Commissioned article: Mistaking Magdalen for the Menin Gate: Edmund Blunden November 1, 1931 by Adrian Barlow
Edmund Blunden's first volume of collected poems 'Poems 1914-1930' was published when he was only 33 showing how early and how strongly he had established his reputation as a poet. Of course, the success of 'Undertones of War' had helped: it had introduced a new generation of readers to Blunden, and some of his most famous poems first appeared as the appendix (entitled Poetical Interpretations) to that prose account of the Great War.
His next book of poems, 'Halfway House', was published in 1932. Its title is not at first obvious, since no poem is called 'Halfway House', but there is an immediate clue: Blunden chooses for an epigraph to the book the opening lines of Dante's Inferno, as translated by Cary:
In the mid way of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray.
This sense of being lost, half way through life, is at the heart of the key poem of Halfway House, November 1, 1931, which begins
We talked of ghosts; and I was still alive;
And I that very day was thirty five.
In other words, Blunden memorialises the exact day on which he reaches the midpoint of his three score years and ten: he had been born on All Saints Day, 1 November 1896. But with whom was he celebrating his 35th birthday? And who were the ghosts of whom they were speaking? Questions like these lead us into a complex and unsettling poem.
Despite the precise dating of its title, this poem (written unusually in thirty-eight rhyming couplets) nevertheless appears to be looking back from some vague point in the future: if the poet had been still alive in 1931, his state now, as he writes, is indeterminate. He is not only Here and elsewhere but also Baffled in time. Like Dante, in fact, he is astray. In part, he can see the absurdity of this: living now in Oxford (Blunden had taken up a fellowship at his old college, Merton, in 1931) he can laugh at himself for behaving like an old man, getting his dates wrong and muddling up landmarks from his past and present life. He does not need a conversation (trans mortal talk) with a ghost to teach him that the war he survived has in a sense turned him into a ghost - War had ended my sublunar walk. Nevertheless, he still wants some kind ghost to come and explain to him why, even now (after the publication of Undertones of War) he continues to write compulsively (why I drove my pen so late). More than this, he needs an explanation of what the war and his surviving of it really means: he yearned to catch what he should say when the time came for him to explain what my gross late appearance was about.
Blunden's simile of a man on an important secret mission who is kidnapped by bandits and long delayed well expresses the poet's feeling of bewilderment and frustration, his sense of existing perhaps in a halfway house between being alive and being dead. It is an image we might understand today in terms of a hostage captured in the Middle East. This bewilderment is also reflected in the speaker's need to ask forgiveness both of his former comrades, now dead, and of his 'sweet, red-smiling love'. He is afraid that to the former his dear, honoured and saintly friends his inability to enjoy or justify the life that was spared to him must seem like a betrayal of what they died for. And when he tries to explain his feelings to his woman he has loved he understands neither why their relationship has failed nor whether he or she is to blame:
from my silences your kindness grew,
And I surrendered for the time to you,
And still I hold you glorious and my own,
I'd take your hands, your lips; but I'm alone.
So I was forced elsewhere.
The restless changing of tenses in these five lines past, past, present, future subjunctive or past imperfect, present, past and the movement from active to passive again reflect the speaker's sense of hovering in a kind of limbo. He isn't even sure if this is life, as he murmurs to the woman, parenthetically and apologetically.
November 1, 1931 is thus a disturbing poem, sometimes uncertain in tone, occasionally unconvincing in its couplets, necessarily inconclusive and downbeat. It is, after all, about the consequences of something that did not happen:
No ghost was granted me; and I must face
Uncoached the masters of that Time and Space
And there with downcast murmurings set out
What my gross late appearance was about.
