In Flanders Fields
In Flanders Fields
John McCrae 1915
One of Canada’s best-known poems, “In Flanders Fields” was written on May 2, 1915, when Canadian serviceman John McCrae was stationed at an army hospital in Flanders, Belgium, during World War I. McCrae was not satisfied with the poem, and he threw it away, but another officer retrieved it and sent it to several publications in England. Punch magazine published the poem in December of that year.
“In Flanders Fields” was a huge success almost immediately, and it was reprinted in newspapers across the world, inspiring soldiers and touching the hearts of patriots at home. In 1917 the Canadian government used “In Flanders Fields” in its advertisements for Victory Loan Bonds, with unimaginable success: the bonds raised $400 million for the war effort. The poem was also credited with arousing American support for the war. The United States entered World War I in April of 1917, and by the end of 1918, the Central Powers were forced to admit defeat. Each year, countries across the globe use poppies—mentioned in the poem’s first stanza—as a symbol to celebrate the armistice that ended World War I on November 11th, and “In Flanders Fields” is read at Remembrance Day celebrations each year on that day in countries across the British Commonwealth. Due to the impact of this poem, many veterans’ groups sell poppies as a token of those who died in war.
John McCrae was born in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, in 1872. He was talented in writing and art as a child, but when he was in school, he decided to study sciences. He earned a degree in biology from the University of Toronto in 1894 and then returned to the university for medical degrees in physiology and pathology in 1898. It was while he was in medical school that his first poems were published. After graduating, McCrae practiced medicine briefly at Toronto General Hospital and Johns Hopkins University in Boston. He then moved to Montreal to take up a fellowship in pathology at McGill University, which he was associated with the rest of his life: almost all of his poems that were published from then on were published in McGill’s University Magazine. He was also a pathologist at Montreal General at the same time.
In 1900 McCrae joined a Canadian regiment that was helping the British fight the Boer War in South Africa. He returned home as a major in the Canadian Army and settled into a respected medical career, publishing thirty-three papers on medical topics and coauthoring a textbook on pathology. At the same time, he also kept active as a poet and was a member of Montreal’s exclusive Pen and Pencil Club. He was highly esteemed as a physician and was elected to the Royal College of Physicians in London and to the Association of American Physicians.
In 1914, when World War I broke out, McCrae was on vacation in England, and he immediately volunteered as a medical officer in the Canadian Army. He was at a field hospital near Ypres, just outside of the Flanders section of Belgium, on May 1, 1915. Weeks before, at the infamous Second Battle of Ypres, the Germans had used chlorine gas for the first time in warfare and the Canadian troops had saved the day. On that day, McCrae watched a friend and former student, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, die of shrapnel wounds. The death affected him more than others he had witnessed during the war. Helmer was buried in a small cemetery within clear sight of the field hospital, with McCrae performing the funeral ceremony because there was no chaplain available. The following day, he wrote “In Flanders Fields,” scribbling the poem out in 20 minutes almost exactly as it was originally published. It was rejected by the British magazine The Spectator before being published, unsigned, in Punch on December 8, 1915. The poem became an international success, reprinted in newspapers throughout the world. After serving in Flanders, McCrae was promoted to lieutenant colonel and was appointed to run a military hospital in Boulogne, France. He contracted pneumonia, however, and after a prolonged battle with the disease, he died there on January 28, 1918.
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. 5
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: 10
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. 15
The first stanza of “In Flanders Fields” establishes the poem’s setting and tone by presenting the contrasts of poppies growing among crosses (marking graves) and birds’ songs drowned out by gunfire. The slight motion of the wind-blown poppies in the first line renders the crosses’ stoic solidity fearsome; this effect is boosted by the somber gravity of the rows, implying that death is rigid and heartless. The use of poppies in this poem is significant in several ways. First, the poppy is a bright flower, which creates a striking visual image since the poppies are set against the presumably drab or white colors of the crosses. Second, poppies grow in freshly turned soil, implying that the cemetery has seen much activity recently. Also, the poppy is the source of narcotics, such as opium and heroin, that create a dream-like sense of unreality: death is often compared to sleeping and dreaming, an idea that the poem addresses in line 14. The shift from the ground to the sky in the last half of this stanza broaden the poem’s visual range and adds sound to the sights that have been presented. This part of the stanza gives readers an oddly uneven perspective concerning the poem’s speaker: the focus of the visual imagery is presented as if the speaker is “in the sky,” away from the guns that are “down below.”
- An eight-part series titled The Great War and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century was produced by Carl Byker and is available on videocassette from Public Broadcasting System Home Video.
- James L. Stokesbury’s A Short History of World War I was released on audio cassette by Recorded Books, Inc. in 1991.
- A television special titled John McCrae’s War: In Flanders Fields was presented by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) on November 11, 1998. Written and directed by Robert Duncan, the film chronicles McCrae’s life.
At the same time, however, the perspective is also on the ground, “amid the guns.” This creates an unsettling effect, like a Cubist painting, with the reader being able to take in several points of view simultaneously. In an open space such as a battlefield or a cemetery, where one’s attention would be drawn from one thing to another, this shift in perspective is hardly noticeable, but the impossibility of being in two places at the same time contributes to the poem’s nightmarish quality.
Although the first-person, plural speaker of “In Flanders Fields” is alluded to in the third line, the reference is not very clear: the twisted syntax (“that” refers to “crosses,” two phrases earlier) and the vagueness of what it means to have “our” places “marked” pushes the speakers’ identity away from the reader. The second stanza, though, leaves no question about who is speaking. Not only is the poem spoken by the Dead—the word is capitalized to make them a specific group, not just a general category—, but the speakers are identified as recently slain soldiers. McCrae uses two ideas here to encompass all of the goodness of life and to, by contrast, emphasize the pathos of prematurely losing the gift of existence. Dawn and sunset represent all earthly experiences because they symbolize the full, circular span of a twenty-four hour day. In addition, the Dead did not just watch dawn happen, but the rising sun was “felt,” indicating that not long ago, they were involved participants in the physical world. They experienced human emotions, too, which is summarized here by love. This leads readers to infer that their lives were full and complete, further signifying that their deaths were tragic, not a welcome release.
