Sir Charles G. D. Roberts
0 Another Canadian writer, Sir Charles G. D. Roberts, the prolific author of animal stories, novels and novelettes, histories, translations, criticism, propaganda, and poetry, may have emulated McCrae by writing a French-form war poem: the villanelle “Going Over.” McFarland does not discuss this piece, and I had never heard of it before discovering it mentioned in Vincent’s article on Canadian poetry in the Great War, but it serves as a most interesting coda to the history of the French forms in the period split between high modernism and patriotic provincialism. Roberts, born in 1860, became probably the most prominent Canadian man of letters of the pre-modernist period; he was elected president of the Canadian Authors’ Association in 1927, and was knighted for his literary accomplishments in 1935. Roberts’s biographer John Coldwell Adams reports that for the Canadian disciples of Imagism, Roberts came to be “the symbol of stuffiness” (185). But Adams also points out that “Roberts himself was not particularly hostile to the new experiments in poetry. He was, in fact, far more tolerant of the Canadian modernists than they were of him. His essay ‘A Note on Modernism’ (1931) stressed that reaction to long-established forms is both inevitable and desirable” (186). Certainly Roberts’s formally experimental “Going Over” shows an early willingness to trouble the nineteenth-century forms with modernity.
0 Roberts’s villanelle, like McCrae’s rondeau, contrasts the images of pastoral with the images of trench warfare; also like “In Flanders Fields,” a pre-war form seems to offer the poet a safe harbor of nostalgia from which to cautiously venture into new moral waters. In “Going Over,” however, Roberts goes farther than McCrae with formal experimentation and not nearly so far with moral imperative:
0 Over! How the mud sucks! Vomits red the barrage.
But I am far off in the hush of a garden of lilacs.
For a girl’s voice in the night troubled my heart.
Tender and soft as a sigh, clearly I heard it. (New Poems 41)
0 “Going Over” was composed in the autumn of 1918 and published in Roberts’s New Poems in 1919; Roberts had not published a book of poetry for sixteen years, concentrating instead on prose works of fiction and nonfiction. This war villanelle stands in stark contrast to Roberts’s other poetry, which is highly conventional in tone and form. The poem that immediately precedes “Going Over” in New Poems, for instance, is titled “The Place of His Rest,” and its two final quatrains describe an idealized woman tending flowers on a grave:
0 Such a poem is obviously Victorian in sensibility. Yet even Roberts’s other Great War poetry did not share the techniques and themes of “Going Over.” Adams reports that Roberts wrote only three poems during the war:
0 Two of them, “To Shakespeare, 1916″ and “Cambrai and Marne,” were prompted by patriotism–which was seldom his best source of poetic inspiration. The third poem, ‘Going Over,’ records a poignant moment on the Somme when the reality of going over the parapet becomes less palpable than the soldier’s dream of home. (125-6)
0 Both Roberts’s other war poems maintain strict and conventional formal standards, often to their immediate detriment, as in the first stanza of “Cambrai and Marne”: “Before our trenches at Cambrai / We saw their columns cringe away. / We saw their masses melt and reel / Before our line of leaping steel” (42). This densely triumphant and remorselessly rhythmic heroic lyric seems more thoroughly to deserve Fussell’s critique of artificially “rigorously regular” meter than “In Flanders Fields,” not to mention the incendiary terms “vicious” and “stupid.”
0 “Going Over,” unlike any of Roberts’s earlier verse, but like the respected work of war poets Owen, Sassoon, and Rosenberg, seems clearly influenced by the modernist goal of attempting to represent consciousness mimetically rather than diegetically with such technical tools such as unrhymed verse, clashing registers of diction, and fragmentary, unmediated image. The first line of the poem, “A girl’s voice in the night troubled my heart,” contains merely familiar poetic images of melancholy sentiment. But the poem immediately and increasingly challenges that familiar set of emotions as well as their familiar images and formulations. The summary moment comes in the first line of the quatrain, suddenly in the present tense, with an unusually blunt chop of strong stresses. The terminal sentence, “Vomits red the barrage,” introduces a shockingly harsh diction that seems to parody its own poetically inverted syntax. In the subsequent lines, the smooth rhythm, soothing sibilants, long vowels, and conventionally sentimental imagery show the speaker’s relapse into an escape no less urgently needed than hallucinatory at the dreadful moment of defenseless attack.
0 What we must understand is not only how unusual such a poem was for Roberts himself, but how original such a poem was in the history of the villanelle. Roberts anticipates many of the experiments with the form that we might assume are the invention of post-modernism; he breaks villanelle rules that other poets would not break for decades by abandoning rhyme and meter and by varying the refrains. The recognizable shape of the villanelle alone serves as a formal anchor to the old world of sense destroyed by trench warfare. (Roberts, like many other poets of his generation, had indeed written in the French forms in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.) As I have argued, poems on serious themes or with serious, modern diction in the French forms had appeared even at the height of their ownership by vers de société: Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “The House on the Hill” (1894) and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s rondeau “We Wear the Mask” (1895) are two early examples, and even Dowson’s “Villanelle of Acheron” and Stephen’s villanelle attempt to achieve a tone other than melancholy sentiment, though perhaps without much success. But experimentation with the villanelle’s form, rather than with its tone, was unprecedented. There had of course been the issue of whether to treat the villanelle as a stanza type or a fixed nineteen-line form, and there was also Dowson’s lone example of a villanelle in iambic pentameter, but otherwise poets had collectively obeyed their own rules.[i] The form was a given. That Roberts’s villanelle is sixteen lines rather than nineteen may only show that he was aware of the French definition of the villanelle as a stanza type, but his liberties with rhyme, meter, and with varying the refrain are remarkable and original. “Going Over,” we may note, is included with only six other pieces by Roberts in A New Anthology of Canadian Literature in English (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002); “In Flanders Fields” is omitted.