Sunday, January 5, 2014

Blunden's morbid poetry in Undertones of War

One of the best books that I read last year was Edmund Blunden's Undertones of War. Though a work of prose, Blunden's WWI memoir bears marks of the author's poetic skill. Indeed, it was no surprise to learn that an editor of London Magazine, G. S. Fraser, once ran excerpts from Undertones as free verse in that journal. I don't know which passages Fraser selected, but I hope he included this bit from chapter 20, where Blunden is dodging shells in a quagmire of wrecked trenches while confronting 'the thought of being pitched bleeding into the gummy filths and mortifications below.'

Another choice passage appears in chapter 12, which is titled 'Caesar Went into Winter Quarters'. Blunden there describes a trench as having been 'blasted out by intense bombardment into a broad shapeless gorge, and pools of mortar-like mud filled most of it.' Later in the same paragraph, he says that the men
were not yet at the worst of their duty, for the Schwaben Redoubt ahead was an almost obliterated cocoon of trenches in which mud, and death, and life were much the same thing – ... in one place a corpse had apparently been thrust in to stop up a doorway’s dangerous displacement, and an arm swung stupidly. ... The whole zone was a corpse, and the mud itself mortified. (Edmund Blunden, Undertones of War, ch. 12)
Notice the 'mort-' words. Men are 'mortified' in the mud, likened to 'mortar-like' material fit for holding a door in place. The mud sucked away their humanity.

Santanu Das has examined the role of mud in WWI narratives. In connection with the above passage, he says: 'While shelling killed and mutilated, mud insidiously took away human subjectivity: it rendered the living human being a Thing, formless and foundationless.' (For more reflection on this excerpt from Undertones, see pp. 67-8 of Das' Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature.) Mud is a formless (or 'shapeless') morass in which distinctions fade. In it, 'death and life [are] much the same thing'. In this chaos, dying itself loses its meaning -- there can't be a dying if life and death are one.

In chapter 24, while describing his situation after an attack, Blunden says: 'Inside, the pillbox was nearly a foot deep in water, which was full of noxious and rancid matters, metamorphoses, God knows what – scire nefas.' Such ominous allusions to what lurks in pools and streams appear throughout Undertones. Earlier, in chapter 20, we find this observation:
The water below, foul yellow and brown, was strewn with full-sized eels, bream and jack, seething and bulged in death. Gases of several kinds oozed from the crumbled banks and shapeless ditches, souring the air. One needed no occult gift to notice the shadow of death on the bread and cheese in one’s hand, the discoloured tepid water in one’s bottle. (Edmund Blunden, Undertones of War, ch. 20)
'Seething and bulged in death.' Pure poetry! And there's that word 'shapeless' again applied to the landscape. The juxtaposition of food and oozing gases suggests some sort of chthonic digestive process in which forms are broken down and obliterated in 'rancid ... metamorphoses'.

Similar patterns appear in Blunden's 'A Battalion History', in which Blunden says that his unit
had become accustomed to two views of the universe: the glue-ridden formless mortifying wilderness of the crater zone above, and below, fusty, clay-smeared, candle-lit wooden galleries, where the dead lay decomposing under knocked-in entrances. (Edmund Blunden, 'A Battalion History', as quoted in Hew Strachan's 'Introduction' to Undertones of War [Penguin Classics, 2010])

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