For a whole host of children born at the tail end of the 19th century the First World War marked a terrible frontier between innocence and adult worldliness. First-hand experience of the horror of war consigned blissful childhood visions to doubtful memory, and post-war technological and economic changes seemed set finally to dismantle an already crumbling rural culture, leaving much that was good behind. One of England’s most gifted poets, Edmund Blunden, seeing perhaps the cultural and spiritual consequences for the nation of unnaturally accelerated fundamental change, and at the same time trying to make sense of his own terrible war-time experience, sought to bring to mind – to his and ours – what at root really mattered in life. Unsurprisingly, he turned to his pre-war childhood vision of the village of Yalding in the Garden of England, his very own ‘land of lost content’. In his poem Old Homes, it was Yalding that he described: ‘O happiest village! how I turned to you / Beyond estranging years that cloaked my view / With all their heavy fogs of fear and strain; / I turned to you, I never turned in vain…’.
In his memorial address to Edmund Blunden, Sir Rupert Hart-Davis said, ‘It is interesting to wonder whether he would have remained a purely pastoral poet if he and his generation had not been engulfed in tragedy’. War was the fire in which this poet’s pastoral vision was forged; he wished it wasn’t so but war was what gave it its keen edge. From early on in Blunden’s life, there is a sense of foreboding, of unease at what is to come. As he described in Death of Childhood Beliefs, it was among the ‘multitude of gravestones’ of the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul, whence the young Edmund heard a ‘deep and ominous thumping of drums’ – the drums of war perhaps. All Blunden’s childhood memories seem to coalesce in images of the Kent countryside around Yalding, a clear expression of the unity and purpose in village life. He described the area around the river Beult as the ‘green region (that) became my private elysium for some years. Here I came upon things which everyone knows but which, first encountered, changed the world’. But there was fear and mystery too, especially about the pool where ‘one day two well-known youths were drowned as they swum there’.
Blunden was a gifted poet and a fine scholar. Hart-Davis recalls coming upon him in a train during a blackout in London and finding him peering at Latin verses by the light of a pencil torch. There are poets who work over their own verses until they feel they are right. Blunden wrote his straight off and rarely made changes. There’s a naturalness about them, which is all-convincing; no straining; his poems come, like truth, untampered. He was also a modest man, down-to-earth, so when he received visions like the drummers, which he often seems to have done, he accepted them and let them do their work without fuss or intervention, or even much surprise. His parents taught at the local school in Yalding and he won the Senior Classics scholarship to the Queen’s College, Oxford in 1914, the year war was declared. He served in France, won the Military Cross, was gassed, but somehow survived two years of combat – front-line trench warfare of the most terrible kind. As he later described in Third Ypres – A Reminiscence, ‘At the noon of the dreadful day / Our trench and death’s is on a sudden stormed / With huge and shattering salvoes, the clay dances / In founts of clods around the concrete sties / Where still the brain devises some last armour / To live out the poor limbs’.
After emerging from the war, Edmund went to live on Boar’s Hill, near Oxford, home of other poets including Robert Graves. Around this time he wrote a poem called An Ancient Goddess: In Two Pictures, in which he comes face to ‘tombless face’ with Graves’s Goddess Muse, the Moon Goddess. As poetic Muse she was celebrated by Graves in his historic grammar of poetic myth, The White Goddess. In ancient myth the Moon Goddess was the ultimate goddess, the first and last. Before the Greeks and Romans proliferated their male demi-gods, she represented the ultimate creative and procreative force. Combining all things and their opposites within her in the name of truth, the Goddess represented both beauty and terror, both kindness and cruelty, both life and death. Edmund’s Goddess too, ‘impels the life we know’ (namely poetry); she dotes upon the natural world; she is ‘the enchantress of the skies’ to whom all – even the tiniest flowers – sing. But she has this other side, which ‘lures out the voiceless bird, unwarms the empty nest’, and is a ‘brooding badness in the air’. The contradiction seemed to trouble Edmund all his adult life, which was similarly writ both with the joy of childhood and the hell of war. In his poem, Report on Experience, he sums up the contradiction as part of the human condition, but there is hope, ‘Over there are faith, life, virtue in the sun’.