Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden (1928)

Edmund Blunden was 17 when the Great War broke out and 18 when he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Sussex Regiment. He survived for 2 years at the Front, commanding a company through the battles of the Somme and Passchendaele, before going on to a distinguished post-war career as a man of letters at universities here and in the Far East.

Blunden’s 1928 memoir, Undertones of War, is short, 188 pages in this Penguin edition. What makes it beguiling is his odd style:

Each circumstance of the British experience that is still with me has ceased for me to be big or little, and now appeals to me more even than the highest exaltation of pain or scene in the Dynasts, and thank the heaven of adoration incarnadined with Desdemona’s handkerchief.

Odd words and phraseology, quotes from obscure poets, no use of ‘the’ where you’d expect it, understatement so complete you have to reread passages 3 or 4 times to understand what he’s getting at. Yet it’s not arty or pretentious. You feel it’s a highly personal style, built on 19th century poetic diction, which wanted to write about shire horses and primroses but was shattered into splinters, obscurities and indirections by the truly horrifying scenes he witnessed.

I think a number of Georgian writers were experimenting with ways of being ‘modern’, of keeping the best of the English rural tradition while trying to kick free of Victorian phraseology. I think almost all of them now seem quaint because the international – mostly American – Modernist movement (Eliot, Pound, Joyce, Stein, Hemingway, cummings) – came and swept everything away, embracing the new steel and chrome Art Deco world so that all the Georgians became back numbers overnight.

So to read this book is not only to enter Blunden’s peculiarly phrased world, but also to glimpse a possible future for the English language that never happened.

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