Thursday, 11 October 2018

Little Blunden

The well-known poetry publisher Carcanet has just brought out a new edition of Edmund Blunden's poems. It occurred to me that I haven't written much about Blunden in this blog, and it's quite a while since I even mentioned him, so I feel I should redress the balance. After all, he was Siegfried Sassoon's best friend, and while he didn't perhaps influence Siegfried's poetic development in the way Robert Graves and others did, he certainly influenced him as a person, probably for the better.
Blunden was born in 1896, and thus was ten years Sassoon's junior. Had they met during the war, their relationship might have been very different. Blunden was at Oxford with Graves after the war, but did not stay the course. This may have had something to do with his decision to marry, in 1918. He and his wife Mary moved into a tiny cottage in Boars Hill, an area also frequented by Graves and Sassoon in the immediate post-war period, although it was some time before he and Sassoon became close friends. Some years ago, the SSF visited the house; in our company was Margi Blunden, one of Blunden's daughters from a later marriage; she was astonished to see how small it was.
On that occasion, Margi told us the sad story of how Blunden and his wife Mary had lost their first child, a daughter named Joy, as a result of being sold contaminated baby milk. The child was only a few weeks old when she died, and her father's grief inspired him to write a number of poems. It was barely a year since Blunden had seen service on the Western Front during the Great War; there he had experienced things as dreadful as what Sassoon and Owen had faced.
No wonder he took offence at the content of Robert Graves's Goodbye to All That, published at around the same time. By 1928 he and Sassoon had become firm friends, having met through poetry rather than a short-lived wartime camaraderie. From their correspondence, Sassoon immediately recognised Blunden as a potential kindred spirit. It may even have been Blunden who introduced Sassoon to the work of Henry Vaughan, about which I have already written so much that you do not want to hear it again. They subsequently found further common ground in their mutual love of cricket, and it was Blunden who would later orchestrate a meeting between Sassoon and the young cricketer Dennis Silk, now President of the SSF, resulting in another firm and long-lasting friendship.
Blunden's marriage, adversely affected both by the trauma of Joy's death (even though they had another two children together) and later by Blunden's decision to take up an academic post in Japan, broke down in the late 1920s and the couple divorced in 1931. Blunden found some comfort in his relationship with Sylva, a writer, whom he married in 1933. There were no children from this second marriage, which ended in 1945. The Second World War brought further upheaval, and Blunden became friendly with a young student, Claire Poynting, who was studying at St Hilda's (by coincidence, my alma mater). Ironically, Claire's love of cricket was one of the things that brought them together.
Claire was the mother of Margi and another three daughters, and the love of cricket has extended into the next generation, with Margi's son Ted Miller being one of those who have won the "Man of the Match" award at our annual commemoration of the "Flower Show Match" at Matfield. Blunden's marriage to Claire finally brought him the settled family life and band of children he had hoped for, and which Siegfried Sassoon would have liked to emulate through his own marriage to Hester. Perhaps his reason for introducing Siegfried and Dennis had something to do with his understanding of Siegfried's longing for a son who would share his interests, since George Sassoon lived with his mother in Scotland and did not see as much of his father as both would have liked.
There is certainly no doubt that Sassoon's post-war life would have been a lot emptier without his friendship with Edmund Blunden. The picture shown is the famous photograph of the older Siegfried, flanked by Edmund and Dennis, sitting on the porch at Heytesbury House, listening to "Test Match Special".
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