Cecil Woolf's newly-conceived War Poets series, with the tireless Jean Moorcroft Wilson as series editor,
is designed to include brief critical studies of twentieth-century war poets both famous and obscure. Alan Byford’s
Edmund Blunden and the Great War: Recollections of a Friendship takes a very appropriate place among the five titles that
launch the series.
As a study of Blunden’s literary career, it holds up well. If I have a criticism, it is that the title
misleads us as to the content. Alan Byford met Blunden in 1964, and Blunden gave up writing poetry in 1966. Though these two
facts are (I trust) unconnected, Mr Byford must feel that his friendship had minimal influence on Blunden the poet, and this
is presumably what leads him to limit his own part in the story to a few sentences at the very beginning and end. This disappointed
me; I would have liked to hear more of Blunden the man as Mr Byford knew him.
What the book is, in fact, is a short biography of Edmund Blunden (its brevity dictated by the number of
pages available), coupled with critical observations on his literary output and how it was influenced by Blunden’s World
War I experiences, which by all accounts were as horrific as anything faced by Sassoon, Owen or Graves – the three "big
names" of Great War literature. It was only during the 1920s that Blunden’s work began to be known, but his subsequent
reputation reflects well on a man whose academic career was slow to take off and whose personal life was often troubled. By
1966, he had been asked three times to apply for the Oxford poetry chair. Even when it finally became his (after an overwhelming
election victory over Robert Lowell), there was much heart-searching involved in the process. Yet Blunden’s personality
seldom comes across strongly, either in his own writing or in this little book.
In this respect, he is very different from Siegfried Sassoon, who nevertheless became one of his closest
friends. Perhaps it somehow helped that they did not meet until after the war that had affected them both so strongly.
Dennis Silk, whom Sassoon befriended (or vice versa) in the last decades of his life, has spoken and written about their friendship
in terms much more colourful than Alan Byford’s words about Edmund Blunden. The reason may simply be that Blunden was
a less colourful character than Sassoon. The portrait painted here is of a reserved and diffident man, unsure of his own abilities
even towards the end of such a long and successful career (Jean Moorcroft Wilson herself might well have blanched at the prospect
of lecturing to an audience of two thousand Japanese).
In terms of criticism of Blunden’s work, the volume fares rather better. Blunden was reasonably prolific,
and Mr Byford knows his work intimately enough to be able to highlight references one might otherwise overlook, and to show
how they fit into the story of the author’s life. I’ll make no bones about the fact that I would like to see this
expanded into a full-length biography. As someone who knew Blunden in person, Alan Byford surely has lots more to contribute
to our understanding of him. After many years of neglect, Siegfried Sassoon is now the subject of three biographies. Why shouldn’t
his best friend merit at least two?