For Canadians, the First World War was a dynamic period of literary activity. Almost every poet wrote about the war, critics made bold predictions about the legacy of the period’s poetry, and booksellers were told it was their duty to stock shelves with war poetry. Readers bought thousands of volumes of poetry. Twenty years later, by the time Canada went to war again, no one remembered any of it.
Battle Lines traces the rise and disappearance of Canadian First World War poetry, and offers a striking and comprehensive account of its varied and vexing poetic gestures. As eagerly as Canadians took to the streets to express their support for the war, poets turned to their notebooks, and shared their interpretations of the global conflict, repeating and reshaping popular notions of, among others, national obligation, gendered responsibility, aesthetic power, and deathly presence.
The book focuses on the poetic interpretations of the Canadian soldier. He emerges as a contentious poetic subject, a figure of battle romance, and an emblem of modernist fragmentation and fractiousness. Centring the work of five exemplary Canadian war poets (Helena Coleman, John McCrae, Robert Service, Frank Prewett, and W.W.E. Ross), the book reveals their latent faith in collective action as well as conflicting recognition of modernist subjectivities. Battle Lines identifies the Great War as a long-overlooked period of poetic ferment, experimentation, reluctance, and challenge.
Battle Lines discusses the neglect of Canadian World War I literature, arguing that postwar dismissals of this work as “too patriotic” and simplistic have been uncritically reiterated. Such dismissals tell us less about the poetry and more about the relationship between literature and an emerging national critical tradition. Baetz’s study engages the recent outpouring of criticism on the subjects of World War I literature and Canadian modernism. Its insights and masterful readings of individual poems are supported by sound scholarship and deep archival research.
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.