The last six lines of “In Flanders Fields” stand out as being very different from the rest of the poem. The first two stanzas are sad, while the third is defiant; the first two are physical, the third is mental; the first two are about the end of the speakers’ lives, and the last is about those lives being carried on symbolically. Without a doubt, it is the last stanza’s call to action that made “In Flanders Fields” hugely popular during the First World War and since that time. After first invoking the pity of death during wartime, the poem gives readers a chance to fight against that horror by catching and holding the “torch.” This torch apparently stands for the ideals that the vanquished soldiers died for, but even without knowing the issues that propelled each side during World War I, whether the Dead supported good policies or bad, readers can sense that honor is involved, that honor is the torch, and that the torch can be extinguished without proper care. While the use of the first-person narrator makes the early part of the poem more touching by creating a degree of relationship with the reader that an anonymous narrator would lack, the same technique in the last stanza is vaguely threatening. Readers who are not stirred to action by the fear that honor will be extinguished are warned that if they “break faith” (their inaction is reversed to an action) the dead shall not sleep—a thought that should haunt the passive.
McCrae frequently wrote about death, even in his many poems that were not about war. His fascination with the subject and the experience he had in exploring how death could be depicted in verse led to the ease with which he handled death in this poem; he used metaphor, imagery and personification so smoothly that it did not overshadow his other, complex ideas. The conceit of the deceased, especially the recently deceased, talking to us from the grave is not in itself unique. It is particularly fitting in a war poem, representing soldiers who have died struggling to achieve something and who have left their mission unfulfilled. In addition to giving us the plain, raw information about their deaths, McCrae presses readers into recognizing the fallen soldiers’ place in the grand scheme of the universe by surrounding them with images from nature: the dawn and sunset, the larks, and the poppies. He intertwines these nature images with related images from the sphere of human interaction. Dawn and sunset are linked to loving and being loved, larks singing and flying are mirrored by the sound and flight of bullets and mortars, and the poppies, growing between the crosses, symbolize blood and perseverance almost as much as the crosses themselves. It is interesting that “In Flanders Fields” uses the first pairing of poppies and crosses to subtly bring to mind the contrast between death’s stillness and life’s activity: in an earlier version, McCrae used the static, inactive word “grow” in the first line, but “blow” gives readers a visual impression of motion, as opposed to the frozen stances of the rows of crosses. One advantage of this change is that the phrase “poppies grow” is not merely repetition when it appears in line 14. Another benefit is that it establishes a struggle between rest and motion early on in the poem, preparing the way for the final idea that the dead cannot peacefully rest in their graves.
The “torch” tossed from the dead to the living is, of course, honor. It cannot represent a particular political ideology because the poem says nothing at all about right or wrong. The only way that the poem declares its loyalties is by mentioning the well-known battle site at Flanders. Even modern readers who are not familiar with World War I battles, who do not know the issues involved nor the dynamics of the struggle between the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente, can appreciate the emotions that this speaker feels so strongly that he wants them carried on after his death. The important thing to this speaker is not the issues he stands for nor the policies that his enemy supports—he even uses the relatively mild word “quarrel” to refer to the conflict—but merely that his fighting spirit should continue. Losing the honorable spirit that the dead of this poem fought with would, in a sense, be mocking them, or “breaking faith” with them. Continuing their spirit, regardless of how one feels about their cause, is presented as a way to
Topics for Further Study
- Poppies are still used to this day by veterans’ groups around the world, signifying those who have died in wars. Research this flower’s history: how it came to be associated with war and why it is an appropriate symbol for fallen soldiers.
- In a poem, respond for those who have had the torch passed to them.
- The Second Battles of Ypres was fought near Flanders, just months before this poem was published in 1915. It marked a turning point in modern warfare because it was the first time that chlorine gas was used against an enemy on the battlefield. Research the battle and explain how the Canadian Army, which McCrae belonged to, was able to save the day.
honor them as humans and grant their dead souls peace.
Since honor is an abstract emotion and not a specific course of action, this poem is adaptable to any number of circumstances beyond the occasion for which it was written. Anyone defeated in a struggle can relate to the speaker’s desire that the “torch” will be carried on by someone else who finds the cause, or the defeated combatant, honorable. Anyone who cares about someone who has been defeated can relate to the hope that the defeat will not have been in vain. Anyone who knows someone who has been victorious, but who has eventually died anyway, can appreciate the nobility of honoring the dead. So inclusive are the emotions here that the lines about passing the torch are used for inspiration by a National Hockey League (NHL) team, inscribed both in English and French in the Montreal Canadiens’ locker room. The Canadiens are the oldest team—being formed in 1917— and have won the most championships (Stanley Cups) of any NHL team. The lines “To you from failing hands we throw / The torch; be yours to hold it high” appear above pictures of the teams’ former star players, reminding current team members that they have a long and glorious history to live up to and “honor.” The “quarrel with our foe” in this case is a sporting challenge instead of a war, but “In Flanders Fields” stirs up the sense of honor so effectively that it works equally well.
This poem has been called an exquisitely effective piece of propaganda, and it was, in fact, used in its time to solicit contributions for the war fund in the McCrae’s home country of Canada. Too often today we think of propaganda as a brainwashing tool, used to make evil look good, but it is actually not a good or bad thing: in this case, propaganda simply means that the poem is designed to stir up the greatest amount of empathy for the speaker and the greatest anger at his enemy. There is no doubt that, in the end, the poem encourages readers to take action against the foe. It influences readers by presenting death as a kind of peace in the first nine lines, but then, once that premise of peace is established, it threatens to deny peace to the dead soldiers if the enemy is not fought. The only mention of conflict in the first two stanzas is the vague mention of guns, and they are not even presented to readers directly, but are mentioned in context of the larks—noted as being somewhere below them. The poem’s beginning emphasizes flowers, birds, and the setting and rising sun. It is in the tenth line, when the active command “Take” begins a call for fighting, that the initial serenity of “In Flanders Fields” is broken. If the poem had begun with a call to arms, it might have interested soldiers and those who are inclined to fight already, but in taking its time to establish readers’ empathy with the poem’s dead speaker, and then threatening the peace of the dead, it stirs readers to thoughts of vengeance.
