War Poets

The Piper_Cropped.jpg

L.M. Montgomery. "The Piper" in The Blythes are Quoted. Toronto: Viking Canada, 2009. Archival and Special Collections, University of Guelph Library (s0024b009).

In Rilla of Ingleside the character of Walter Blythe, Anne’s middle son, becomes a famous poet during the war, with his poem “The Piper” playing much the same role as John McCrae’s “In Flanders Field.” Walter initially does not enlist, partially because he was still recovering from typhoid, and because, unlike his brother Jem, he was sensitive to the killing and horror that the war would bring. At the beginning of the novel, Walter is portrayed as a poet who is sensitive to love, beauty and nature. His failure to enlist results in his being condemned a coward. While at school, he receives a white feather, a symbol of cowardice. Indeed, even he fears he might be a coward saying “I-I should have been a girl.” Truthfully, Walter has a realistic understanding of war: “I see myself thrusting a bayonet through another man... I see myself lying alone torn and mangled, burning with thirst on a cold, wet field." In contrast, Canadian men were expected to be patriotic, willing to fight for king and country in pursuit of adventure and thrilling experiences. Many Canadians thought the First World War was a necessary cause and viewed those in opposition as unpatriotic or cowards.

Who's Absent Poster.jpg

Who's Absent?. The Parliamentary Recruiting Committee. Newcastle-on-Tyne: Andrew Reid & Co. Ltd, circa 1915. William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections, McMaster University Library.

Due to these pressures, Walter chooses to fight. Despite Susan’s belief that Walter’s enlistment might “cure him of being a poet,” by 1914, the publication of literature was very prominent in Canada and Canadians desired news of the war. Poetry served the function of making war closer to home by conveying what it was like to fight and die on the battlefront in Europe. War-time literature was a booming industry governed by unofficial rules that enforced the depiction of the Canadian efforts as heroic and noble. Walter’s poetry changed in tone to encompass patriotic and sacrificial elements that aligned with the acceptable and even encouraged forms of war poetry. Patriotic poetry was recognized as an appropriate and masculine pursuit of honour, nobility, and strength. Montgomery idealizes Walter as the ultimate Canadian soldier, fully aware of the consequences of his actions, but still prepared to define the British Empire. When he finally meets his death, in the form of the Piper piping him to his end, Walter is not afraid because he has faith in the value of his sacrifice. Walter writes, “I've helped to make Canada safe for the poets of the future.”

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