Undertones of war Unknown Binding – 1974
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It was when I realised that such passages were encountered principally in Blunden’s recollections of set-piece battles that I started to understand what he was trying to do and how effectively he had, in fact, done it. He has used the techniques of poets and composers to unsettle and sow confusion in his readers’ minds, which gets them to think about and sense (as far as that is possible) not just the sequence of events in any given attack (again as far as Blunden could see them), but also the feelings of ordinary soldiers and subalterns caught up in such Western Front battles – fear and confusion being predominant. Thus sudden shocks, random images, (within a sentence a blade of grass here, a piece of shrapnel there), an overwhelming sense of not being in control of one’s fate, are all reflected not just in words but in the structure of Blunden’s prose.
A different technique is used when a completely unexpected disaster befalls his subjects. A quiet passage describing what seems to be safe dug-out domesticity continues on its way even after a shell kills a number of the occupants. No punctuation or change of rhythm heralds the arrival of the shell, no crescendo or heightening of tension, just the fact. One has to go back to the beginning of the sentence to make sure one has truly understood what has just happened, and the shock is all the greater when one realises one has. Casual reference is made to a horse that is spotted behind German lines by British artillery which then kills it, menace being lent to the pointless cruelty by the smooth flow of the prose.
The writing is not perfect; elegiac passages, chiefly relating to the French countryside and his love of ancient books and churches are sometimes marred by highly obscure literary or historical references, which the editors have correctly surmised require a glossary at the front of the book. On such occasions one gets the sense that Blunden is more concerned with conveying the depth of his scholarship than enhancing his narrative – but such diversions are rare.
And should not divert one from the conclusion that this is a memorable piece of prose/poetry, the like of which I have not come across before, save possible in Yeates’ semi-autobiographical ‘Winged Victory’. I think it is interesting that both books were written around twelve years after the Armistice, hence with time for reflection, and both by officers who actually fought in the war so they knew what they were writing about.
The effect is profoundly moving.
Blunden, unfairly, is probably not as well known a war poet as Sassoon, or Graves, or the unfortunate Owen. A shame, because he is every bit as good. His prose in this book is lyrical to the point of being poetical, his descriptions evocative, his criticisms rare & mostly oblique. Included, by the author, at the end of the book are some 40 pages of his poems. As he explains in his foreword, this is deliberate; a different way of expressing & explaining some of the things he experienced.
You'll find this a very different book to any other veterans' first-hand account, and certainly very different from any modern compilation of eyewitness experiences. You'll also find it well worth your time.
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