This poem is a prime example of the highly stylized poetic form called the rondeau. Defining marks of the rondeau that are present here are that it is divided into three stanzas; that the stanzas have five, then four, then six lines; that the opening phrase of the first line is repeated in line 9 and again in line 15; and that, except for the repeated phrase, all of the lines have the same length (8 syllables). The rondeau is a French form and a member of what is sometimes referred to as the “rondeau family,” which includes the triolet, the rondel, and the rondelet. Like many rondeaux, this poem is written in an iambic tetrameter rhythm. “Iambic” means that the even-numbered syllables are stressed, so that the general motion of the rhythm is from unstressed to stressed:
In Flan ders field the pop pies blow
“Tetrameter” means that there are four units per line (the units are called “feet,” and in this case are two-syllable “iambs”). The rhyme scheme of “In Flanders Fields” is also typical of the rondeau, with only two sounds alternating at the ends of the lines: all of the lines here rhyme with “blow” or “sky,” except for those which repeat the poem’s initial phrase.
Most of the lines of this poem are enjambed—that is, they do not end with pauses for punctuation, but carry over into the lines that follow them. This gives it a sense of smooth continuity, making readers feel that one thought carries on from the last. The subject matter of the poem may command quiet concentration, but the structure of the poem is not broken down into units of thought, the way an intellectual inquiry can sometimes be. Instead, it is all run together smoothly, using the strong, clear repetition of the rhyming sounds to pace the rhythm.
The emotions conveyed by “In Flanders Fields” are relevant to any war, but the poem was especially powerful during World War I, capturing the weariness and unflagging determination of its time so perfectly that it immediately became an international success, reprinted in newspapers throughout England, Canada, and countries allied with them. People needed the poem’s encouragement at that particular time because the war had swelled to an immense scale that had never been seen before and the participants were faced with gruesome tools of mass destruction that had never been used in warfare before. As with any war, World War I (commonly referred to as “The Great War” by people of the time, who did not anticipate that a war of even greater proportions would come in the late 1930s) had numerous sociological and economical roots leading to its outbreak. Some historians believe that the accelerating factor was that Germany was looking for a reason to attack Russia; some believe that it was a last desperate attempt by the decrepit Austro-Hungarian Empire to hold onto its control of a sizable portion of Europe; but few accept
Compare & Contrast
- 1915: The Great War in Europe was in its second year, although American troops did not join the battle until two years later.
1990: The United States, the world’s only surviving superpower after the Soviet Union collapsed, led a coalition of countries in opposing Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The war was over within a month of when the actual fighting began.
Today: The United States has had difficulty holding the coalition from the Gulf War in agreement, but most countries still seek international approval before taking military action.
- 1915: The Ku Klux Klan was founded. Taking their name from a similar organization in the 1860s, the group’s members hid their identities under sheets and, in the name of “white supremacy,” committed terrorist attacks against blacks, Jews, and Roman Catholics.
1989: Former Klan grand wizard David Duke was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives, shocking the rest of the nation.
Today: Although the Ku Klux Klan sometimes requests parade permits and presents itself as a legitimate political organization, most Americans reject it as a group based on hatred, violence, and bigotry.
- 1915: The first experiments to cause cancer in laboratory animals were conducted in Japan, as chemists painted coal tar onto the ears of rabbits to examine the effects.
Today: Organizations that support animal rights advocate an end to laboratory testing, urging scientists to replace such tests with computer simulations.
the idea that the war was nothing but the result of a series of accidents, miscalculations, and personality conflicts, as the newspapers of the time presented it to be.
The direct cause of the war was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, an heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. On June 28, 1914, the archduke and his wife were shot while visiting the Bosnian capitol of Sarajevo. The man who killed them was a Serbian separatist who wanted Serbia to have independence from Austria-Hungary. He had gotten his gun from the separatist movement “The Black Hand,” but it was never determined whether he was a member of the movement or if he just did business with them once. Also undetermined was whether the government of Serbia supported the Black Hand. The Austro-Hungarian government claimed that they did and that the Serbian government had helped and encouraged the assassination. The Serbians claimed that Austria-Hungary was inflating the importance of the incident in order to bully Serbia and to show all of the countries in their confederation that they were still in control and could not be resisted.
On July 28, 1914, one month after the killing, Austria-Hungary issued a list of demands to Serbia. The Serbians agreed to all of the dictates except the most humiliating one: it stated that Austro-Hungarian troops should be allowed to search Serbian households for conspirators against the empire. The Serbs refused to allow foreign troops to come into their houses, and so on July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war against Serbia. Serbia had an agreement with Russia, though, requiring Russia to help defend Serbia in a war. Austria-Hungary was uncertain whether Russia was going to honor its part of the treaty, but they decided—partly due to Austro-Hungarian train schedules—to send troops to attack both Serbia and Russia at the same time. Germany was an ally of Austria-Hungary and had been anxious to break Russia’s growing influence in Europe before it became too strong, so the Germans joined in the fighting immediately. The German Army was positioned for a fight with France, though, and since it was likely that France would eventually join the war, Germany attacked France. To get to France, Germany had to pass through Belgium (where Flanders is located). When Belgium’s government did not grant permission to cut through their country, Germany attacked Belgium. England, which had a treaty to defend Belgium, joined the fight against Germany and Austria-Hungary. When England joined, Canada followed, and John McCrae joined up with the Canadian Army. Many Americans felt that the war was a European problem, and they did not want to spend money or lives on it, so the United States did not join the war until April of 1917. The infusion of American troops was critical to the Allied war effort, and World War I ended in November of 1918.
Few critics would be foolish enough to dispute the impact that “In Flanders Fields” had on the world when it was first published. Critical disagreements arise, however, regarding the question of how much craft was put into the poem and whether John McCrae earned the praise that was heaped on “In Flanders Fields” or if he was just lucky. Early on, when the world was still freshly enamored with the poem and its author, reviewers viewed the poem’s achievement as the logical result of the poet’s years of anonymous toil as a writer. H. E. Harmon wrote in 1920 that McCrae had earlier “written some verse, but nothing to indicate that he could ever be the author of ‘In Flanders Fields.’” Harmon’s focus was almost entirely on the poem’s effect, how it stirred patriotism in England, Canada, and the United States to step up support for the war. Likewise, J. D. Logan and Donald G. Finch, in a 1924 essay titled “The War Poetry of Canada,” speak of this poem as if it were valued only because of its popularity, and they use its acceptance across the world to compare Canadian verse to works from other countries, making “In Flanders Fields” their champion in some unnamed competition: “If the formal finish of Canadian poetry in the world was not always quite the equal of British and American poetry,” they wrote, “still, the altogether most famous and most popular poem of the war ... is neither the English poet-soldier, Rupert Brooke, nor the American soldier-poet, Alan Seeger ... but the lyric of the Canadian soldier-poet John McCrae.”
