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Landscape as Palimpsest: Wordsworthian Topography in the War Writings of Blunden and Sassoon

By Hemmings, Robert | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

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.

* * * * * *

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.

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