20TH CENTURY POETRY AND WAR
PART 1: The First World War

 
     
     

 

 

 

CONTENTS
Introduction
  the first world war
In Flanders Fields 
For the Fallen  GO
Dulce et decorum est  GO
On Passing the New Menin Gate  GO
  the 1930s
  the second world war
  crimes against humanity
  the nuclear age
  other wars
  responsibility
  women's voices 

In Flanders Fields by John MacRae

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.



   

INFORMATION

   


'Flanders fields': Flanders is a region of Europe covering neighbouring parts of Belgium, France and the Netherlands. Its chief cities are Ghent and Bruges, and its inhabitants have their own language, Flemish, as well as either French or Dutch. Fierce battles were fought on this territory - much of it farmland - in the First World War, including the three battles of Ypres (Ieper in Flemish) in which many thousands died.
'the crosses': John McRae was a Canadian army surgeon who served in Flanders. His commanding officer wrote: 'Headquarters were in a trench on the top of the bank of the Ypres Canal, and John had his dressing station in a hole dug in the foot of the bank. During periods in the battle men who were shot actually rolled down the bank into his dressing station. Along from us a few hundred yards was the headquarters of a regiment, and many times during the battle John and I watched them burying their dead whenever there was a lull. Thus the crosses, row on row, grew into a good-sized cemetery.'
'the torch': suggesting the Olympic torch, and its flame, carried by relays of runners, as well as the symbolic torch carried in support of a cause.
'ye': this use of the old-fashioned 'poetic' form of 'you' (plural) is interesting, since most of the language of the poem is not archaic. The effect, and therefore perhaps the intention, is to heighten the language while dealing with ideas of allegiance and betrayal.
'sleep': in fact the crimson Flanders poppy is not the sleep-inducing opium poppy. The persistent growth of poppies each summer, despite their apparent fragility and the churning of the soil in battle, was noticed by many soldiers. John McRae, of course, had plenty of occasion to use morphine derived from opium poppies in treating the wounded at his dressing station; and to notice the similar colours of the Flanders poppies and blood.

   

HISTORY

 

SEE ALSO:
  tale of two poppies
  remembrance


John McRae's commanding officer records that 'this poem was born of fire and blood during the hottest phase of the second battle of Ypres'. This battle began on April 22 1915 and lasted 17 days. Total casualties have been estimated at 100,000 on either side. Half the Canadian brigade to which John McRae was attached were killed. Shortly afterwards a profoundly weary McRae was posted away from the front line, to a hospital in Boulogne. Friends were worried by the change in him. He worked at the hospital until January 1918, and was about to take up a post with the British army. But he fell ill with double pneumonia and meningitis, and died on January 28. He is buried in the cemetery at Wimereux.

'In Flanders Fields' was published in the magazine Punch, where it was seen as an invitation to recruits, in December 1915. One of the many readers moved by it was Moina Michael, the American War Secretary of the YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association). She suggested that American ex-servicemen adopt the poppy as their emblem, and started plans for artificial poppies to be made. It was later suggested to the British Legion that it should sell artificial poppies to raise funds for British ex-servicemen, and the first Poppy Day was held on November 11 1921. John McRae's poem has been associated with the BL's annual Poppy Appeal ever since.

 

IDEAS

 

 

 


What have people found in this poem to move them? It is an apparently tranquil poem: the flowers blowing in the wind, the larks singing, the calm associated with burial grounds, and the images of those great resources for poets, the dawn and the dusk. The rhyme scheme - there are only two rhyming sounds - and the rhythm are gentle; the word 'sleep' towards the end of the poem seems at first to reinforce the suggestion that this is a lullaby.

There is also sanction for defiance here, as if endorsed by the natural world: the skylarks sing 'bravely'. But in reality, of course, the larks John McRae and his commanding officer 'often heard in the mornings, singing high in the air, between the crash of the shell and the reports of the guns in the battery just beside us', had no idea what 'bravery' is. (Some soldiers disliked the larks, seeing their song as an 'insult' to what was going on below, and took pot shots at them.) The noise of the guns is not echoed in the sound of the poem - 'scarce heard amid the guns below' can be passed by as though it is the birdsong that the reader 'hears' and the guns that are distant.

At this point the poet reveals that the poem is not a simple expression of his observations. What he has written is a dramatic speech uttered by the combined voices of 'the Dead': soldiers buried in a war cemetery behind the front line. The Dead's memories, they say, are of sunrise and sunset, love and friendship, not of their violent and terrible deaths - nor of the killings they had committed before they died. Yet it is killing they have in mind.

Nowadays the last stanza is often left out, because of its belligerence. The Dead want their deaths to be justified by prolonging the war: more men must kill and die. Without this, the Dead 'shall not sleep' - and that 'shall' has the force of a decree. It's easy to miss this repellent summons to revenge, when the enemy is that more 'poetic' concept, 'the foe', and when answering the summons is matched with heroic exploits of long-distance runners and dedication to a worthy cause. That phrase 'break faith'! - what sort of dreadful bond is it that demands deaths for the Dead? What, in reality, did they die for (and at whose orders)?

It is this kind of language (typical in 1914, but not during the rest of the war) that to this day is associated with Remembrance: language that plays its melancholy tune so well that we don't listen to what the words are saying. It's hard to believe any of the slaughtered at Ypres would have wanted any of their fellow-soldiers to share their fate. The Living, however, must be persuaded that risking their own lives - or obeying the order to risk them - is a proper justification of the Dead losing theirs, however needlessly.

 
            
     

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