By 1926, critic Lewis Wharton was dredging the earlier works of McCrae for evidence that “In Flanders Fields” was the obvious and logical result of the poetic concerns that had interested the poet all along. He refers readers to “The Night Cometh,” a McCrae poem published in 1913, calling it “every whit as beautiful and inspiring” as this poem. Whaton’s praise of McCrae’s poetry, however, is jumbled together with admiration for the poet’s happy life. His comments about McCrae being “large of stature and still more large of heart” raise suspicions about whether he is judging the poetry objectively.
By the 1970s, critics were not as responsive to the mystique of either the poet or the poem, and so they could address its worth more clearly. A. H. Brodie’s “John McCrae: A Centenary Reassessment,” published in The Humanities Association Bulletin in 1972, also finds the roots of “In Flanders Fields” in the poet’s earlier works. Brodie goes back to 1898 and cites themes, such as the melancholy that later developed into a fascination with death, and the evolution of the first-person speaker. One of the only critics willing to openly show dislike for this beloved poem is Paul Fussell, whose groundbreaking book The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) gives him a perspective that separates the poet’s real skill from his ability to stir up emotions. Fussell calls “In Flanders Fields” “an interesting poem because it manages to accumulate the maximum number of well-known motifs and images, which it gathers under the aegis of a mellow, if automatic, pastoral.” If that faint praise has a somewhat sarcastic tone, Fussell is openly hostile later in the piece: “[T]hings fall apart two-thirds of the way through as the vulgarities of ‘Stand Up! Stand Up And Play The Game!’ begin to make inroads into the pastoral, and we suddenly have a recruiting-poster rhetoric apparently applicable to any war.” He finds the last stanza entirely inappropriate for what came before, and wonders “what the ‘torch’ is supposed to correspond to in trench life.” Fussell adds, “words like vicious and stupid would not seem to go too far” to describe the final stanza.
David Kelly is an instructor of creative writing at several community colleges in Illinois, as well as a fiction writer and playwright. In the following
What Do I Read Next?
- McCrae was a minor poet whose works are not often anthologized, nor is there a collection of his work in print. “In Flanders Fields” is, however, published by itself in a surprisingly informative children’s book entitled “In Flanders Fields”: The Story of the Poem by John McCrae, with background information by Linda Granfield and illustrations by Janet Wilson. This Doubleday Book for Young Readers, published in 1995, does a good job of relaying basic information without talking down to readers and can serve readers of any age for basic historical facts.
- Of all of the renowned British writers involved in World War I, one of the greatest was the poet Robert Graves, whose memoirs of his war experience, Goodbye to All That, was published in the 1920s when he was relatively young and was reissued in 1995, with notes by his nephew and biographer, Richard Perceval Graves. This is one of the best first hand accounts of life in the trenches.
- A scholarly review of the fiction that came out of the war is The First World War in Fiction, which contains essays by seventeen prominent scholars who explore common themes in the literature and discuss how the stories that were told helped shape the way we remember the war, thereby influencing world history. The collection was edited by the estimable Holger Klein and published by Harper and Row’s Barnes and Noble imprint in 1976.
- McCrae’s presence in anthologies of war poetry is always spotty: some compilers consider him a minor poet with only “In Flanders Fields” worth mentioning, while others regard any collection without him as incomplete. He does not appear in one of the best collections of poetry from World War I, Viking Compass Press’ 1968 Men Who Marched Away, edited with an introduction by I. M. Parsons. All of the other significant poets are represented, though, and the book is divided into interesting categories (“The Bitter Truth,” “No More Jokes,” “The Wounded,” etc.) that are a great help in finding a perspective.
essay, Kelly considers whether a poem written today could find the same success as did “In Flanders Fields.”
When a thing is wildly successful, it is not just our privilege but our responsibility to examine it and understand the secret of its success. Scientific knowledge is based on learning from either successes or failures, taking care, of course, not to damage the thing in the process of examination. Bad science, the type that people fear, holds study to be more important than life. A mad scientist might remove an athlete’s leg muscles and examine them in separate laboratories, but no one would object to improving the jumping abilities of all humans by studying the tension points in the athlete’s calves. Luckily, poems are made to be studied, and we cannot harm a poem by scrutinizing it and extracting any elements that can be useful to our own society.
John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields” fits perfectly into the category of phenomenal success. It is one of those achievements that could never have been anticipated. McCrae was, by all accounts, a decent and responsible man, a good and steady friend, a valuable citizen, doctor, and soldier, but the poetry he produced can generally be considered as a hobbyist’s dabbling. Like most great inventors, his one outstanding success was a singular conflux of inspiration and its time (some critics consider McCrae’s “The Anxious Dead” to be an equal achievement, but it’s not the sort of success that anyone reprints any more). A large measure of the poem’s achievement should be credited to McCrae, but much of it is also due to the society that read the poem and embraced it. The issues it addresses must have touched its audience. Could the same thing happen today? It would be useless, after all, to study McCrae’s poem if it were
“A large measure of the poem’s achievement should be credited to McCrae, but much of it is also due to the society that read the poem and embraced it.”
irrelevant to the present or the future. Contemporary poets studying how to make a work as effective as “In Flanders Fields” could benefit terrifically if they could tap into the store of energy that this poem has displayed.
The first thing poets will consider is the optimistic side, the belief that any well-crafted poem speaks to all of us across the span of time, across cultures and generations. Of course, “In Flanders Fields” addresses a particular place mired within a particular conflict, but death is death and courage is courage, so the subject of the poem doesn’t have to be foreign to readers who take the trouble to meet it halfway in trying to understand it. So long as death is a one-way experience—a mystery that we can count on continuing for the foreseeable future—the shocking contrast of someone watching the sun rise one day and being dead the next will continue to give readers a chill. One does not have to have experienced war to appreciate the juxtaposition of crosses and flowers and of singing larks and exploding bombs.
