A Biography

By Barry Webb

Yale University Press. 352 pp. $35

IN MARCH 1924, Virginia Woolf recorded in her diary a farewell party for Edmund Blunden, about to depart for Japan, where he was to be a professor at the Imperial University, Tokyo, for the next three years. Blunden was 27, a hardened war veteran who had been awarded the Military Cross, an acclaimed poet (five volumes), a respected man of letters.

Yet Woolf saw him "despairing, drooping, crow-like rather than Keats-like. And did we really all believe in Blunden's genius? Had we read his poems? How much sincerity is there in the whole thing?"

Blunden's genius, the value of his poems, the sincerity of the regard in which he was apparently held, are never called in question in Barry Webb's biography, the first to appear since Blunden's death in 1974. Webb met his subject by chance, in 1966, as an Oxford undergraduate:

"I presented myself for my weekly tutorial and discovered a visitor in the room. He sat in the arm-chair next to mine and I was instantly aware of his penetrating eyes, sensitive fingers and an aura of dreamy perceptiveness which enveloped him. It transpired that my tutor was double-booked for lunch and he asked me if I could entertain Professor Edmund Blunden -- for such the visitor turned out to be . . . I was nineteen; he was sixty-nine. The lunch lasted three hours -- three hours which changed my life."

Thus transfigured, Webb proceeds on his careful, conscientious, detailed but also pedestrian, stolid and placid way. Much is made, by other eyes than Webb's, of those "penetrating eyes"; but Webb himself lacks penetration. Though not precisely hagiographic, his book is pious.

Edmund Blunden was chiefly brought up in the gentle countryside of southeast England, and in a happy family. Unlike many writers, he thoroughly enjoyed his schooldays, as a scholarship boy at Christ's Hospital, where he soon developed his passions for poetry, the byways of literary learning, natural history and cricket. But he had no sooner won a place at Oxford than he found himself in the army, and was plunged into some of the most infamous place-names of the First World War. Webb points out that Blunden put in longer service at the front (two years) than such "war poets" as Owen, Sorley, Graves, Gurney, Rosenberg or Sassoon. Only David Jones could compare with him in the length of his rigors.

Small, bird-like, frail, he was often referred to as if he were some sort of tiny mammal. In the 1920s Edmund Gosse affectionately likened him to a chinchilla; in the 1930s, Geoffrey Grigson more contemptuously called him "the Merton fieldmouse" (Merton was the Oxford college at which he was a tutor in the 1930s and 1940s). He married a totally unliterary country girl when he was 21 and she 18. It was the beginning of a long and complicated series of relationships with women. A friend commented that there was "something about the little man that made every woman who met him want to protect him from everyone else." This caused difficulties, including two further marriages and a protracted unbalanced relationship with a sad Japanese.

Blunden saw himself, in a self-ironizing way, as "a harmless young shepherd in a soldier's coat," "a pacifist in a Sam Browne." The war marked him very deeply, leaving him with a determination never to allow such criminal waste again -- and this led him into political naivety which caused almost as much trouble as his emotional naivety with women. As late as August 1939, he was enthusiastically attending a congress of German writers. After the war, in China, he was accused of being a communist. AS A POET, and in his literary views, he was a traditionalist, a pastoralist, a sedulous discoverer of minor talents among forgotten authors. He was industrious, for many years churning out hundreds of book reviews, essays, lectures, introductions to this, editions of that, as well as a large corpus of poems. Little survives. His prose masterpiece is Undertones of War (1928): Its mannered, sometimes mandarin style is a curious instrument for these detailed memories of his war experiences, but it stands as a balance to Robert Graves's brisker, but perhaps less truthful, Goodbye to All That.

A handful of poems still have currency. Some are "war" poems ("Report on Experience," "Concert Party: Busseboom"), rather more are pieces of deft rural observation ("Forefathers," "The Midnight Skaters," "Almswomen"). All these are familiar anthology poems, and indeed Blunden has been well served by anthologists.

Apart from this slender literary legacy, Blunden survives for two reasons. First, the success of his 1924-27 teaching in Japan prompted the British government to send him back, in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as "cultural liaison officer," 1947-50. It was a marvelously imaginative stroke, creating goodwill in such a way that all subsequent "cultural" visitors from Britain to Japan have reason to thank the shade of the blessed St. Edmund. Second, he was an emblem of the 20th-century man of letters, and a warning to us all. He wrote too many reviews, gave too many lectures, was nice to too many people too often and almost never said no. It is only with mild superciliousness, I think, that Webb comments: "He must be one of the few poets and Oxford dons to have written for a seed catalogue."

Barry Webb has clearly been seduced by a good and generous man, who was ruefully aware that he was too easily given to "apostrophising a turnip." The result, in this book, is rather like drinking a prolonged series of toasts to a "modest shining genius" (Rupert Hart-Davis's description at Blunden's 50th-birthday celebrations). One is almost pushed back to Virginia Woolf's asperities on a similar occasion 22 years earlier.

Anthony Thwaite's most recent book is "Poems 1953-1988." He taught at Tokyo University (1955-57), was a co-editor of Encounter magazine (1973-85) and recently edited Philip Larkin's collected poems.