Edmund Blunden

Biography

Edmund Blunden (1896–1974)

Edmund Blunden was born in London on 1st November 1896, the eldest of nine children. When Edmund was four the family moved to Yalding, Kent, where he discovered the love of rural life and natural history that were to be a major influence on his writing.

He won a scholarship to Christ's Hospital, Horsham, Sussex in 1909, a public school to which Blunden remained devoted throughout his life. In October 1914 his first two volumes of poetry were published, but the First World War overshadowed his final year at Christ’s Hospital. Although he had gained a place at Queen’s College, Oxford to read Classics, Blunden volunteered to join the army, and in August 1915, aged 19, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. During his training he wrote many pastoral poems and in spring 1916 he published privately three volumes of poetry.

In May 1916 he was sent to the Western Front and served with the 11th Royal Sussex regiment. He saw action in the trenches at Festubert, Cuinchy, and Richebourg. Later in 1916 Blunden was awarded the Military Cross for his 'conspicuous gallantry in action' during the Battle of the Somme. He served in the Ypres salient, and on 31st July 1917 he took part in the Third Battle of Ypres, the beginning of the Passchendaele offensive. Blunden survived for two years in the front lines. However he was not untouched by his service, and was greatly affected by the loss of several of his friends.

He was gassed in July and in October 1917. In February 1918 his battalion moved to trenches south of Gouzeaucourt and later that year he was posted to training duty at a camp in Suffolk. Whilst there, Blunden met Mary Daines, whom he married in June 1918. Despite several attempts to rejoin his battalion, due to health problems Blunden did not return to the trenches. He went back to France in November 1918 to help with the clearing-up operation after the Armistice.

Blunden wrote a number of poems during the War. However many of his war poems were written afterwards, contemplating events in retrospect and a deep understanding of the experiences of the soldiers and the brutal destruction of the countryside can be seen in some of his poetry. In Concert Party: Busseboom (written ten years after the war) Blunden vividly recounts one evening's entertainment enjoyed by the soldiers behind the lines - and then goes on to describe an artillery bombardment the men witness on leaving and alludes shockingly to the battle underground, (the Germans having got into a British tunnel and the trapped defenders having no weapons to fight with).

In 1918 Blunden wrote a prose account of his experiences, 'De Bello Germanico: a fragment of trench history'. However he was not satisfied with it and only published it privately in 1930.

He left the army on 17th February 1919 and launched himself on a literary career. He 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 – among other things they shared the experience of the war and a passion for cricket. The Blundens' first child, Joy, died when only a few weeks old in 1919. His daughter's death, his experience of war and the loss of his fellow soldiers haunted Blunden for the rest of his life – and inspired many poems.

In October 1919 Blunden took up his deferred place at Oxford. Although he made friends among the aspiring writers in the university, many of them ex-servicemen like himself, he found it hard to settle and to support his family. In 1920 he left Oxford to take up a part-time editorial post at the journal 'The Athenaeum', (later incorporated into 'The Nation' then into the 'New Statesman'). Blunden published collections of his poems: The Waggoner (1920); and The Shepherd and Other Poems of Peace and War (April 1922) which was awarded the Hawthornden Prize. He was recognized as a young writer of great promise.

Whilst teaching English Literature in Japan (1924-1927) Blunden made another attempt at a prose account of his war experiences. He was assisted by his secretary (and then lover) Aki Hayashi. The result was the autobiographical Undertones of War which has been hailed as Blunden's greatest contribution to the literature of war. It was published in November 1928, and follows the service of a young officer. At the end of Undertones Blunden appends some of his contemporary poems, and some poetry written in the ten years since.

He enjoyed a productive career as an editor, journalist, critic, and biographer. Blunden was instrumental in bringing the works of, among others, the war poets Wilfred Owen and  Ivor Gurney to publication. Blunden taught English literature in Tokyo, at Merton College, Oxford (where his students included the poet Keith Douglas, who was killed in action in 1944), and at the University of Hong Kong. Mary and their two children (Clare and John) did not join him in Japan and eventually the marriage ended. In 1933 he married the writer Sylva Norman. After his second marriage was dissolved he married Claire Poynting in May 1945. Their marriage lasted till Blunden's death and they had four daughters (Margaret, Lucy, Frances and Catherine).

After his retirement in 1964 the Blunden family settled in Long Melford, Suffolk. His achievements had been publicly recognized: he became a CBE for his work in Japan after the Second World War with the UK liaison mission, received the Queen's gold medal for poetry in 1956, and in 1962 was made a companion of the Royal Society of Literature. In 1966 he was elected as the Oxford professor of poetry, as successor to his friend Robert Graves. Blunden always regarded himself as essentially a poet, (and a poet in the Romantic tradition). He was not influenced by the modernist literary revolution, but his poetry was admired by its adherents such as T.S. Eliot, and often showed evidence of the memories of war. His final poem 'Ancre Sunshine' was written in 1966 on the 50th anniversary of the attack on Beaumont Hamel, and illustrates how the Great War haunted him to the end of his life.

Edmund Blunden died at his home on 20th January 1974 aged 77; he was buried at Holy Trinity Church, Long Melford. Private Beeney, his runner at Ypres and Passchendaele attended his funeral, placing a wreath of Flanders poppies in his grave.

Author Alun Edwards
Sources
  • Bergonzi, B. 'Blunden, Edmund Charles (1896–1974)' Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  • The Edmund Blunden Web Site (produced by the Blunden family).
  • Webb, B. Edmund Blunden: a biography (London: Yale University Press, 1990).
  • Taylor, M. Overtones of War (London: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd, 1996).
  • Kirkpatrick, B. A bibliography of Edmund Blunden (Gloucestershire: Clarendon Press, 1979).
  • Graham, D. The Truth of War: Owen, Blunden and Rosenberg (Worthing: Littlehampton Book Services Ltd, 1984)

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