“In Flanders Fields” is also nonspecific enough to survive the treacherous journey from one social setting to another. It avoids mentioning who was fighting against who, or the principles for which they were fighting. One of the first mistakes made by beginning poets is in confusing vagueness with universality, thinking (or hoping) that a scene lacking details will invite readers to see their own lives in the poem, while such openness usually says no more than “Someone did something,” leaving readers bored, confused, and uninvolved. That effect they are straining for is the one that “In Flanders Fields” accomplishes, making itself applicable to different situations while providing concrete imagery, such as the torch, that gives the poem ballast. The most obvious reuse of this eighty-plus-year-old war poem is its place on the wall of the locker room of hockey’s Montreal Canadiens, where the last stanza’s first three lines are painted in English and French. If the sentiments in the poem can apply this well to a new, unintended situation, then we should guess it would be possible that a war poem could be written today with equal longevity, if it could serve other purposes when there is no war going on. Even in times of peace, courage is always in fashion.
This raises the most compelling argument for believing that “In Flanders Fields” has something to offer the contemporary poet who is excavating for something to make her or his own: war is still with us, and there is no reason to believe that it is going away soon. As the example of the Canadiens’ locker room reminds us, humans are likely to find war anywhere, in the smallest and most symbolic places: anyone can find some personal meaning in the words “our quarrel with our foe.” Since this poem is openly about warfare, though, and only implies all other forms of human opposition, a modern equivalent of it would work only if the modern world could support a war poem. Can it? The answer should be obvious—a world that has a place for war should also have a place for war poetry—but the world we live in is actually a very different one than the one in which John McCrae saw battle. Clearly, people in 1915 needed this poem. They found themselves in its fear, hope, and stubbornness, and they counted on others to relate to it in the same way, which is why it has been often used for memorial ceremonies and was effective in fund-raising advertisements for war bonds. Now, at the end of the twentieth century, our relationship to both war and poetry has changed.
It is almost impossible to imagine a contemporary poem that could receive the widespread popularity accorded to “In Flanders Fields.” People in the general population just do not know poems anymore, because poetry seldom makes its way into the lives of ordinary people. No one really knows why this is, although that of course doesn’t keep all interested óbservers from voicing opinions about it. One of the most convincing arguments states that the increased availability of college education since the end of World War II has created a whole class of poetry “specialists,” with the end result being that those who are not specifically trained to read and write poetry feel unqualified, and so they leave it alone. The field of poetry itself has helped alienate mass audiences by shunning exactly the elements that beginning readers feel most comfortable with: rhythm and rhyme and sentimentality. At the same time, other diversions have been actively inviting the attention of mass audiences. Readers frustrated with postmodern poetry’s labyrinth of meanings started long ago to appreciate the process of having their minds massaged, not challenged, by radio and television, and now several generations have passed with each caring less and less about making poetry part of their lives. Millions of people study poetry and millions more faithfully read it for pleasure, but it would be difficult to identify a single poem from the past twenty years that has become a part of our culture. The most recent example to come to mind is Allen Ginsberg’s book-length “Howl,” from 1956. The role poetry used to play has been taken up, mostly by popular music and, to some degree, by advertising.
Even if we suppose that a poem could have a resounding impact today—if poetry made a widespread, lasting resurgence in public life (beyond even the trademarked “Poetry Slams” that have taken readings out of lecture halls and into bars) or if, like some anthologies do to court students, we counted song lyrics as poems—it is still unlikely that a poem like “In Flanders Fields” could rise up and gain recognition across the world, given its subject matter. It is true that during times of war patriotic feelings swell, but that is balanced against the fact that, since the social turmoil during the Vietnam conflict that gave pacifism a voice, politicians around the world are hesitant to commit to fighting without a clear, nearly objection-proof rationale. The world is a much more cynical place: we are no longer willing to fight wars because politicians tell us to, because we distrust their motives and judgement. It seems naive, then, to think we would be willing to engage in warfare just to avoid breaking faith with strangers who came before.
There is a sense of history and tradition in McCrae’s poem: though not mentioned, it holds the poem together. It is missing from our experience. Some people consider this a good thing, and they have a point. It is a complex world, jam-packed with information—where a grammar school student in Bettendorf, Iowa, can sit at her desk and access designs for an office center in Katmandu, and where a simple discussion of the common cold leads to the double-helix DNA strand and which chromosome makes who susceptible. With the flood of data that washes across us each day, each piece which might be significant, our brains are filling to capacity, and people have been making the decision to quit retaining ideas about others who have already passed from the earth. Each year newspapers have great fun printing examples of college students who think the Civil War was fought in the 1940s or that Shakespeare and Aristotle knew each other, but they do not offer any useful advice about how to remember the past when there is so much else to pay attention to. The problem is that ignoring history, like ignoring anything, becomes too easy. Forgetting the soldier who wants to pass on his torch has become as easy as forgetting the date of the Magna Carta. This, above all else, is why it is unlikely that a poet would be able to write some version of “In Flanders Fields” for today. The question of whether or not we are too peaceful today to take up the fight is debatable, but contemporary humans are just too busy with what comes next to hear a plea from the dying or the dead.
Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.
Bruce Meyer is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Toronto. He has taught at several Canadian universities and is the author of three collections of poetry. In the following essay, Meyer explores the reasons why an admittedly flawed poem caught the world’s attention and has remained popular for more than 80 years.
John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” is, without a doubt, the best-known Canadian poem. Written in the trenches in 1915 during the Battle of Ypres when Canadian troops distinguished themselves as a “national” unit for the first time, the poem was published soon after in the British magazine Punch. Almost immediately, “In Flanders Fields” acquired a popular reputation in much the same way that “John Brown’s Body” or Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” became a public mantra epitomizing the raison d’ètre for the American Civil War. From the perspective of the troops, “In Flanders Fields” recognized their sacrifice and their suffering in the trenches. From the public’s point-of-view, the poem was couched in a poetic language that made the experience of the war accessible to the general reader—it speaks little of the horrors and attaches symbolism to experiences that would be too painful to convey if expressed in realistic terms.