It would, though, be a mistake to underestimate this poem and the significance of its survivor-as-ghost trope, which of course is a recurring feature of the literary expression of post-traumatic stress. No one in the 1930s would have been more familiar than Blunden with Charles Lamb's poem The Old Familiar Faces, in which Lamb (1775-1834) struggled to come to terms with the shock and consequences of his mother's death at the hand of his sister Mary. In this poem, Lamb reflected on how this tragedy separated him from his past life and from his closest friends:
Ghost-like I paced round the haunts of my childhood,
Earth seem'd a desert I was bound to traverse,
Seeking to find the old familiar faces.
Blunden too represents himself as endlessly searching. I must go over the ground again, he had said in Undertones of War; and here in November 1, 1931 he is always on the bivouac for ever changing ground. His mental clumsiness (baffled, fumbling) is like that of an old man. And this is a reminder that those who survived the War characteristically thought of themselves as old before their time. Richard Aldington's poem Epilogue to Death of a Hero (1929) begins
Eleven years after the fall of Troy,
We, the old men some of us nearly forty
Met and talked on the sunny rampart.
Some spoke of intolerable sufferings,
The brightness gone from their eyes
And the grey already thick in their hair .
For the speaker in November 1, 1931 premature old age is both a cause and a consequence of this apparently futile and so far fruitless seeking; but Mistaking Magdalen for the Menin Gate the only line in the whole poem with a triple alliteration is not so much a wry smile at a senior moment as an inexcusable error for which he must ask forgiveness from the very people, his dead friends, whose names are engraved on the walls of the Menin Gate in Ypres. And just as Blunden knew intimately the work of Charles Lamb, so in 1931 he would also have known Sassoon's recent poem, On Passing the New Menin Gate:
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.
For Blunden, as for Sassoon, this memorial was no laughing matter. Sassoon's reference in the same poem to the intolerably nameless names expresses clearly enough the reaction of the survivors, left to look for the names of their former comrades on the walls of this ponderous memorial: the Menin Gate, despite being designed on an overbearing scale by Sir Reginald Blomfield, proved still too small to hold the names of all the missing of the Ypres Salient.
However, important as these echoes of other poems may be, they do not sufficiently reflect the significance of November 1, 1931, this account in rhyming couplets of waiting for a ghost (who doesn't appear) to give the poet a justification (which he has not yet heard) for what he has endured and why he has survived it. In the Preface to Halfway House Blunden states that he intends to still haunt the earth at certain seasons waiting for the spark from heaven to fall.
Characterising himself here as already a ghost, he waits for the Arnoldian spark of poetic inspiration to bring him back to life both as a person and as a poet. What should he say and do next?
It is this question, and not the answer to it, that Blunden's birthday poem is fundamentally about. His poetry of direct experience of war has been written and collected in Poems 1914-1930; his present poetry, in Halfway House, is of uncertainty and unfocused foreboding, hovering between the past and the to-come. What he doesn't yet know (though it will shortly become clear) is that, with Europe moving rapidly towards another war, his job will be to adopt in the poetry he has yet to write the stance adopted by Wilfred Owen back in 1918: All a poet can do today is warn. To understand therefore why November 1, 1931 is itself a half-way house in Blunden's poetic output, one should read it alongside Another Journey from Bethune to Cuinchy (published 1928) and To WO and his Kind (published 1939). When read in sequence with these other two poems about conversations with the dead, November 1, 1931 demonstrates how, by the end of the Thirties, Blunden was certain that his responsibility as a poet was to warn against a repeat of 1914-18. And Owen, whom Blunden had never met but whose friendship he most missed Would you were not dust! he exclaims in To WO and his Kind, was the friendly ghost Virgil to his Dante who would guide him through the gloomy wood. It was to be Owen who would make his future poetic direction clear to him and, as the Second World War began, Blunden acknowledged this in To Wilfred Owen (killed in action November 4th, 1918). The poem begins:
Where does your spirit walk, kind soldier, now,
In this deep winter, bright with ready guns?
And have you found new poems in this war?
And I, dream-following you, reading your eyes,
Your veteran youthful eyes, discover fair
Some further hope, which did not formerly rise.
Smiling you fade, the future meets you there.