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Review

The Ones Who Have to Pay: The Soldiers-Poets of Victoria BC in the Great War 1914-1918

By Robert Ratcliffe Taylor

March 6, 2014

Review By James Gifford

Robert Ratcliffe Taylor’s study of the soldier-poets of the First World War is useful for scholarship and is approachable by a casual reader. Although the tone of this review must be critical, the utility and pleasure for these two groups needs emphasis. This increasingly rare combination of readerships works well for both the subject matter and Taylor’s methodology. Readers who wish to know about the literary products deriving from the conditions of the Great War in the West Coast context, Victoria in particular, will appreciate this study’s careful recuperation of manuscripts and print materials, as will mainstream scholars moving forward from traditional works such as Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) or Samuel Hynes’s A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture (1990). Taylor examines the regimental publications, publications overseas, and the same soldier-poets’ publications in Victoria, as well as civilian verse on the topic. The historical and regionalist considerations here have much merit and will appeal popularly to pleasure- and history-oriented readers. However, literary critics, especially those attuned to the New Modernist Studies, will be suspicious of the absence of recent scholarship, some production and editorial limitations, and the work’s most contentious claims: that Victoria poets differ from their British counterparts by not critiquing the war nor presenting it outside of a Romantic nationalist ideology, and that the poets did not have the educational depth nor scope of their British counterparts. These claims need response, but the book itself is both a pleasure to read and of significant scholarly use.

Taylor draws the distinction between his own work and earlier studies, mainly Fussell, by emphasizing his regionalist perspective (a welcome element) and the modesty of his subjects’ literary aspirations. For the latter, he recognizes the “literary education and aspirations to universal significance” of Fussell’s British poets whereas the Victoria poets “did not write great poetry…, but their poems have the virtue of sincerity and a desire to communicate” (xvi), to which he adds the absence of meaningful tertiary education. This is somewhat more difficult since he also notes the repeated references to literary works likely encountered first in the schoolroom as well as the literate nature of the population in Victoria (3), including those with a classical education. This leads him to contend, as a way of suggesting the limits of literary appreciations of his subjects, “Few of these men were ‘English majors’ at university… however, [they] show a similar familiarity with the poetry of both classical and modern writers” (11). This is a minor point, but with the exception of Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Rupert Brooke, much of the British war poetry was of a kindred nature. Of these, Owen (the most recurrent point of reference for Taylor) did not have the education nor privilege against which the Victoria poets are contrasted. In fact, of the poets matching the “literary education,” Brooke’s works use the same traditional form and Romantic imagery Taylor notes for his Victoria poets, and the most famous critical or dark depictions of the war experiences were by and large published only after the war. This matter is secondary, however, since Taylor’s poets needn’t differ from the British in order to be of regionalist interest.

The more problematic contention of the book is its insistence that the Victoria poets did not voice discontent or disillusionment with the war (23-28, 34-36) while at the same time remarking on the extensive censorship exacted by the press in Victoria and the officers in the war itself (8, 34-35, 40, 103-107). In this sense, the argument that “None wrote as bitterly or as angrily as Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon in England. No poems published in Victoria’s periodicals and newspapers approached the devastating critique of Owen” (28) simply cannot stand since, as he notes, even Owen’s bitter works were not published in the newspapers of London nor during the war, and a study of the war poets of a single English city, especially a smaller city, would be unlikely to yield different results from his own. Wider considerations of Canadian poetry would help here, perhaps Joel Baetz’s very fine Canadian Poetry From World War I: An Anthology (Oxford University Press: 2009). Nonetheless, this is neither the purpose nor scope of Taylor’s work, which makes the generalization to what may or may not have existed either in Victoria or elsewhere (and would have been censored in any case) somewhat unhelpful and distracting from his otherwise pleasurable and informative study.

Readers will notice frequent typographical, proofing, and typesetting errors with unexpectedly bolded or underlined words or letters. This seems to be an inevitable component of Trafford Publishing’s editorial procedures more generally and does not impact the content of Taylor’s study, which merits a more thorough production.

Apart from the readability and genuinely pleasurable nature of Taylor’s work, scholars will find the greatest use in the second half, which records the soldiers’ poetry and biographical information. This section is worth the cost of the book itself and will make it a necessary addition to university libraries. It does not seem likely that a readier source for these materials is likely to come any time soon, and Taylor’s careful efforts in collecting the materials must receive justified appreciation. The Ones Who Have to Pay will be an essential part of any work on twentieth century poetry of British Columbia or Canada’s literary products from the First World War. 

The Ones Who Have to Pay: The Soldiers-Poets of Victoria BC in the Great War 1914-1918
Robert Ratcliffe Taylor
Bloomington, IN: Trafford Publishing, 2013. 258 pp. $18.50 paper