FALL IN, GHOSTS
What else could Blunden do for the dead? Reluctantly, given his deep-seated antipathy to Kipling, he agreed to succeed him as literary advisor to the Imperial War Graves Commission, and that meant revisiting the battlefields and cemeteries on a regular basis. In an introduction to Philip Longworth’s The Unending Vigil: A History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (1967), Blunden wrote that as they commemorated those who had ‘died for their friends’, the cemeteries were ‘in a sense the poetry of that action’.26
For decades, it was the poetry itself that he preserved and presented. Concentrating on his war experience, I have not included here a series of introductions and prefaces to anthologies of war poetry, to individual collections, or excerpts from his pamphlet for the British Council series ‘Writers & their Works’. War Poets 1914–1918, first published in 1958, was still available over twenty years later (with an updated bibliography), with its canonical progress from Brooke to Owen. Throughout his life he edited the works of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century authors, major and minor, but his editions of Wilfred Owen in 1931 and of Ivor Gurney in 1954 were landmarks. Dominic Hibberd has suggested that Blunden ‘probably had more influence than anyone on the modern view of 1914–18 verse’ though his work as editor and critic.27
‘Over there are faith, life, virtue in the sun’ concludes ‘Report on Experience’: faith, virtue, courage, honour – these ‘big words’ did not lose their meaning for Blunden in 1914; rather, his war service deepened their meaning. A hundred years later, it is harder for many readers to grasp that than to appreciate the justifiable rage and cynicism of other writers.28 Blunden – unassuming, hardworking, courteous, intelligently discriminating – honoured his comrades in the art, the soldier-poets he felt understood the war best, and in his writings kept faith with all the dead.
Yea, how they set themselves in battle-array I shall remember to my dying day.