As Paul Fussell suggests in his famous study of World War I literature, The Great War and ModernMemory, “In Flanders Fields” won instant recognition on both the battle and home fronts because it “manages to accumulate the maximum number of well-known motifs and images, which it gathers under the aegis of a mellow, if automatic pastoralism.” Fussell goes on to comment, however, that the poem “falls apart” two thirds of the way through with its “recruitment poster rhetoric” of “Take up our quarrel with the foe.” Yet, since the First World War, McCrae’s poem has not diminished in its significance or in its public reception. For all the mixed signals that the poem sends—the confusion of a Virgilian pastoral elegiac patriotism and self-sacrifice with an overt and seemingly clumsy call to arms—it has succeeded in permeating the cultural consciousness, not only of Canadians but of English-speakers worldwide as a testament to the grim horrors of war. It is to McCrae’s poem that generations since the First World War can trace the source of the poppy as a symbol of the conflict and the waste of war. Unlike other World War I poems, such as Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth” or Siegfried Sassoon’s “Does It Matter,” which warn against war and dismiss its horrors, “In Flanders Fields” offers a covenant between the dead and the living: future generations should not “break faith with us who die” and should value the peace that was won at such an enormous cost. The question that “In Flanders Fields” constantly raises is how did this particular poem, for all its flaws, become so universally accepted in both the public consciousness and the poetic canon of the twentieth century? The answer to this puzzle is composed of several pieces.
The first piece of the puzzle is its language. One of the greatest problems facing the trench poets of the First World War was the linguistic gap between the brutal actuality of the war and the public perception and acceptance of the horrors. To a reading public, especially Canadian readers, during the First World War, the public ear and imagination had not yet left the Romantic era. At the root of what readers believed to be “acceptable” poetry was a gentle and natural pastoralism, a bucolic quietude that embraced Pan pipes over the filth and violence of the trench experience. One contemporary of McCrae’s, Canadian poet Bernard Freeman Trotter, went into the trenches as a Victorian poet whose chief perceptions were poetic renderings of sunsets and stately pines. In the course of the trench experience, as evidenced by his final and tellingly haunting poem, “Ici Repose,” Trotter was using such phrases as “tainted effluvia” to describe not simply the trench experience at the front, but the complacent peace that might come from the bitter sacrifice. In truth, the reality of the war could not be borne by the public’s perception to the point that critics such as E. K. Brown, in his trend-setting study titled On Canadian Poetry, simply dismissed the entire body of Canadian writing from the war as unimportant. Where McCrae seems to have succeeded in overcoming the perceptual gap between the reality and the imagination of the reality is through a compromise between poetic language and horrific reality.
The “motifs and images” mentioned by Fussell are ideally poetic. Rather than reciting a litany of shocking images, McCrae chooses to convey his ideas through the use of gentle images. The “poppies” are not torn apart by bombardments; they are gently “blowing” between the crosses. The “larks” are still “bravely singing” as they “fly,” a symbol of nature’s resistance and defiance of the grim reality of the guns that are not heard far off, but “below” in a subtle suggestion of a netherworld or Plutonian hell that exists, not in this world, but in an alternative reality. The poem, therefore, is not addressing the realities of war as much as it is commenting upon the certainties and fixed visibilities of this world.
Where McCrae takes leave of perceivable realities is in his use of the “ghost voice” persona of the poem. The narrator, we discover, is not a single, detached voice, but a gathering of voices, a chorus in the Greek fashion, commenting on the tragedy and announcing themselves in a short, almost frank sentence: “We are the dead.” As absurd as it may seem to animate the dead for the purpose of raising a call to arms in the second half of the poem, there are some subtle ramifications to this move. First, the reader is meant to see that death is not an end but a prevention from action. The dead can no longer fight and are removed from this world and all its sensual beauty and intricacy: “Short days ago / We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, / Loved and were loved, and now we lie / In Flanders Fields.” There is the logical implication of life after death, at least in a classical “Shade” mode that is so often associated with the Underworld or “Nekusis” scenes from epics such as The Aeneid or The Odyssey. What is struck is a plea: the dead demand from the living both action and faith. The entire poem is thus moved to the level of a matter of belief and dedication, and the war is elevated to that of a religious quest. It is no wonder the troops found this poem as moving as they did, and it is easy to see how a poetic-minded public readership could buy into the plethora of devices that McCrae implements because there has been a conscious attempt on the part of the poet to address, through the language of poetry, the concerns and perceptions of two very disparate readerships.
The second piece of the puzzle is the poem’s prosody. Sir Andrew Macphail, who wrote the introductory essay to the first edition of In Flanders Fields in 1919, wrongly argues that the poem is a nonce form of a Petrarchan sonnet. Macphail explains that the additional fifteenth line is appended to the end of the poem as a reiteration of both the setting and as a link to the opening line of the poem where the symbolism of the “poppies,” a device embodying martyrdom and almost religious sacrifice, is established.
What seems to have misled Macphail is the rhyme scheme. As a sonnet variation, the poem hovers between a lyric and a piece of persuasion or rhetoric. The poem works on a very limited rhyme scheme—the “ow” rhymes and the “ie” rhymes and the additional truncated ninth and fifteenth lines comprised of an iamb and a trochee that toll like a knell—yet it retains a mysterious lyricism that is simultaneously grave and melodious in tone. What is surprising about the lyricism of the rhyme scheme is that it is “pretty,” a problem that seems to disconnect the poem from the elevated nature of its content. The rhyme scheme, however, for all of its lyricism, serves to support the essentially melodic and lyrical structure of a Petrarchan sonnet and couch the poem in the linguistic nuances of one of the sonnet’s traditional applications—a love poem. It should be remembered that the sonnet had its origins in religious hymns of the early Middle Ages and in its earliest applications by poets such as Dante and Petrarch was intended to elevate the lover to almost beatific proportions. The religious quality of the poem’s final lines, the call not merely to arms but to faith, is likely the intent that McCrae sought when he slipped into what Fussell reads as war rhetoric. In this respect, “In Flanders Fields” raises the war to an ecstatic matter and the annihilation of so many soldiers to the level of martyrdom. Macphail may have been eager to justify the poem in these formal terms because such a reading would have placed the poem at the center of the public perception of the war in the years immediately following the hostilities. Where “In Flanders Fields” most closely approaches the sonnet form is in its sense of rhetoric. Sonnets are by nature more rhetorical than lyrical, and after a reasonably lyrical opening in which the dead are given both voice and personification, the poem (in what could be construed as a sestet) concludes with a call to arms and a plea for faith in the cause for which so many have died: “Take up our quarrel with the foe.” As an extended sonnet, however, “In Flanders Fields” approaches more of a nonce form because it extends the sonnet form beyond reasonable capability by arguing not one issue, but several: sacrifice, the relationship between life and death, the problems of faith and belief, and the continued support of a cause that, like the First World War itself, is never made completely clear. Macphail’s reading does not work for one particular reason: he was mistaken about the poem’s form.
