BD. Edmund Blunden

105. In Hokkaido: A Letter in Verse, and in the Romantic Manner. Poetry Review 44 (January-March 1953): 260-62.

  Reprinted in Hong Kong House.  

Blunden’s longest poem with a Japanese subject is among his most striking on any subject. The 108 lines in blank verse in some ways summarises his poetic response to Japan and in other ways extends it. The ‘letter’ is addressed to the ‘lover of solitude and those wild tracks / Which constantly allure time’s wanderers / To deep and singular peace’. On one level, like so much of Blunden’s earlier work, the poem responds sympathetically to natural landscape, here in Hokkaido, which to the Japanese even today represents wild and unrestrained nature, and which here is portrayed as wild indeed. As in Blunden’s earlier work on Japan, the speaker is reminded of the natural beauties of a landscape left behind, but here for the first time in writing about Japan Blunden is reminded not of pastoral England but of another European landscape he knew well as a young man. Having seen ‘flowers that elsewhere might be meadow-sweet, / And high half-thistle on whose purple tower / Streaked butterflies were landing’, as ‘Deep the road / Worked through this chaos green’, he

Green byways of a summer dead, and one—
War was upon that way in northern France,
Between the halted railroad and the wood;
War met the wayfarer, who still would fancy
That sanctuary held in that graceful wood,
That sacrificial grove.

Though later in the poem the speaker is reminded of England, in this case Dovedale in the Pennines, where ‘perhaps / This instant such a sky roofs such a valley’, here, unlike earlier poems, he longs for the comfort and understanding of that which has been left behind, and the Japanese landscape is described in language more Gothic than pastoral: ‘Dovedale’s song / Is sweeter. From these vaster stones unwondering / We should hear iron shrieks of unnamed birds, / Whose shadows rushing by might chill the blood’. This tone and diction—the ‘in the Romantic Manner’ of the title—is where the poem departs from Blunden’s earlier work, about Japan or any other subject. In verse as controlled as any he wrote, Blunden in response to the Hokkaido landscape finds a diction and tone more reminiscent of Hearn (see D9) than of a younger Blunden, and adds to this a metaphoric depth unseen in his earlier work on Japan, as in closing lines, where after striking description of the magnitudes of natural Hokkaido the speaker turns to larger matters yet: ‘Westward what trinity of peaks ascends and makes / These precipices its toys? what unguessed range / Of forest, furred and badged with sacred snow?’ One cannot say with certainty that the tone comes from the legends of Japan or the popularising of them in English by Hearn and others, nor even that the closing images derive from Japanese sources, the popular Jôdoshinshû Buddhism that looks westward for paradise, the countless references to sacred mountains in literature from the earliest times, but from wherever the tone and depth of imagery arise, their application here marks a late turning point in Blunden’s response to Japan, and a significant late development in his poetry as viewed as a whole. Reprinted in 144.





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