1 November 1896|
|Died||20 January 1974
Long Melford, Suffolk, England
|Resting place||Holy Trinity Church, Long Melford|
|Education||Christ's Hospital; The Queen's College, Oxford|
|Notable work(s)||Poems 1913 and 1914; An Elegy and Other Poems; Cricket Country; Poems on Japan|
|Notable award(s)||Military Cross; C.B.E.; the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry|
Claire Margaret Poynting
Edmund Charles Blunden, MC (1 November 1896 – 20 January 1974) was an English poet, author and critic. Like his friend Siegfried Sassoon, he wrote of his experiences in World War I in both verse and prose. For most of his career, Blunden was also a reviewer for English publications and an academic in Tokyo and later Hong Kong. He ended his career as Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford.
Born in London, Blunden was the eldest of the nine children of Charles Edmund Blunden (1871–1951) and his wife, Georgina Margaret née Tyler, who were joint-headteachers of a London school. Blunden was educated at Christ's Hospital and The Queen's College, Oxford.
In August 1915 Blunden was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Sussex Regiment and served with them right up to the end of World War I, taking part in the actions at Ypres and the Somme, and receiving the Military Cross in the process. Unusual for a junior infantry officer, Blunden survived nearly two years in the front line without physical injury, but for the rest of his life bore mental scars from his experiences. With characteristic self-deprecation he attributed his survival to his diminutive size: he made "an inconspicuous target". Although he wrote war poems, he avoided the graphic edge that characterises the work of Sassoon or Wilfred Owen, and his memoirs of war service, though beautifully written, lack the immediacy of those of Sassoon or Robert Graves. His own account of his frequently traumatic experiences was published in 1928 under the title Undertones of War.
Blunden left the army in 1919 and took up the scholarship at Oxford that he had won while still at school. On the same English Literature course was Robert Graves, and the two were close friends during their time at Oxford together, but Blunden found university life unsatisfactory and left in 1920 to take up a literary career, at first acting as assistant to Middleton Murry on the Athenaeum magazine. An early supporter was Siegfried Sassoon, who became a lifelong friend. In 1920 Blunden published a collection of poems, The Waggoner, and with Alan Porter edited the poems of John Clare (mostly from Clare's manuscript)
Blunden's next book of poems, The Shepherd, published in 1922 won the Hawthornden Prize, but his poetry, though well reviewed, did not provide enough to live on, and in 1924 he accepted the post of Professor of English at the University of Tokyo. He returned to England in 1927, and was literary editor of Nation magazine for a year. In 1927 he published a short book, On the Poems of Henry Vaughan, Characteristics and Intimations, with his principal Latin poems carefully translated into English verse (London: H. Cobden-Sanderson, 1927), expanding and revising an essay that he had published in November 1926 in the London Mercury. In 1931 he returned to Oxford as a Fellow of Merton College, where he was highly regarded as a tutor. During his years in Oxford, Blunden published extensively: several collections of poetry including Choice or Chance (1934) and Shells by a Stream (1944), prose works on Charles Lamb; Edward Gibbon; Keats's publisher; Percy Bysshe Shelley; John Taylor; and Thomas Hardy; and a book about a game he loved, Cricket Country (1944). He returned to full-time writing in 1944, becoming assistant editor of The Times Literary Supplement. In 1947 he returned to Japan as a member of the British liaison mission in Tokyo. In 1953, after three years back in England he accepted the post of Professor of English Literature at the University of Hong Kong.
Blunden retired in 1964 and settled in Suffolk. In 1966 he was nominated for the Oxford Professorship of Poetry in succession to Robert Graves; with some misgivings he agreed to stand and was elected by a large majority over the other candidate, Robert Lowell. However, he now found the strain of public lecturing too much for him, and after two years he resigned.
He died of a heart attack at his home at Long Melford, Suffolk, on 20 January 1974, and is buried in the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church, Long Melford.
