Landscape as Palimpsest: Wordsworthian Topography in the War Writings of Blunden and Sassoon
Hemmings, Robert, Papers on Language & Literature
In May 1917, while Edmund Blunden was mapping the devastated terrain of Flanders near Ypres, Siegfried Sassoon was recovering from wounds in a pastorally set country manor in Sussex, haunted by memories of battle but buoyed by warm reviews of The Old Huntsman, his first book of autobiographical poems. That same month a Wordsworth scholar from Princeton arrived in Paris to volunteer at the American Ambulance Hospital in Neuilly. The well-shaded avenues of this suburb provided a relatively comforting setting for his trying duties, where he witnessed the human costs of the kind of destruction Sassoon and Blunden had experienced first-hand. During his off-duty hours, George McLean Harper dispatched to America occasional articles about his experiences in the hospital and in a Paris transfigured. "The Face of Paris," for example, is a sort of roughly sketched map of the city during wartime, depleted of motorized traffic, restored to the pedestrian. The beauty of its architectural marvels stood in contrast to the war-weary faces of the many types of people who walked its hallowed streets: from ragged and dirty children to off-duty soldiers, "men with the mark of great memories on their brow" (695). But there was another reason for Harper's presence in Paris. His landmark biography of Wordsworth had been published the year before, but he was keen to pursue a lead he had uncovered in the British Museum during the first winter of the war about the existence of Wordsworth's daughter in France (Harper, French Daughter 5). He managed to slip away from his hospital and journalistic duties long enough to corroborate his lead. In July 1917, the month Blunden passed the Chateau at Vlaamartinghe and Sassoon arrived at Craiglockhart War Hospital set in the hills outside Edinburgh, Harper found legal documents in Parisian archives that confirmed Wordsworth's knowledge and support of his daughter Caroline's baptism in 1792 and her marriage in 1816 (French Daughter 6). This previously uncharted territory Harper could now add to his topography of Wordsworth's life.
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Topography is a key term in this essay. Etymologically, it combines two Greek words: topos, 'place' and graphia, 'to write.' In its original English sense, topography meant the creation through writing of a metaphorical representation of landscape; then it evolved to represent landscape through the use of the conventional signs of a mapping system (Miller 3-4). Words or maps are used to represent landscapes or territories. When the territories shift from the physical realm to the realm of subjectivity, to include the mind, topography develops a literary resonance that is particularly rich in poets concerned with landscape or, more broadly, with Nature: Blunden and Sassoon, and before them Wordsworth. Though many critical studies typically connect Blunden and Sassoon and other "war poets"--Owen, Rosenberg, Thomas, for example--to the High Romantics, the line is usually traced through Keats and Shelley.1 Sassoon's most recent biographer does not look beyond Rossetti, Swinburne, Tennyson, and Browning as key nineteenth-century influences for Sassoon (Egremont 34). Critics like Paul Fussell downplay Wordsworth's legacy, raising it as an ironic point of contrast in the form of "The Happy Warrior," which is shown, accurately enough, to be a woefully inadequate poetic model for the experience of modern warfare (169). Jean Moorcroft Wilson identifies Wordsworth's "heartfelt simplicities" as influential (Making 187) and acknowledges, quite rightly, the impact of his "spots of time" on Sassoon's The Old Century (1938) (Journey 302). Adrian Caesar does acknowledge a "Wordsworthian tradition" behind Sassoon's early "Georgian" poetry that "glorif[ied] the life of 'simple folk'" (71), which Caesar criticizes along Marxist lines. But none of these critics accounts for the role of Wordsworth's relation to the natural world in Blunden's or Sassoon's poetic development during the war. In fact, Wordsworth's legacy represents a vital source, conscious or unconscious, in Blunden's and Sassoon's war writing that grapples with the traumatized poet's relationship to the natural world. After first sketching out Blunden's and Sassoon's own understanding of Wordsworth, this essay explores the topographies of landscape and self from the metaphysical level of Wordsworth to the hyperphysical levels of the war poets, a term that registers the jarring and material collision between poet and the external world. The analysis focuses on how key moments of memory and revisitation in Wordsworth ("Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey" and The Prelude) inform the prose and poetry of Blunden's Undertones of War, as well as Sassoon's Sherston Memoirs and his early war poetry.
