The Survivor's Ghosts
- Poems that deal with the ghosts of war and the effect such a horrifying experience can have on the mind years after it is over.
As a survivor of the war Blunden had to learn to somehow live with his memories, something he never really achieved. He always felt that part of him was living in that time unable to escape fully to the present. This feeling inspired a whole body of poetry that reveals the devastating impact of the war on the mind of a surviving soldier.
The poem Can you remember? is an exploration of the way the memory works. The poet asks himself if he can still remember the war and he discovers he can accessing hazy memories from the back of his mind that evolve into the sharp, clear and disturbing images of the last stanza.
The poem was published in a volume entitled Elegy in 1937, almost twenty years after the end of the war.
Can You Remember?
Yes, I still remember
The whole thing in a way;
Edge and exactitude
Depend on the day.
Of all that prodigious scene
There seems scanty loss,
Though mists mainly float and screen
Canal, spire and fosse;
Though commonly I fail to name
That once obvious Hill,
And where we went and whence we came
To be killed, or kill.
Those mists are spiritual
Evolved of countless circumstance
Of which I am sure;
Of which, at the instance
Of sound, smell, change and stir,
New-old shapes for ever
And some are sparkling, laughing, singing,
Young, heroic, mild;
And some incurable, twisted,
Shrieking, dumb, defiled.
To listen to Claire Blunden reading this poem click the link at the bottom of the page. (This requires Real Player)
Themes and faces
This poem is a wonderful example of how the ghosts and memories of war can haunt a man and the power they hold that enables them to return so clearly almost twenty years later. As with Concert Party it illustrates the two sides of soldiers at war: the poet's memories are mixed with 'laughing', 'singing' and 'mild' men alongside 'twisted', 'shrieking', and 'defiled' men. The ghosts in this poem are those of the men he fought with. He often wished that he could have died with them and felt tremendous guilt at surviving when so many did not. It is perhaps this guilt that allowed the memories to return in such an intense way.
Effect of time
In comparison to Concert Party, which Blunden said 'was as it actually happened', the memories in this poem are more like a group of jumbled images taken from his entire experience of war rather than a particular incident. His memories of the war are entwined with more present ones, giving the reader the feeling that they are not entirely linear and tend to be made up of muddle of 'new-old shapes' from past and present. Although the memories are still with him they are not as accessible as they perhaps used to be and need to be triggered by something such as a familiar smell or sound. Members of Blunden's family have often recounted being with him when such an occurrence took place.
One of the most important messages from this poem is the impact the war had on surviving soldiers. Twenty years have passed and still the poet lives with his ghosts. The after effects of the war are as important as the devastation that took place on the battlefield when considering the powerful and futile nature of war itself.
The readers are left with the memory of the shrieking, dying men, rather than the living, laughing men. This is of course deliberate. Although Blunden wrote of the beauty of the French and Flemish landscape, friendship between soldiers and enjoyable moments they snatched behind the line, he was in no doubt that his most important memory was that of the men who lost their lives in that vast and bloody arena. This is echoed in another poem by Blunden 1916 seen from 1921 in which he writes that 'the charred stub outspeaks the living tree.'
This introduction is simply that, an introduction to the war poetry of Edmund Blunden. I hope it gives readers an idea of the different themes Blunden explored and how much we can learn from his poetry in terms of the experience and deadly impact of the First World War and all the wars that followed. If you have any other questions about his war poetry or would like to submit an article yourself, please email us. The poems explored above can all be found in Martin Taylor's book 'Overtones of War', published by Duckworth.