by Christine Chettle
As Remembrance Day is on Friday, I though this discussion of L.M.Montgomery’s poetry topical . . .
Every Canadian schoolchild knows, probably has even memorized, Lt. John McRae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’ – the classic Remembrance Day poem. Other countries also use it as part of war memorial events, but since it was written by a Canadian soldier, it has a special place in Canada’s national identity. As can be seen in CBC’s sentimental History Minute series, it’s Part of Canada’s Heritage. It’s a celebration of war as heroic sacrifice: war elegy and propaganda, all in one.
Most famous for her tale of cheerful red-headed orphan Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery offers a more complicated view of the Canadian war experience. Like many of her contemporaries, the fiercely patriotic Montgomery viewed World War I as a struggle for liberty against a threat of evil from Kaiser’s Germany. Her novel Rilla of Ingleside follows WWI through the eyes of Anne Shirley (Blythe)’s daughter, Rilla, and dramatizes the role of women in the war effort with comedy and pathos. Rilla’s sensitive brother Walter writes a poem, ‘The Piper’, which the book describes as the one great poem of the war, inspiring men, women and children across countries to ‘keep faith’ to ideals of freedom. The novel never quotes the poem, allowing the reader to link Walter’s experience to Lt. John McCrae’s, especially as both soldiers die. The poem is only quoted in Montgomery’s last work, The Blythes Are Quoted, recently edited and published in full by Montgomery critic Benjamin Lefebvre. This text depicts a series of evenings in which the Blythe family recount stories and poems.
One day the Piper came down the Glen
Sweet and long and low played he!
The children followed from door to door,
No matter how those who loved might implore
So wiling the song of his melody
As the song of a woodland rill.
Some day the Piper will come again
To pipe to the sons of the maple tree!
You and I will follow from door to door,
Many of us will come back no more
What matter that if Freedom still
Be the crown of each native hill?
Another Montgomery critic, Elizabeth Rollins Epperly, terms the poem a ‘lacklustre lyric’ and a ‘tepid endorsement of war’, and certainly, its sentimentality does not possess the energy of ‘In Flanders Fields’. Yet the poem depicts war-time sacrifice from a position of anguish and loss, which McCrae’s poem does not. The image of the Piper is an ambiguous one, recalling the folktale in which townspeople suffer the loss of all but one of their children to a piper’s compelling music. The line ‘No matter how those who loved might implore’ underscores this context of bereavement. In Rilla of Ingleside, ‘The Piper’ helps Anne’s family come to terms with the loss of son and brother.
A generation later, Anne and her family confront the futility of Walter’s death in the face of World War II, quoting and discussing another poem by Walter, ‘The Aftermath’ (written just before his death). The agony of this poem contrasts sharply with the sentimental sacrifice in ‘The Piper’. (I don’t quote it in full as I wish to quote the surrounding conversation in the text).
Yesterday we were young who now are old
We fought hot-hearted under a sweet sky,
The lust of blood made even cowards bold,
And no one feared to die;
We were all drunken with a horrid joy,
We laughed as devils laugh from hell released,
And, when the moon rose redly in the east,
I killed a stripling boy [ . . . . ]
I killed him horribly and I was glad.
Now we are old who yesterday were young
And cannot see the beauty of the skies,
For we have gazed the pits of hell among
And they have scorched our eyes.
The dead are happier than we who live,
For, dying, they have purged their memory thus
And won forgetfulness; but what to us
Can such oblivion give?
We must remember always; evermore
Must spring be hateful and the dawn a shame . . .
We shall not sleep as we have slept before
That withering blast of flame.
The wind has voices that may not be stilled . . .
The wind that yester morning was so blithe . . .
And everywhere I look I see him writhe,
That pretty boy I killed!
“ANNE, steadily, ‘I am thankful now, Jem, that Walter did not come back. He could never have lived with his memories . . . and if he had seen the futility of the sacrifice they made then mirrored in this ghastly sacrifice . .’
JEM, thinking of Jem, Jr., and young Walter:- ‘I know . . . I know. Even I who am a tougher brand than Walter . . but let us talk of something else. Who was it said, “We forget because we must”? He was right.’”
‘The Aftermath’ references McCrae’s poem with the phrases ‘a sweet sky’ and ‘We shall not sleep’. Yet, while McCrae’s soldiers are sleepless because of a continuing need for action and sacrifice, Montgomery’s soldier is sleepless from guilt and trauma. In McCrae’s poem, ‘in the sky, the larks, still bravely singing, fly’; in Montgomery’s poem, the scorch-eyed soldiers ‘cannot see the beauty of the skies’ and ‘dawn is a shame’ — in contrast to McCrae’s soldiers, who ‘lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow’. ‘The Aftermath’ dramatizes an experience of what we might now term post-war traumatic stress disorder, a reality with which soldiers today still struggle and one which was less understood in Montgomery’s era. This trauma is shared by Anne and her family: their grief over Walter’s death is now compounded by the death of the ideals in which they, and Montgomery, believed, especially as Anne’s grandchildren are now fighting in WWII. The discussion around the poem still places the poem in a context of heroic sacrifice, but evokes the multi-faceted (mental, physical, psychological) anguish and loss experienced by both soldiers and their families – in World War I and subsequently. Drawn together, Montgomery’s poems offer remembrance as ambivalence and agony.
For more information, see The Blythes Are Quoted, edited by Benjamin Lefebvre with an introduction by Elizabeth Rollins Epperly (Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2010); Elizabeth Rollins Epperly, The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass (Toronto: University of Toronto Press,1992), pp. 112-130; Owen Dudley Edwards and Jennifer H. Litster, ‘The End of Canadian Innocence: L.M.Montgomery and the First World War’ in L.M. Montgomery and Canadian Culture, ed. by Irene Gammel and Elizabeth Rollins Epperly (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), pp. 31-46.