The tendency in critical circles to downplay the significance of Wordsworth to Blunden and Sassoon can be traced back to the poets' own scholarly endeavors, in which Wordsworth has, at first glance, an inconspicuous role. The further one looks, however, the more conspicuous he becomes. Though Wordsworth's popularity increased during the war, in part due to Harper's biography, Wordsworth did not leave a great impression on Blunden, at least so far as his prolific critical writings indicate. While Blunden edited the first modern edition of John Clare, wrote extensively on Keats, completed full-length biographies of Leigh Hunt and P.B. Shelley, and was at work on a Coleridge biography when he died in 1974, his work on Wordsworth is marginal in comparison. A brief essay written during his professorship in Tokyo was transformed into an introduction to a book of Wordsworth's verse for children he edited. Completed four years before his death, this introduction does reveal a crucial insight into how Blunden constituted Wordsworth: "He spent his years in expressing poetically the habit of 'natural piety,' of submitting the mind and heart to Nature's influence" (Solitary 8). Blunden defined "natural piety" for his young readers as an "affectionate reverence for the universe around us," a definition which very much characterizes Blunden's own relation to nature.
A fuller account of Blunden's Wordsworth appears in Nature in English Literature (1929). The individual's relationship with Nature Blunden sees as fundamental to the "finest" in English literature, and this relationship is indeed central to his understanding of English culture. Introducing the subject of the popularity of guide-books in Georgian England, he points out that they were often the labors of love written by "those who sought nothing better than their favorite ten square miles of Nature" (19).2 Blunden imagines the enriching potential of gathering together these guides in a phrase that well suits the central image of this essay: "A tithe map might be the plan of a master-work in human and natural harmonies" (19). Such a tithe map has the potential to chart the natural world's innate benevolence as surely as the tradition of "the Romantic Movement," in which he includes aspects of Wordsworth, alongside Blake, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, and Clare (35). But with Wordsworth, Blunden maintains, Nature becomes no longer a "question of merely a breeze in the willows, but of a spirit-wind 'that rolls through all things'" (36). Two Wordsworths emerge from this picture: the "receptive Wordsworth" (72), who wrote of "the primrose and the linnet" and the "breeze in the willows" (36), and the "adjudicatory" Wordsworth (72), who wrote of the "fair-destinied universe" and spirit-winds (37). Blunden's dichotomy accords in part with the contemporary critical view of Wordsworth's philosophical position existing in a "binaristic interplay" between the Lockean empiricist who reifies nature and the Kantean transcendentalist who sees nature as a realization of the mind's creative powers (Thomas 16-18). Blunden, however, does not acknowledge the dynamism of the binary, which after all blurs boundaries, and attacks what he finds threatening about Wordsworth's relation to Nature: the transcendentalist voice of the adjudicator issuing from "the high and spacious intellectual architecture of Wordsworth" (63). This metaphor strangely echoes Wordsworth's "Preface to the 1814 Excursion," where he likens the as yet untitled Prelude to The Recluse as "the ante-chamber [. . .] to the body of a gothic church" (Excursion 2). Even before reaching the lofty space of the gothic church, there are moments in the antechamber when the poet's mind dominates the mind-nature dialectic and seems to create what it observes: "An auxiliary …
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Publication information: Article title: Landscape as Palimpsest: Wordsworthian Topography in the War Writings of Blunden and Sassoon. Contributors: Hemmings, Robert - Author. Journal title: Papers on Language & Literature. Volume: 43. Issue: 3 Publication date: Summer 2007. Page number: 264+. © 1999 Southern Illinois University. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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