoir Undertones of War (1928), Blunden (1894-1974) describes him as “cheerful at all times, and gifted with an odd humour which made him a most agreeable companion.” To Collyer’s left is Horace Amon, and next to him is E.W. Tice. Seated on the left is Arnold G. A. Vidler, and next to him is Blunden. They and Collyer are tight-lipped but smiling. Amon and Tice are poker-faced.    

On July 31, 1917, during the first minutes of the Battle of Passchendaele, Collyer was killed in No Man’s Land. Amon survived the war and went to teach in Shanghai. A few hours after Collyer died, Tice encountered two German soldiers leaving a dugout at Passchendaele. Using the butt of his revolver he knocked down one but the second shot and killed him. Vidler took his own life on March 6, 1924. Among the poems Blunden appended to Undertones of War was “A.G.A.V.,” dedicated to Vidler and including these lines:

“Ardour, valour, the ceaseless plan all agreed to be yours,
Wit with these familiar ran, when you went to the wars;
If one cause I have for pride, it is to have been your friend,
To have lain in shell-holes by your side . . .”

In a later edition of Undertones of War, Blunden added this note to the poem: “Shot himself in a fit of despair, 1924, after long mental misery. . . Vidler had been badly wounded, and could not endure many years after though always full of friendship and humour.” In his “Preliminary” to the book, Blunden remembers “E.W.T., and W.J.C., and A.G.V., in whose recaptured gentleness no sign of death’s astonishment or time’s separation shall be imaginable.”

By all accounts, Blunden was a gentle, thoughtful, dreamy man, who would name two of his children, John and Clare, after the mad poet John Clare. He saw continuous action from 1916 to 1918, and survived the fighting at Ypres and the Somme. His friend Siegfried Sassoon said Blunden was the Great War poet most obsessed with his memories of the Western Front. In November 1968, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Armistice, Blunden wrote in the Daily Express:

“I have of course wondered when the effect of the Old War would lose its imprisoning power. Since 1918 hardly a day or night passed without my losing the present and living in a ghost story. Even when the detail of dreams is fantasy, the setting of that strange world insists on torturing.”

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