In reality, “In Flanders Fields” is neither a sonnet nor a nonce form, but a traditional rondeau. As a very stylized, artificial and dance-like French form, the fifteen-line rondeau is designed both to delight the reader with its lyricism while at the same time rhetorically persuading the reader to a definite perception by its insistence on the repetition of a truncation of the opening line in lines nine and fifteen. Hence, the reader is constantly reminded of what took place “In Flanders fields,” so that the entire world of the poem is permeated with a didactic refrain. The choice of the rondeau form on McCrae’s part is an excellent illustration of Matthew Arnold’s dictum at work: that poetry should both teach and delight. In a war where the lessons may have seemed few and far between, this memorializing process and this insistence on “what happened here” ritualizes the sense of sacrifice and forms both a reminder and a monument to the fallen. The rhetorical or persuasive aspects of the poem are further underscored through McCrae’s use of enjambment—of running his statements syntactically rather than linearly. This serves to turn the lyrical qualities of the limited rhyme scheme into a low rumination, much like the sound of the “scarce heard” ... “below.” This is use of enjambment in what should, at first hearing, sound in the ear of the reader as a piece of lyricism, but is muted by the wrapped sentences, so that sonically, the poem is more a rhetorical structure than a lyric. This is, perhaps, why Fussell takes such an exception to the piece as a “call to arms.” After all, McCrae is establishing a very distinct and artificial form for the poem; he then deliberately sets out to undercut it through every means available to him. Why should McCrae do this? Perhaps the answer lies in Addorno’s famous statement, “After Auschwitz, no poetry,” the prevailing sentiment among many twentieth-century artists that language and its artifice is incapable of directly expressing the horrors of the era.
The third piece of the puzzle, and one addressed by Fussell, is the claim that “In Flanders Fields” is an elegy in the traditional sense. The reader is reminded of Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” and its ominous yet incontrovertible claims that “the paths of glory lead but to the grave.” McCrae’s poem opens with a cemetery scene, a setting that is far removed from the fight—a place not of trenches or even suffering and violence but of “poppies” that “blow.” The image of peacefulness is juxtaposed with the events of “Short days ago” which are, in themselves, associated not with war but of life, so that the dead “lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, / Loved and were loved.” The idea here is that the dead gave their lives in the cause of life and that the reader should “Take up our quarrel with the foe” not as a matter of defending a specific political position, but as a matter of defending life. This contrast between life and death, between the living and the dead, is one of the repeated elements that can be seen in the elegiac form. The subtle pastoralism of the opening lines of the poem is founded solely on the image of the poppies; yet McCrae evolves the entire poem on this powerful image so that one imagines the sacrifice to have taken place on a grand scale where “row on row” of crosses now fill many “fields,” as if all of nature has been consumed by the struggle. The quest or challenge that is issued in the final lines of the poem is, therefore, a quest for a redemption of nature and, by association, the entire world, and not just a mere call to arms. To this end, the “torch” in the final lines is not merely a baton in a relay race toward mass destruction but an eternal flame—a promise to life that must be maintained, whatever the cost. What should be remembered is that elegies, traditionally, not only lament a loss but seek to rectify the problems that have beset nature. McCrae, however, offers no solution to the war. This is a perceptual problem that seems to have been beyond reach for both the public and the political mentalities of the time, and it is the issue for which Siegfried Sassoon was deemed “insane” by a court-martial tribunal. What the reader is meant to see in this simple poem is not a rectification but a remembrance. The dead cannot be brought back, but they serve as a reminder to the living for the principles of duty, sacrifice, and faith.
The most surprising aspect of the elegiac properties of the poem, and one that goes against the grain of traditional elegy, is the vocality of the dead. The device, however, should not be construed literally, even in the sense of “poetic literalness.” What the reader is confronting in “In Flanders Fields” is the dead being given voice by the living—a gesture of poetic justice that sounds as a note of remembrance. So clearly has McCrae sounded this note through his use of language, form, and content that the poem has, in Canada, been the centerpiece of a solemn national holiday— Remembrance Day—held each year on the anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I on November 11. The poem is memorized and recited by schoolchildren in their classrooms and at memorials and cenotaphs across the country. At precisely eleven o’clock, all businesses, transit operations, offices, and pedestrians pause for a moment of silence in memory of those who fell in the First World War (a conflict in which Canada suffered one of the highest per capita losses of any Allied nation) and in tribute to the fallen from other wars and those who serve overseas on peace-keeping missions. As a gesture of solidarity with “the Dead” who “lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, / Loved and were loved,” Canadians wear a red poppy on their lapels, a symbol that was given to them, in memory and with a religious reverence, through the poem McCrae penned during the Battle of Ypres.
Source: Bruce Meyer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.
In the following excerpt, Acorn comments upon John McCrae and his most famous poem, “In Flanders Fields.”
“In Flanders Fields” [IFF ] is a poem of such power that virtually every born or integrated Canadian can quote from it, when they can’t quote the whole work by heart. As to the rest of McCrae’s verse, it is probable that the greater part has never achieved print, let alone adequate distribution. Astounding as it may seem, the supplement to THE GOLDEN TREASURY OF ENGLISH VERSE collected by another famous war poet C. Day Lewis at a time when IFF was unquestionably the most popular poem in at least the English-speaking world, does not list it. Years ago at a Contact Poetry Reading I expressed the opinion that the reason Canadian poetry was not world famous was because Canada had only a small army. Ireland has suffered long from a similar difficulty, but has overcome it, so much so that today when we refer to English poetry we usually mean Irish.
