Monday, August 18, 2014
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
AN UNFASHIONABLE POEM
Poets of the First World War? Very well then – unless you are well-versed in the matter, you are going to witter on about Rupert Brooke, Wilfed Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and maybe Isaac Rosenberg, aren’t you? And I grant you that these are probably the best. But sometimes I think there’s something to be said for the more forgotten man Edmund Blunden (1896-1974).
Poor Blunden is so desperately unfashionable and unglamorous. Compared to the others he seems a plodder. You want a racy book of First World War memoirs and you probably turn to Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer or Robert Graves’ sarcastic Goodbye to All That, don’t you? You ignore Blunden’s Undertones of War, even if it’s more truthful in a documentary way than Graves was ever capable of being. You want the pathos and excitement of people who died during the war (Brooke, Owen) or survived but at least did a lot of heroic dashing (Sassoon, Graves). You ignore the fact that Blunden also won a Military Cross and faced the same dangers.
Oh yes, there’s also that matter of sexuality – Brooke, Owen and Sassoon seem to have been predominantly homosexual. Blunden (like Graves) was heterosexual – and apparently pretty active in the field (he married three times).
Anyway, anyone who ends up as Professor of Poetry at Oxford obviously isn’t as interesting as the more bohemian outsiders, is he?
And if that neatly sews up Blunden’s cultural reputation, there’s the little matter of the type of poetry he wrote. I first got the full blast of anti-Blunden criticism in a Longmans anthology Poetry of the 1920s edited by one Sydney Bolt in the 1960s. A very good anthology, which still sits on my shleves, Bolt’s book gives generous space to Blunden. 14 of Blunden’s poems are presented; but Bolt insists on prefacing them with three pages basically telling us what a second-rater Blunden was, and how his poetry never transcends the Romantic pastoral school and how therefore (tut tut) Blunden’s “resources were drawn from only a single strand of the English poetic tradition”.
All of which is, of course, absolutely true. A little Blunden does go a long way, as we do find ourselves in the world of birds trilling and brooks purling. And yet the dimissal is also very demeaning, for at his best, and even if working in a very limited tradition, Blunden could sometimes transmute his circumscribed materials into gold.
This brings me at last to one poem by Blunden which I really like, The Scythe Struck by Lightning. Of course it is old-fashioned pastoral. Of course its scene is one which (even in the 1920s, when the poem was first published) was already passing into quaintness – a rural mower with scythe over shoulder, forsooth. And yet, in its dogged accumulation of detail, its lowering tone about the weather, its management of rhyme (only occasionally stumbling into deployment of such archaisms as “nigh”) and its final anti-climax, it does the business. And there is another issue here. To me, this poem is kin to Lord Byron’s description of the great explosion in The Siege of Corinth – a sudden, brief and catastrophic event which the poet, in effect, slows down by the profusion of detail he records.
So, antique, dated and pre-Modernist though it may be, here is the whole of Blunden’s poem, and you are free to judge if I have misrepresented it. Enjoy:
The Scythe Struck by Lightning
A thick hot haze had choked the valley grounds
Long since, the dogday sun had gone his rounds
Like a dull coal half lit with sulky heat;
And leas were iron, ponds were clay, fierce beat
The blackening flies round moody cattle's eyes.
Wasps on the mudbanks seemed a hornet's size
That on the dead roach battened. The plough's increase
Stood under a curse.
Behold, the far release!
Old wisdom breathless at her cottage door
"Sounds of abundance" mused, and heard the roar
Of marshalled armies in the silent air,
And thought Elisha stood beside her there,
And loudly forecast ere the next nightfall
She'd turn the looking-glasses to the wall.
Faster than armies out of the burnt void
The hourglass clouds innumerably deployed,
And when the hay-folks next look up, the sky
Sags black above them; scarce is time to fly.
And most run for their cottages; but Ward,
The mower for the inn beside the ford,
And slow strides he with shouldered scythe still bare,
While to the coverts leaps the great-eyed hare.
As he came in the dust snatched up and whirled
Hung high, and like a bell-rope whipped and twirled;
The brazen light glared round, the haze resolved
Into demoniac shapes bulged and convolved.
Well might poor ewes afar make bleatings wild,
Though this old trusting mower sat and smiled;
For from the hush of many days the land
Had waked itself: and now on every hand
Shrill swift alarm-notes, cries and counter-cries,
Lowings and crowings came, and throbbing sighs.
Now atom lightning brandished on the moor,
Then out of sullen drumming came the roar
Of thunder joining battle east and west:
In hedge and orchard small birds durst not rest,
Flittering like dead leaves and like wisps of straws,
And the cuckoo called again, for without pause
Oncoming voices in the vortex burred.
The storm came toppling like a wave, and blurred
In grey the trees that like black steeples towered.
The sun's last yellow died. Then who but cowered?
Down ruddying darkness floods the hideous flash,
And pole to pole the cataract whirlwinds clash.
Alone within the tavern parlour still
Sat the gray mower, pondering Nature's will,
And flinching not to flame or bolt, that swooped
With a great hissing rain till terror drooped
In weariness: and then there came a roar
Ten-thousand-fold, he saw not, was no more
But life bursts on him once again, and blood
Beats droning round, and light comes in a flood.
He stares, and sees the sashes battered awry,
The wainscot shivered, the crocks shattered, and nigh,
His twisted scythe, melted by its fierce foe,
Whose Parthian shot struck down the chimney. Slow
Old Ward lays hand to his old working-friend,
And thanking God Whose mercy did defend
His servant, yet must drop a tear or two
And think of times when that old scythe was new;
And stands in silent grief, nor hears the voices
Of many a bird that through the land rejoices,
Nor sees through the smashed panes the seagreen sky,
That ripens into blue, nor knows the storm is by.