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Book Reviews: Philip Larkin and Edmund Blunden

January 19, 2013

Philip Larkin:  Collected Poems, Edited by Anthony Thwaite, Faber and Faber, 2003, 218 pages

Those who are unfamiliar with the poetical exertions of Philip Larkin, or have read only a small number of his poems, will be surprised, most of all in this fine compilation of his most essential output, by the tenderness and frugality of his verse. For Larkin’s famous frankness, misanthropy and comedic turn of phrase has often obscured his softer side. Yet this inconspicuousness constitutes much of Larkin’s most superlative, though often unknown, work. For example, the very best Larkin’s utilitarianism – impassioned to a point of paradox –  could wish on a newborn baby girl, admirably and tenderly so in Born Yesterday, was that she’d simply be ‘ordinary’, have ‘an average of talents / Not ugly, not good-looking… In fact, may you be dull / If that is what a skilled / Vigilant, flexible / Unemphasised, enthralled / Catching of happiness is called.’ Larkin also had the honesty to be the typical man, admitting to, and almost making a virtue of, his mammalian male urges. This finds form in Latest Face: ‘Your great arrival in my eyes / No one standing near could guess / Your beauty had no home till then / Precious vagrant, recognise / My look, and do not turn again.’

Above all, Collected Poems accentuates what was Larkin’s most overarching fixation: the prospect of his own death. Mortality permeates his work. Yet where the Victorian poet Robert Browning threw up a bulwark of bravado, such as in Prospice – ‘I was ever a fighter, so – one fight more / The best and the last!’ – Larkin confronted his own personal transience with nothing other than a reticent resignation, one which could not preclude nor circumvent, ‘The sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always.’ Such was Larkin’s conclusion in Aubade. Indeed, his verse does not console, far from it: ‘Being brave / Lets no one off the grave.’ However, Larkin’s valour, though he would not have termed it as such, materializes for us out of his own audacity in staring his inevitable annihilation in the eyeball. And it was a front fought at close-quarters.

For it was also the merciless manner in which this obliteration would take place, the notion of growing old – a ‘hideous inverted childhood’ – that possessed much of Larkin’s most sober and austere verse. The Old Fools is a particularly terrifying piece, ruminating upon old dears nearing their terminus, yet the process of decomposition already begun: ‘What do they think has happened, the old fools / To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose / It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools / And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember / Who called this morning?’ ‘Why aren’t they screaming?’, Larkin shrieks to the old fools, knowing that this may indeed be himself one day. Heads in the Women’s Ward is just as moving in its foreboding brevity: ‘On pillow after pillow lies / The wild white hair and staring eyes […] Sixty years ago they smiled / At lover, husband, first-born child / Smiles are for youth / For old age come / Death’s terror and delirium.’

The significance of Larkin is that he openly confessed to his own impotence in life, to his evident flaws and frailties, but refused to fool, or be fooled, by false solace or condolence. In this manner, Larkin’s courage was simply his own articulated contempt for the hopeless situation, the terrifying panorama; thus, a parsimonious voice for all humanity. Larkin’s Collected Poems resonate most movingly for those of us who believe that life can only ever be honestly experienced when lived in accompaniment with a sober lucidity – done so with an auxiliary retort of disdain and sardonic candidness, coupled with a humble intelligence and tenderness, with the requisite fucks, fancies and fights besprinkled in-between.

Undertones of War, by Edmund Blunden, Penguin Modern Classics, 2000, 234 pages

1916: in the small French town of Mailly-Maillet a khaki-clad poet stumbled across the marble tomb of a long-deceased princess, mounted upon an exquisite mosaic floor, one bestrewn with the debris of a recent artillery barrage. Sunlight touched the effigy ‘with inviolable grace’, a refulgence illuminating ‘a great lady of a better century’. So wrote the educing poet Edmund Blunden, some years later in his war memoir: Undertones of War. Much of the most haunting work of the early twentieth-century emerged as a consequence of the desolation of the First World War: T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land; John Ireland’s hymnal Greater Love Hath No Man; the artist Paul Nash’s barren coastline depictions of 1920s Dymchurch. To understand these spectral remnants one has no choice but to trace them back to their violent root, the sanguinary combat in which they were furnished. A vast literature, written by participants of the conflict, exists in this regard, ranging from the visceral poetry of Wilfred Owen to Erich Maria Remarque’s seminal All Quiet on the Western Front. However, Edmund Blunden’s personal account of his time in Flanders, Undertones of War, is a far more obscure and much underrated narrative of what Wilfred Owen coined as ‘The Pity of War’.

