Blunden’s link with England’s southern countryside was further strengthened at the age of 17, when his parents left Yalding for teaching posts at the Framfield School in Sussex, a county rich in literary associations that worked their way into his writings. As Thomas Mallon points out, “Charles Blunden the cricketer, angler, kind and competent schoolmaster and churchman—this is the essential figure in the pre-1914 village landscape that Edmund Blunden was to celebrate as his ideal for half a century.” He attended Christ’s Hospital School, and Blunden’s earliest poems, in the pastoral tradition, appeared in the school magazine, the Blue. He later dedicated much of his criticism and scholarship to the famous men of letters who preceded him at the school, particularly Charles Lamb, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Leigh Hunt.
In 1914 Blunden won a scholarship to Queen’s College, Oxford. When World War I interrupted his study, he served as a lieutenant in the Royal Sussex Regiment in France and Belgium, winning the Military Cross. As for most of his fellow generation, WWI was undoubtedly the most significant event in Blunden’s life. The year before his death he wrote, “My experiences in the First World War have haunted me all my life and for many days I have, it seemed, lived in that world rather than this.” The horror of the war might have accentuated the pastoral impulse in Blunden, for when he returned to England he clung even more firmly to the rural landscape of Kent and Sussex as the image of an ideal past, a paradise with which he was determined to prevent England from losing contact.
After his discharge in 1918, Blunden briefly resumed his studies at Oxford, but he soon moved with his bride, the former Mary Davies, to Boar’s Hill, England, where the poets Robert Bridges and Robert Graves were living. There he began his serious career as a poet and a parallel one as a scholar. At Peterborough and Northampton he discovered collections of manuscripts by the 19th-century peasant poet John Clare, and with the help of his friend Alan Porter he published John Clare: Poems Chiefly from Manuscript (1920). This first excursion into literary scholarship foreshadowed his later ones: Blunden regularly turned to neglected figures in English literature and history in an effort to give them the recognition he thought they deserved. He tries, for example, to vindicate Clare from the misjudgments and falsifications of previous commentators and to give him his rightful place in English literature. Similarly, in his edition of Christopher Smart’s A Song to David with Other Poems (1924) he expresses the hope that Smart’s masterpiece will become “as familiar as [Milton’s poems] ‘L’Allegro.’” For Blunden, criticism was almost always more a matter of expanding the literary canon than of further cultivating familiar fields.
In 1920, Blunden moved to London to begin a career as a literary journalist and became a part of the London intellectual circle of the 1920s. He served as John Middleton Murry’s assistant on the Athenaeum and befriended Philip and Ottoline Morrell, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, and Katherine Mansfield. He retained his position as subeditor when the Athenaeum was merged into the Nation in 1921. That year he traveled to South America aboard a cargo steamer to try to regain his health—he had not recovered from the nervous strain of the war, and his lungs had been permanently damaged by a gas attack. His major prose work of this period was The Bonadventure (1922), a travel book about the trip. Blunden continued to write travel literature throughout his career, especially about the Far East, and his travel essays show the same keen eye for detail, if not the same depth of feeling, as his writings on the English countryside.
In 1924 Blunden became Robert Nichols’s successor as professor of English literature at Tokyo Imperial University, and his influence on the study of English literature in Japan was immense. He trained a generation of Japanese scholars, helped found the English Reading Society, and encouraged the aspiring poets that were among his students. Living in Japan provided Blunden with enough distance from his war experiences to write about them. Undertones of War (1928) became his most popular work and, in the opinion of many, his best. “In Japan,” he wrote to his friend G.H. Grubb in 1930, “my sense of loss and eyelessness became stronger, the first year there being of course productive of long periods of loneliness, though later on I discovered many springs of hope and sympathy. I also had some time now & then,—& so I began to picture the past as well as I could in words.”
Although Undertones of War proceeds more or less chronologically from Blunden’s enlistment in 1915 (“I was not anxious to go,” chapter 1 begins) to 1917 when he returned to a training center in England, the work is not an external narrative of battles and events. Rather it is a series of vignettes or episodes that focus on seemingly unimportant things occurring in the day-to-day life of a platoon. Critic Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) calls Undertones of War “an extended pastoral elegy in prose. ... Its distinction derives in large part from the delicacy with which it deploys the properties of traditional English literary pastoral in the service of the gentlest (though not always the gentlest) kind of irony.” Fussell also pronounced Blunden’s Undertones of War, together with Siegfried Sassoon’s and Graves’s memoirs, “one of the permanent works engendered by memories of the war.”
Blunden returned to England in 1927 and went back to work for the Nation and Athenaeum, then edited by Leonard Woolf. Between 1927 and 1940, when he returned to military service as a staff member of the Oxford Training Corps, Blunden enjoyed his most productive period as an essayist and prose writer. His scholarly interests reasserted themselves in On the Poems of Henry Vaughn (1927), followed the next year by Leigh Hunt’s “Examiner” Examined. Less specialized is Nature in English Literature (1929), a volume in Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Lectures on English Literature series. The book is much more than literary criticism; it is Blunden’s lay sermon on nature, his affirmation of faith in the spirit of the English countryside, and his argument for the inseparability of English literature from the Englishman’s love of nature. To Blunden, remarks Fussell, “the countryside is magical. It is as precious as English literature, with which indeed it is almost identical. ... To Blunden, both the countryside and English literature are ‘alive,’ and both have ‘feelings.’”
In 1931 Blunden became fellow and tutor in English literature at Merton College, Oxford. That same year he published Votive Tablets: Studies Chiefly Appreciative of English Authors and Books; this book and The Mind’s Eye (1934) are his major collections of essays. As a literary critic, Blunden was cautious and fair. Alec Hardie notes that “He is temperamentally unwilling to show other than sympathy; he makes a real attempt to meet an author on his own level, to know what he is trying to say, and not to force prejudices upon a victim. Rightly he has the reputation of a kindly critic, preferring to find the authors’ qualities and to gloss over faults.” “If ever a man came to praise and not to bury,” says Mallon, “it was he.”
Although Blunden wrote on the major Romantics (including a 1946 biography of Shelley) and on Hardy, his most characteristic criticism focuses on comparatively neglected figures such as Clare, Collins, Smart, Hunt, William Cobbett, Robert Southey, Thomas Hood, and Michael Drayton. As Alec Hardie has pointed out, nearly every author Blunden writes about has “some personal reason for deserving sympathy as a man: prolonged ill-health, madness, suicide, or some inability to deal with the circumstances of his time.”
In 1933 Blunden married Sylva Norman, with whom he coauthored his only novel: We’ll Shift Our Ground; or, Two on a Tour (1933). Like his first marriage, his second ended in divorce. He married Claire Margaret Poynting in 1945.
Blunden traveled to Japan in 1947 as the cultural liaison officer to the British mission, lecturing extensively on English literature. Blunden returned to England in 1950 to work again for the Times Literary Supplement. In 1953 he became professor of English literature at the University of Hong Kong, where he taught for more than a decade. In 1964 he retired to Long Melford, Sudbury, Suffolk, but two years later he was appointed professor of poetry at Oxford. He resigned in 1968 due to ill health. He died on January 20, 1974.
Blunden’s career as a critic and essayist shows not so much development and change as a continual circling around the same subjects and figures. What Mallon says about Blunden as a literary critic applies to him as an essayist in general: “The same subjects and the same names occur again and again in his lectures and books, and are recited almost in the manner of a lover. The sense of intimacy and regard between subject and explicator is unusual and impressive.” As an inheritor of the 19th-century tradition of the familiar essay, Blunden exemplifies the virtues of modesty, sympathy, decency, intimacy, and loyalty.