Editor: John William Garvin
Published by: McCelland & Stewart
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Where I got the book: University Library
When I had to read a war themed book for CanLit Bingo 2016, I really wasn’t sure what to pick. I’m not usually a huge fan of war novels that aren’t fantasy due to the realism of them and how they often read like a form of propaganada trying to justify a nation’s activity in war.
So I did a bit of research and stumbled across Canadian Poems of the Great War, which is a collection of WWI poetry published in 1919 and edited by John William Garvin. The original book was available to borrow from my university library and I decided if I had to read a war themed book I might as well go all out and read a book of WWI propaganda poetry.
Like every book of poetry, Canadian Poems was difficult to review and rate, particularly since it’s an anthology. The only poem from the WWI era that most Canadians are familiar with is “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, which was included, but it was interesting to read poetry from an era of Canadian history that I’m only passingly familiar with.
There’s no possible way for this poetry anthology to be anything other than a text of historical Canadian war propaganda. Common elements found across the books included personification, colonial narratives justifying the Canadian nation state and role in WWI, invocation of Christ and God, repeated allusions to the beauty of nature and beautiful maidens. There was also repeating themes of the glory and wretchedness of war and fighting running through the poetry, drawing allusions to Roman gods of war, and comparison of the Canadian troops to the Huns.
One particular aspect that I liked was that Garvin included poet biographies before each author’s work, something that was quite useful since I had no idea who anyone was. It was also interesting to learn about the family relationships between poets. A number of the contributors were either parent and child, or a married couple.
Another interesting theme I noted was that the poetry written by men tended to centre around war, death and glory. Poems written by women did as well, but also were about a wider range of topics, including the lives of mothers, wives and daughters waiting for their men to return home from the fighting in Europe.
Overall, this was an enjoyable poetry anthology. Well, as enjoyable as 300 pages of WWI propaganda poetry with repetitive themes can be. Although not every poem was to my taste I did find some poets whose work I really enjoyed.
Poets of note whose work I enjoyed include Frank Oliver Call, John Daniel Logan, Helena Coleman, Katherine Hale, Elizabeth Roberts MacDonald, Wilson MacDonald, Isabel Eccelstone Mackay, Peter McArthur, James Lewis Milligan, Ruth Strong, Mazo De La Roche, Bernard Freeman Trotter, Frank Wise, and Margaret Hilda Wise.
If interested in reading some of the poetry that appeared in this anthology, I recommend checking out In a Belgian Garden and Other Poems by Frank Oliver Call, Marching Men: War Verses by Helena Coleman, and Grey Knitting and Other Poems by Katherine Hale, which are all in the public domain and available for free online.