In Flanders Fields by John McCrae
The name John McCrae might not immediately ring any bells with you, but I bet you know his poem. Everyone knows his poem! In Flanders Fields is one of the most famous poems of WWI, and is remembered by all who buy poppies to commemorate the war.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
John McCrae (1872 – 1918) was born in Guelph, Canada into a Scottish family. He became a pathologist, wrote a medical text book and had a distinguished reputation in Canadian hospitals. He served in the Boer War in South Africa, and when WWI broke out, he was above conscription age and did not have to serve. However, McCrae felt it was important for him to do so, especially as he was not married and had no children. He became medical officer for a Canadian field artillery brigade and tended the wounded after the Battle of Ypres (today there is a permanent ‘In Flanders Fields Museum’ at Ypres). When a close friend was killed at the front, McCrae sat down on 3rd May, 1915 and wrote his famous poem. He didn’t think his poem especially brilliant, but it was published anonymously in December that year. McCrae did write other poems, but none as good as In Flanders Fields. His poem was translated into other languages, used in fund-raising campaigns, and widely reprinted – McCrae was rather bemused by the fame it brought him. But he did not have long to enjoy it. He died of pneumonia in January, 1918, aged 45. He was buried in Wimereux cemetery – his beloved horse Bonfire led the funeral procession there, with McCrae’s empty boots reversed in the stirrups.
Poppies have been associated with battle since the time of Napoleon, but in WWI the damage done to grounds by the lime content of munitions meant that poppies were some of the few plants that could flourish on soil churned up by fighting. The speaker of the poem is one of the dead. The birds still singing in the sky give him a sense there could yet be hope, if those living will take the torch and bravely continue the fight. Then the dead will be able to rest peacefully, knowing that their sacrifice has not been in vain.
It is a lyric poem in the form of a French rondeau. The style is almost chant-like, with the stress on ‘i’ sounds (sky, fly, high, die) and ‘o’ sounds (blow, row, below, ago, throw, grow), and the repetition of the phrase “in Flanders fields”. McCrae contrasts the peaceful cemetery, with flowers, birds and crosses, with the horror of the war – guns and young men in their graves, no longer able to see the dawn, or fall in love. The torch is an image of duty, something McCrae, with his Scottish heritage, took very seriously. He skilfully uses enjambment (where the sense of the sentence runs over into the next line) to depict the movement of the torch from the hands of the dead to the hands of the living.
Did you know that the poem inspired another great Canadian writer, L.M. Montgomery? In her brilliant war novel Rilla of Ingleside, the last novel in the Anne of Green Gables series, Anne’s son Walter writes a poem at the front. He dies soon after writing it, but his poem The Piper becomes famous around Canada. This is Montgomery’s tribute to her fellow countryman John McCrae and his famous poem.
Enjoy listening to a moving reading of the poem by Leonard Cohen, recorded in 2015 on the 100th anniversary of its publication:
Share your thoughts on this poem by leaving a comment.
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