Thursday, 23 January 2014

On The Waggoner

 Reading before sleeping, I ponder the slim volume I have just found on my shelves, hidden between Undertones of War and Overtones of War.  It’s a collection of poems by Edmund Blunden, and I’m searching the book, and my memory, to recall how and when I came by it. It seems to have a history, this copy of The Waggoner and other Poems (1920), long pre-dating my ownership of it.

It’s genuinely slim - 70 pages - a blue, crown 8vo book. Today you’d say it was a hardback, but that word did not exist in 1920. So, call it cloth-bound. Its spine has faded to a pale grey; it’s been well-read, too, the top edge bent back by the pressure of many fingers and the printed title label rubbed and faded; but, in keeping with a long-gone convention, the publisher (Sidgwick and Jackson) has slipped a spare label inside the back cover. And this isn’t the only label: inside the front a discreet little sticker announces that the book has been sold by


Blunden was only 24 when this book was published, but his reputation as a poet was already high. Four years before, in 1916, an earlier volume had been well reviewed, as Blunden would later record in Undertones of War:

I had written and left with a publisher in London a trifling collection of verses: I had forgotten about them, but they entered my story again at Givenchy. The scene is bright in my mind’s eye.

He and his friends in the trenches are discussing a lucky escape – a friendly fire incident that almost demolished their dug-out – when a message summons him to dinner at battalion headquarters:

A review of my poems has been printed in The Times Literary Supplement (a kind review it was, if ever there was one!), and my Colonel has seen it and is overjoyed at having an actual author in his battalion.

This anecdote is a reminder of how quickly Blunden had made his name as a poet. No wonder, then,
that Sidgwick & Jackson thought highly enough of him to have printed The Waggoner on fine laid paper: holding the book up to the light, I can read the watermark, Abbey Mills Greenfield, on page after untrimmed page. These have all been cut by the first reader – using a short-bladed penknife, I should say, for the cutting is sometimes jagged.

I start reading. The book is dedicated to the poet’s first wife, Mary Daines Blunden. They had met in 1918, in Suffolk where Blunden had been sent on an army course, and had married in 1919 as soon as he was demobbed. Just last week, the poet and critic John Greening posted an excellent Carcanet blog in defence of Blunden. He ended by saying that

we need to find a better way of reading Edmund Blunden. Perhaps someone should stand up … and tell us he is not a complacent pastoralist; he is terrifying.

Quite so, and it is indeed easy to misread The Waggoner as the work of a complacent pastoralist safely home from the trenches. Here, it may seem, is Blunden burying himself in his beloved Wealden countryside, turning out bucolic poems like ‘The Barn’ or ‘Sheepbells’. But this is a book of ghosts, and not only the ghostly waggoner himself, nor the Silver Bird of Herndyke Hill (subject of Blunden’s long opening poem, dedicated to his new friend Siegfried Sassoon). Much more unsettling is the ghost of John Clare:

I see him there, with his streaming hair
And his eyes
Piercing beyond our human firmament,
Lit with a burning deathless discontent. (‘Clare’s Ghost’)

As it happens, Blunden in 1920 was actually bringing the poet Clare back to life: in the same year as The Waggoner appeared, he published John Clare: Poems Chiefly from Manuscript, and this volume did much to speed the revival of interest in Clare’s poetry and his life. But Clare’s is not the only ghost Blunden summons.

Perhaps the most terrifying – certainly the most distressing – poem in The Waggoner is ‘Sick-Bed’. ‘Half dead with fever, here in bed I sprawl’ the poem begins, and in the opening stanza Blunden watches ‘the odd flies crawl / Above the ceiling’s white desolation’. Although 1920 was the year that really established his reputation as poet and editor (Thomas Hardy and Walter de la Mare were only two of those praising his latest books), it was also the year he abandoned his degree course at Oxford – postponed because of the War – and found himself with no steady income and a young wife to support.

So now the books that mockingly surround his sick-bed, with titles like On Choosing a Career and Ten Thousand a Year, make him almost suicidal:

And I stare for my life at the square black ebony block
Of darkness in the open window-frame.

Then it gets worse:

my thoughts flash in one white searching flame
On my little lost daughter …
                                               Her stony fate denies
The vision of her, though tired Fancy’s sight
Scrawl with pale curves the dead and scornful night.

Blunden’s daughter, Joy, had died the previous year - after living only forty days. Her loss left him desolate, and the one poem in The Waggoner dedicated to her is entitled simply  ‘Wilderness’.

But there is one other ghost in this book: Blunden himself, the soldier from the wars returning. Wilderness is how he now sees the English countryside, and in ‘The Estrangement’ (for me, the key poem in this book) he describes himself as ‘A hounded kern in this grim No Man’s Land’: trees that were once ‘my friends’ now ‘madden’ him; the wind in the ivy ‘whirs like condor wings’ (and like the sound of shells overhead?) and

The very bat that stoops and whips askance
Shrills malice at the soul grown strange in France.

Greening is right: Blunden is terrifying. I strongly recommend The Waggoner – but not, after all, as a book at bedtime.

Adrian Barlow

[illustrations: the title page and title label of The Waggoner.

I have written before about what Blunden’s writing means to me and why I think his remains an important voice. See, for instance, Edmund Blunden Today and Mistaking Magdalen for the Menin Gate; Edmund Blunden November 1st, 1931 on the Edmund Blunden website.

I shall be writing and lecturing rather more often than usual about the literary contexts of the First World War.  I hope readers might be interested in the major international conference on British Poetry of the First World War, to be hosted by English Association in Oxford from 5 – 7 September. For full details, click here.

I am now also writing a regular blog about my researches into the stained glass of Charles Eamer Kempe. You’ll find this blog on the Kempe Trust website.


  1. I love coming across gems like yours. Your blog reminds me of a passage in Robert Graves' 'Goodbye to All That' which I have just finished reading and which shows to what extent returning soldiers were haunted by their experiences on the Western Front: 'But not only did I have no experience of independent civilian life, having gone straight from school into the army: I was still mentally and nervously organized for war. Shells used to come bursting on my bed at midnight, even though Nancy shared it with me; strangers in daytime would assume the faces of friends who had been killed. When strong enough to climb the hill behind Harlech and revisit my favourite country, I could not help seeing it as a prospective battlefield. I would find myself working out tactical problems, planning how best to hold the Upper Artro valley against an attack from the sea, or where to place a Lewis-gun if I were trying to rush Dolwreiddiog Farm from the brow of the hill, and what would be the best cover for my rifle-grenade section.' p.298-99.

  2. This is a really valuable quotation from ‘Goodbye to All That’, Garry - many thanks. I should have mentioned that one of the poems in 'The Waggoner’ is dedicated ‘For Nancy and Robert’ - so both Graves and Sassoon are dedicatees in this first book of poems Blunden published after the War.

  3. Thank you once more, Adrian, for something truly thoughtful and gracefully written, to read and read again; and then go and read or re-read what you have pointed to.

  4. A fascinating article, Adrian. I must say, I do find Blunden's poems disturbing with their surface "normality" and more sinister undercurrents.