Saturday, January 07, 2017

`Then Too There Was Humor About the Place'

While reading the new critical edition of Edmund Blunden’s 1928 memoir of World War I, Undertones of War (Oxford, 2015), edited by John Greening, I happened on an unexpected series of pleasing observations by the poet. I knew Blunden (1896-1974) was a gentle, bookish, somewhat melancholy soul, a lover of nature and famously forgiving as a reviewer of books. But here is a passage from Blunden’s introduction written for the 1964 edition of his memoir, included by Greening in his notes:

“I have been blamed for being too amiable over the old War. Even on the cricket field once an incoming batsman, at a convenient moment, told me that he was one of my readers and thought it a good book, although he had determinedly refused to take part in the War himself; but, for all my good points, I had written about it like a child who was happy with a bag of sweets.”

For the American reader, cricket references rival allusions to Linear B in their opacity. In this case, the casual exercise of literary criticism on the cricket field is charming and gentlemanly. Blunden’s cricket-playing critic gets him right. The poet continues:

“An author is not likely to be his own best defence on questions of tone and balance, especially in the middle of a pleasant time-cheating game; but I can still feel that the happiness of life does not altogether depend on its being without its `agonies’ (Keats’ word), and that there are times when, with all that had passed and all that was obviously pending in our minds, we could be astonishingly happy.”

Blunden’s equanimity is enviable and defies belief, though friends and acquaintances have almost unanimously confirmed it. This was a man commissioned at age nineteen as a second lieutenant in the Royal Sussex Regiment. He served for almost two years on the Western Front, took part in the engagements at Ypres and the Somme, and was awarded the Military Cross. The source of the “agonies” allusion is unspecified. Keats often used the word in letters (especially those to Fanny Brawne) and poems, as in “Modern Love”:

“Fools! if some passions high have warm’d the world,
If Queens and Soldiers have play’d deep for hearts,
It is no reason why such agonies
Should be more common than the growth of weeds.”

Here is the conclusion of Blunden’s paragraph, written almost half a century after the Armistice:

“It may have had some connection with our seeing every day the degrees of valour, honour, generosity and justice of which many good men were capable. In the appreciation of human nature which this meant, what was the calendar? All was concentrated into a seemingly short length of days. We very quickly saw and were reanimated by the spirit of man as it shone in, say, those who would be officially called `reinforcements’. But then then too there was humour about the place.”

One wonders if Blunden’s gift for being “astonishingly happy” in the middle of Hell was in any way related to his bookish tastes. A dedicated reader must be a working optimist. Greening quotes a letter Blunden wrote to his mother in September 1916: “all are amused and amazed by my book habits.” He urges his mother to send him any second-hand poetry books she can find, specifying that she not include any “trash by `a lady of England’ or `a Gentlewoman’ or a `scriptorial person.’” Blunden, Greening tells us, brought with him to the front volumes by John Clare, Edward Young, Shelley, Cobbett, Leigh Hunt and Masefield. While at the front he found copies of Tennyson, H.G. Wells, Horace and Caesar’s De Bello Gallico. “Most memorable,” Greening writes, “was the occasion in 1918 when he came across Edward Thomas’s book on Keats, which he liked to think might have been the author’s own copy.” Thomas had been killed in action during the Battle of Arras on April 9, 1917.

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