Sunday, July 25, 2021

'His Immense General Command of Our Literature'

A friend in Washington, D.C. has a neighbor who is a book collector with some 2,500 volumes in his library. He is moving to Atlanta and wants to part with some of his collection. My friend, acting as middleman, made a nice selection for me and the box of books arrived on Friday. The neighbor has a longstanding interest in World War I, and that’s reflected in the books received: 

The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen (Chatto & Windus, 1964), edited by C. Day Lewis, with a memoir by Edmund Blunden.


Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (The Folio Society, 1974) by Siegfried Sassoon, originally published in 1930.


Edmund Blunden: A Selection of His Poetry and Prose (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1950), edited by Kenneth Hopkins.


On English Poetry (William Heineman, 1922) by Robert Graves.


A Pamphlet Against Anthologies (Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1928) by Laura Riding and Robert Grave.


Rhymes of a Red Cross Man (Barse & Hopkins, 1916) by Robert W. Service.


If that final title seems like an unexpected inclusion, consider Service’s dedication:


“To the Memory of

My Brother,

Lieutenant Albert Service

Canadian Infantry

Killed in Action, France

August, 1916.”


Of all these writers, I’m fondest of Blunden. By all accounts, he 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. My favorite among all World War I memoirs is his Undertones of War (1928). 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 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.”


In a 1948 essay, “Writers and Readers,” Blunden describes attending an estate sale that included books. He and his friend, a parish clergyman, found, “a remarkable number of books of just the kind that we both enjoyed.” Like many of us when we acquire previously owned volumes, Blunden speculates on the sort of man their first owner was:


“[T]heir former owner had made notes in a good many. He had read some of them, according to these notes, several times. He had written details about them in the blank leaves, and these notes increased the impression which his immense general command of our literature made upon me. His name was in every volume. But who was he? this I could never discover . . .”

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