O guns, fall silent till the dead men hear
Above their heads the legions pressing on:
(These fought their fight in time of bitter fear,
And died not knowing how the day had gone.)
–John McCrae, "The Anxious Dead"
John McCrae's In Flanders Fields is arguably the most well-known single poem to come out of World War I. Millions in Canada and around the world are familiar with it. Yet most of those, including most Canadians, would be hard-pressed to name even 2 other Canadian poems from the Great War. That is a neglect that Oxford University Press sought to remedy with Canadian Poetry from World War I, a 2008 installment in its "Milestones of Canadian Literature" series.
There are reasons for that neglect. After the Great War, public opinion turned sharply against it; it was seen, for good reason, as an unnecessary slaughter and waste. The anti-war poetry of Owen and Sassoon set the new paradigm. Even the alleged arch-imperialist Rudyard Kipling was disillusioned enough by the War to compose the epitaph:
- If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.
By and large, the Canadian poetry in this volume was out of sync with that view. Much of it is frankly propagandistic in purpose and intent, not so much manipulating as reflecting the jingoistic mood of the country. The war was seen as a noble crusade of Good vs. Evil, and most of the poems in this volume reflect that view. As well, Canada was spared the horrors of the war, and thanks to double censorship (at the front and at home) many Canadians remained blissfully ignorant of them. So many of the poems here reflect pro-war sentiments at odds with those of both the 1920's reader and today's reader as well.</p>
At times those sentiments verge on the ludicrous, as in some lines of Katherine Hale's "Grey Knitting":
- I like to think that solders, gaily dying
For the white Christ on fields with shame sown deep,
May hear the fairy click of women's needles,
As they fall fast asleep.</blockquote>
Other poets, though, do manage to powerfully convey the same sentiments even to the anti-war reader; like Helena Coleman, who writes in "Pro Patria Mortui":
Say not they died for us;
Say rather, with their hearts aflame,
They faced the sceptered shame,
Not counting for themselves the cost,
Well knowing else, a world were lost.
For this they came;
For this they died;
For this their death is justified.
Against that there is the occasional flash of the war's brutality, as in ambulance driver Robert W. Service's controversial (at the time) poems like "On the Wire":
It's laughing, the cursed sun!
See how it swells and swells,
Fierce as a hundred hells!
God, will it never have done?
It's searing the flesh on my bones,
It's beating with hammers red
My eyeballs into my head;
It's parching my very moans.
See! It's the size of the sky,
And the sky is a torrent of fire,
Foaming on me as I lie
On the wire . . . the wire . . .
There are other well-known poets here besides Service. Confederation Poets William Wilfred Campbell, Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, and Duncan Campbell Scott are all represented. So is a young E.J. Pratt, who gives a taste of the blank verse style he would later use in his great epic narratives:
As leaves fall, so upon the plains fell men;
Some tossed awhile within the gust of combat,
high on the sweltered air, returned to earth
As flesh and blood and bone unrecognized,
And indistinguishable dust.
(from "A Fragment of a Story")
But the real pleasure, for me, lay in discovering the work of talents new to me, like the simple verses of Frank Prewett:
I leapt from living to the dead,
A bullet was my bane.
It split this nutshell rind of head,
This kernel of a brain.
Another, he seemed a boy,
Rolled in the mud
Screaming, "My legs, my legs"
And poured out his blood.
Another element that could seem foreign to the modern reader is the almost complete absence of free verse. Virtually all of this was meant as popular poetry; for that reason, even poets who otherwise were experimenting with the then-new techniques of open form chose to stick with traditional forms here. One exception is A.J.M. Smith's 1934 look back, "A Soldier's Ghost," which closes the volume:
Distilled in the frontier sand
The natty chevron.
Can a memberless ghost
Are so many brother bones.
Editor Joel Baetz has done a superb job assembling this collection of poems (many of them hard-to-find), as well as two appendices of prose excerpts (one on prose recollections of the war, another on the war poetry), and also contributes a well-written Introduction putting all in historical context. Those interested in Canadian poetry, war poetry, and good poetry in general will all have reasons to appreciate the volume.
- Joel Baetz, editor. "Canadian Poetry from World War I. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-19-543171-1
Canadian Poetry from World War I Official Website.
- This is a signed article by User:George Dance. It may be edited for spelling errors or typos, but not for substantive content except by its author. If you have created a user name and verified your identity, provided you have set forth your credentials on your user page, you can add comments to the bottom of this article as peer review.