Blunden was married three times. While still in the army he met and married Mary Daines in 1918. They had three children, the first of whom died in infancy. They divorced in 1931, and in 1933 Blunden married Sylva Norman, a young novelist and critic. That marriage, which was childless, was dissolved in 1945, and in the same year he married Claire Margaret Poynting, a former pupil of his; they had four daughters. While in Japan in the summer of 1925, he met Aki Hayashi, with whom he began a relationship. When Blunden returned to England in 1927, Aki accompanied him and would become his secretary. The relation later changed from a partner to a friend, but they remained in contact for the rest of her life.
Blunden's love of cricket, celebrated in his book Cricket Country, is described by the biographer Philip Ziegler as fanatical. Blunden and his friend Rupert Hart-Davis regularly opened the batting for a publisher's eleven in the 1930s (Blunden insisted on batting without gloves). An affectionate obituary tribute in The Guardian commented, "He loved cricket ... and played it ardently and very badly", while in a review of Cricket Country, George Orwell described him as "the true cricketer":
The test of a true cricketer is that he shall prefer village cricket to 'good' cricket [.... Blunden's] friendliest memories are of the informal village game, where everyone plays in braces, where the blacksmith is liable to be called away in mid-innings on an urgent job, and sometimes, about the time when the light begins to fail, a ball driven for four kills a rabbit on the boundary.
Any cricket book that talks easily of Henry James and Siegfried Sassoon and Ranji and Grace and Richard Burton (the writer, not the actor) and Coleridge is bound to have a special charm of its own. As Blunden says, "The game which made me write at all, is not terminated at the boundary, but is reflected beyond, is echoed and varied out there among the gardens and the barns, the dells and the thickets, and belongs to some wider field."
Perhaps that is what all books on cricket are trying to say.
Blunden had a robust sense of humour. In Hong Kong he relished linguistic misunderstandings such as those of the restaurant that offered "fried prawn's balls" and the schoolboy who wrote, "In Hong Kong there is a queer at every bus-stop."
His fellow poets' regard for Blunden was illustrated by the contributions to a dinner in his honour for which poems were specially written by Cecil Day-Lewis and William Plomer; T. S. Eliot and Walter de la Mare were guests; and Siegfried Sassoon provided the Burgundy.
Blunden's public honours included the C.B.E., 1951; the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, 1956; The Royal Society of Literature's Benson Medal; the Order of the Rising Sun, 3rd Class (Japan), 1963; and Honorary Membership of the Japan Academy. On 11 November 1985, Blunden was among 16 Great War poets commemorated on a slate stone unveiled in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey The inscription on the stone was written by fellow Great War poet, Wilfred Owen. It reads: "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity."
Blunden's output was prolific. To those who thought he published too much he quoted Walter de la Mare's observation that time was the poet's best editor. His books of poetry include Poems 1913 and 1914 (1914); Poems Translated from the French (1914); Three Poems (1916); The Barn (1916); The Silver Bird of Herndyke Mill; Stane Street; The Gods of the World Beneath, (1916); The Harbingers (1916); Pastorals (1916); The Waggoner and Other Poems (1920); The Shepherd, and Other Poems of Peace and War (1922); Old Homes (1922); To Nature: New Poems (1923); Dead Letters (1923); Masks of Time: A New Collection of Poems Principally Meditative (1925); Japanese Garland (1928); Retreat (1928); Winter Nights: A Reminiscence (1928); Near and Far: New Poems (1929); A Summer's Fancy (1930); To Themis: Poems on Famous Trials (1931); Constantia and Francis: An Autumn Evening, (1931); Halfway House: A Miscellany of New Poems, (1932); Choice or Chance: New Poems (1934); Verses: To H. R. H. The Duke of Windsor, (1936); An Elegy and Other Poems (1937); On Several Occasions (1938); Poems, 1930–1940 (1940); Shells by a Stream (1944); After the Bombing, and Other Short Poems (1949); Eastward: A Selection of Verses Original and Translated (1950); Records of Friendship (1950); A Hong Kong House (1959); Poems on Japan (1967).
Artists Rifles, an audiobook CD published in 2004, includes a reading of Concert Party, Busseboom by Blunden himself, recorded in 1964 by the British Council. Other Great War poets heard on the CD include Siegfried Sassoon, Edgell Rickword, Robert Graves, David Jones and Lawrence Binyon. Blunden can also be heard on Memorial Tablet, an audiobook of readings by Sassoon issued in 2003.
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