A work in prose, Blunden’s description of his time serving as an officer in the Royal Sussex Regiment is, quite evidently, an account written by a poet. An intimate lover of the pastoral, and profoundly influenced by the rural poet John Clare, Blunden’s redolently elegiac Flanders landscape retains a rustic hue, yet one which is, ominously for the Royal Sussex, littered with the bones, ‘like broken bird-cages’, of the men who had fought over the same ground only a few months before – their skulls protruding ‘like mushrooms’ out of the sides of their own trenches. Tellingly, however, the bucolic is soon supplanted by a chthonic Golgotha, ‘a brown plain… without landmark or distinction’. Soon only some ‘scraps of a hawthorn hedge’ would remain to remind Blunden of what there had once been.

Blunden’s ordeal commenced in 1916, when his battalion was thrown into the fray of battle for the first time. The Southdowns Battalions – named after Sussex’s prominent brow of chalk hills, referred to affectionately by Rudyard Kipling as, ‘Our blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed Downs… Bare slopes where chasing shadows skim’ – were ordered to attack a German protuberance on the frontline, nicknamed the ‘Boar’s Head’. ‘No doubt’, Blunden sardonically remarked, the attack was designed ‘to render the maps in the châteaux of the mighty more symmetrical’. The regiment was massacred, suffering over a thousand casualties, in what was later mournfully referred to as ‘The Day Sussex Died’. Yet, even after this slaughter, there was no reprieve, the Royal Sussex being redeployed and brutally thrown into the, now infamous, battle of the Somme. By the end of the year, Blunden makes sure to note, the Royal Sussex was ‘not the same “we” who in the golden dusty summer tramped down into the verdant valley… not that “we”’. Indeed, the unit was entirely transformed. After only a few months combat, Blunden’s battalion had suffered casualties amounting to three-quarters of its original strength. Additionally, the replacements brought in to rejuvenate its appalling losses were no longer sourced from Sussex men alone; in effect, it was no longer a ‘Southdowns’ battalion: ‘How few there were left even to understand what hopes had then borne the battalion on singing towards the Somme!’

Undertones of War is a poignantly crafted lamentation for a world that, in 1916, is being irrevocably altered – and, from Blunden’s viewpoint, not for the better. Although the fighting men concerned are often too absorbed in the horror of the moment to be aware of the change, an undercurrent of ruination pervades the pages, as Blunden glides miraculously unharmed through the Dante-like scenery of an all-conquering modernity. Indeed, ‘the dethronement of the soft cap’ – replaced by the steel helmet, remarkably late in 1916 – ‘clearly symbolized the change that was coming over the war, the induration from a personal crusade into a vast machine of violence’. Blunden and his men are simply swallowed up. And though Blunden notes that the siege works of trench warfare appear to share a ‘past with the defences of Troy’, the ‘cubist camouflaging’ of German helmets singularly embed him in the twentieth-century. Efficaciously, Blunden’s only genuine sanctuary is to be found in Edward Young’s Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality, always in his pocket and ‘speaking out of a profound eighteenth-century calm’. Young’s writing ‘came home to one even in a pillbox’.

At its most gruesome, Blunden’s narrative recounts the literal ripping apart of a lance-corporal by an artillery shell; a man he had seen alive just three minutes previous, but now reduced to ‘pulpy bone… gobbets of blackening flesh… the eye under the duckboard’. After a swig of some steadying rum, the steaming meat of the eviscerated lance-corporal is shovelled by a cursing sergeant into an empty sandbag held by Blunden. One can’t help thinking that such horrors find a deceptive and unsatisfactory emblem in the morally compulsory red poppy worn every November – to the extent that many have no idea what it is they are actually commemorating. But if one seeks to understand, however modestly, the enormity of the invidious inferno which consumed millions, almost a century ago, Blunden’s memoir will imbue the reader with at least an ‘undertone’ of the barbarity of that most tragic of conflicts, 1914-1918:

Why, even the wood as well as field
This thoughtful farmer knew
Could be reduced to plough and tilled,
And if he planned, he’d do;
The field and wood, all bone-fed loam,
Shot up a roaring harvest home.

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