Edmund Blunden: Trench Reader

This blog has been rather quiet lately. However, I can now report that some exciting new developments are pending for RED in the next few months. We will soon have a redesigned site up and running, and the plans for the new International RED sites are developing well. On a personal note, I had a particularly interesting visit to archives in Australia in May and June of this year, which will provide the basis for some new research on reading in Prisoner of War camps in World War I.

We’ll have some exciting, reader-centred collections of entries appearing on the RED site soon, which I will announce as they become available. First up, I am pleased to report that the work of volunteer contributor Helen Chambers on the war-poet Edmund Blunden’s letters, diaries, and memoir, Undertones of War, is now online. The ramifications of Helen’s research are fascinating: they reveal how a sensitive and self-consciously literary young man responded to the trench experience, and just how “ordinary” the process of routines of reading remained for him, despite the extremity of his surroundings.

Bosch put heavies into the camp now and then. I was busy in a small way most of the day, in the afternoon read Shelley, and Wells’ “[The] Country of the Blind” with equal pleasure.

he writes from the the scene of Third Ypres in July 1917. Other diary entries record him reading Tom Sawyer, Frank Norris’s novel The Pit, and describe how a violent rainstorm caught him out in the open near Poperinghe, soaking his copy of Tennyson. Most meaningful to Blunden during this time, though, was the poetry of Edward Young, whose Night Thoughts, with their tone of melancholy reflection, helped him to endure the psychological trauma of trench service. This entry, from Undertones of War, shows how reading could provide texture to the present moment, bringing out additional dimensions of meaning that might otherwise have been lost—the “Undertones” of experience that Blunden writes about:

During this period my indebtedness to an eighteenth-century poet became enormous. At every spare moment I read Young’s “Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality”, and I felt the benefit of this grave and intellectual voice speaking out of a profound eighteenth–century calm, often in metaphor which came home to one even in a pillbox. The mere amusement of discovering lines applicable to our crisis kept me from despair.

Anyone interested in reading further about Blunden’s war experiences and poetry career should visit The First World War Poetry Archive maintained by the University of Oxford, and the resources hosted by the Edmund Blunden Society.

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