Wartime Ghosts, Alive and Well

In Battle Lines: Canadian Poetry in English and the First World War, Joel Baetz explains the “lofty beauties, exquisite laments, and harsher manners” of poetry from the First World War. In so doing, he gives fresh perspectives on writing that has not, he insists, just been overlooked; it has also been misrepresented as “too patriotic . . . too simple,” and of too little influence over later writers. According to the author, these are unfair, surface-deep assessments of a much richer legacy that he aims to illuminate. In most cases, Baetz succeeds in showing the rarely acknowledged complexity of such writing, though his study sometimes feels distractingly defensive and occasionally falls back on overstated arguments for the legacy of these poets and poems. Nonetheless, the book is a fine example of compelling archival scholarship and skilled close reading, all of which amounts to something of a rallying call for greater investigation into the soldier figure and war poetry.

In each chapter, Baetz challenges clichés or caricatures of war poetry. He offers various and complex interpretations of the heroic soldier and the “dominant image of wartime femininity” in works by Douglas Leader Durkin and Helena Coleman, observes the unresolved despair in works by Rupert Brooke and John McCrae, remarks on the psychologically complex renderings of soldiers in Robert Service’s writings, unpacks Frank Prewett’s conflicted representations of “alienated and fragmented individuals,” and combs W. W. E. Ross’ buried archival treasures to help readers better grasp Ross’ career trajectory and his “stand against the complacency of comforting ideas” about war. Baetz does an impressive job of digging into archives and bringing to light many unacknowledged or unpublished writings by his chosen writers (especially in the case of Ross, in whose archive Baetz seemed to have camped for months).

While Baetz’s skilful reading of archives, poets, and poems will impress readers, he encounters obvious critical challenges when connecting his chosen poets to later modernists. One of Baetz’s repeated claims is that war poems (many of which he admits were often little known, editorially buried by modernist anthologists, or simply unpublished) were, to one degree or another, “unconscious[ly] inherit[ed]” by later (often modernist) writers. On the one hand, modernists established many of the harmful stereotypes that hurt these poets’ reputations. On the other hand, Baetz believes these writers were challenging the status quo when it came to poeticizing war, and therefore their works offer evidence of their affinity—however slight—for modernism’s adversarial attitude. Baetz, in other words, aims to show that these dismissed literatures are, in fact, tightly connected to the very movement that dismissed them. This critical approach is fraught with challenges.

Baetz’s study of McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” offers a case in point. He proves that McCrae’s poem is more than bland patriotic propaganda, insofar as it breaks wartime conventions by adopting the voice of a dead soldier and by denying its readers an obvious resolution (since the poem ends by pleading that readers should take up the cause lest this soldier die in vain). But does this very modest unconventionality signal the poem’s “anticipat[ion]” of later “proto-modernist and modernist gestures” up to and including the Montreal forties poets? Baetz argues yes, but the claim feels too swift and unconvincing here and throughout the book. However valuable their poetry may be, the works of McCrae, Service, or Baetz’s other authors (with the exception of Ross) hardly resemble the aesthetic shock, poetic difficulty, or philosophical challenges posed by, say, Otto Dix’s gruesome wartime sketches, T. S. Eliot’s frenetic Prufrock, or Dorothy Livesay’s multivocal Day and Night. To stress, as Baetz often seems to do, that all signs point to modernism in wartime poetry ironically strengthens the position of the very critical framework on which he intends to put pressure. While reading, I often thought it would be more profitable simply to understand these poets on their terms without slotting them into the very movement that rejected them, especially since some of these poets themselves—to one degree or another—rejected that same movement.

While Baetz’s nods to modernism are not always successful, the book actually finds a much more compelling and convincing argument elsewhere by proposing that these poets were stymied by their audience’s expectations. Widely desired wartime motifs of heroism and unity limited authors’ willingness to challenge too forcefully the tastes of their audience, an audience in evident need of uplifting, motivational, and nationalistic poetic expression. Each writer’s implicit or explicit refusal to challenge conventions more forcefully or to publish the unpublishable signals their hesitant acquiescence. This quality of their poems clearly sets them apart from the aesthetic, conceptual, and philosophical shock and difficulty inherent in modernist art, but their acquiescence nevertheless raises important questions. What are the forces that shackle poets? What challenges do they hesitate to pose in moments of cultural crisis? And what can we learn from those hesitations? These are fascinating questions about the nature of publication, self-censorship, and reception that best represent Baetz’s achievement in Battle Lines.

This review “Wartime Ghosts, Alive and Well” originally appeared in Rescaling CanLit: Global Readings Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 238 (2019): 111-113.

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