I might add that to classify John McCrae as a war-poet does him an injustice. Much of his life was lived in the bloodiest century of all human history; as a Canadian, a member of the most formidable nation of all the British Empire’s mercenary array. As a doctor—indeed a famous surgeon—he was bound to be involved....
As for classifying “In Flanders Fields” as a war poem (it certainly was no “Charge Of The Light Brigade”) I ask you to consider the final verse:
Take up the quarrel with the foe:
To you with 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.
This verse hangs permanently in the dressing room of the world champion Montreal Canadiens, who have won far more Stanley Cups than any other team, and is most appropriately there. For it can be easily interpreted as a call to celebrate the Olympic Games in 1916, after which there would have been no more war. The Olympic torch, used there as a symbol of continuing struggle, was a peace emblem. This is the only section of IFF which might be interpreted unambiguously as prowar. Otherwise it is a poem of the pity and horror of war, and McCrae’s other writings on the Second Battle of Ypres make this abundantly clear.
The fact is that IFF was a poem against fascism, whose existence McCrae was one of the first to detect....
[McCrae] was not a very professional poet but a doctor, in fact a famous one. His poems were very thorough, though not in the popular sense. Until “In Flanders Fields” he sent few out except by request. It is an easy guess that he assumed that popularization of his poetry, full in the Canadian democratic tradition, would detract from his income as a doctor. Then after the block-buster poem “In Flanders Fields” hit the world, before the war was over and his soldier’s duty ended, he died. Probably an early victim of ‘the spanish flu’ or it could have been his role in combat. After his service at 2nd. Ypres, according to [Andrew] MacPhail’s testimony, he was never healthy and could have perhaps obtained a discharge. But his rank became very high and he died as chief consultant of the British Medical Services. Besides his realization of the importance of the first of The Wars would have prevented his wangling a discharge anyhow.
He was, by the way, never optimistic about the result of the conflict in which he was involved. When he said “failing hands” he meant it.
In the end one more note about the remarkable qualities of “In Flanders Fields” (please still notice
“‘In Flanders Fields’ is a poem of such power that virtually every born or integrated Canadian can quote from it, when they can’t quote the whole work by heart.”
the acrosticism) it’s ease of translation. Take note of these two lines traduced in English and French:
To you with failing hands we throw
Le flambeau! Tenir-le en haut!
My French is too spotty to carry on with this task, but it can easily be seen that it requires not even a translation, just transposition. So IFF spread through both the British and French armies in World War I. Since the Germans are indefatigable translators it is likely that many copies were spread among them as well ...
Is it possible that the Christmas Mutiny of 1916, which spread to both sides of the line and was finally broken up by artillery shells flung from both sides, was a consequence of this Canadian poem? Well what was the end of it? What did it all mean? One of the little-mentioned facts about the Second World War was that the Nazi U-boat fleet was present in full force in the Norwegian Campaign ... but the British didn’t know it! Every torpedo thrown at the Brits turned out to be useless, certainly sabotaged by skilled workers, whose mental motto is “Run silent, Run deep”.
Presuming that to be true never again call poetry a useless ornament to society.
Source: Acorn, Milton, “From Isandhlwawa to Flanders Fields: With John McCrae,” in Waves, vol. 15, nos. 1 and 2, fall 1986, pp. 92-6.
John F. Prescott
In the following excerpt, Prescott discusses the publication and reception of “In Flanders Fields.”
On 8 Dec. 1915 Punch published In Flanders Fields, anonymously, though the index of that year attributed authorship to McCrae. This poem was the most popular English poem of the Great War. In 1915 there was intense hatred of Germany in England, fuelled by the Lusitania sinking, the Zeppelin raids, the use of poison gas, and the atrocity stories. People felt that a long suspected German barbarism had finally revealed itself. McCrae’s immensely popular poem did much to encourage the British in the need to defeat the Germans and to avenge the increasing and staggering numbers of British war dead, soldiers and civilians alike. His poem made the poppy, the symbol of oblivion, inseparable from the experience of the First World War. The poem gave “expression to a mood which at the time was universal, and will remain as a permanent record when the mood is passed away.”
The poem has McCrae’s usual themes of death bringing peace after struggle, and of the voice from the grave; it echoes his 1906 poem The unconquered dead. It was the ferocious last third of the poem, so different from the rest, which was used extensively to further the war effort—for recruiting, raising money, attacking both pacifists and profiteers, and comforting the relatives of the dead. It also was a useful piece of propaganda in the Canadian general election of 1917. Together with Rupert Brooke’s The soldier (1914), Julian Gren-fell’s Into battle (1915), and Laurence Binyoun’s For the fallen (1914), it was one of the most quoted poems of the war, and of these poems it was the most popular. All were poems written before the monstrous slaughter of the war turned the poetry of the fighting soldiers to bitterness, disillusion, anger, pity, or escapism.
Everyone in the English-speaking world knew the poem. Canadians, especially McCrae’s Montreal friends, were proud. Leacock wrote later that “to us in Canada it is a wonderful thought that Jack McCrae’s verses and memory should now become part of the common heritage of the English people. These are works of Empire indeed.” The poem was especially popular in the United States when she entered the war, and it made McCrae’s a household name, albeit a frequently misspelt one....
McCrae received many requests to use In Flanders Fields for raising money for the cause. He was sent translations in many languages, including Latin In agro belgico (“it needs only Chinese now, surely,” said McCrae.) He was modest about its success; his mother sent him clippings about its use and effect. “I return the clippings. I would like to believe them if I dared. I wish they would get to printing ‘In F.F.’ correctly: it never is nowadays.” Apart from seeing his name misspelt, McCrae was surprised to discover the variety of his ranks. “I am promoted Captain this time (Lt. previously).” He was sometimes amused by the response, “Tom sent me some bunk from The Herald about me as a ‘Guelph boy.’ I would fain remind The Herald of one or two things in its history—not least the Guelph Junction Railway Bill.”
The success of the poem, together with McCrae’s early recruitment into the army and his courage at the battle of Ypres, made him a hero to his friends, to the Canadian army, and within the hospital. As for McCrae himself, he was satisfied if the poem enabled men to see where their duty lay....
Although John McCrae would have felt that he had broken faith had he lived while so many had died, the reaction of his friends and contemporaries to his death in France in 1918 was one of great grief. They wrote of his unswerving fidelity, his professional ability, his many talents, his wide knowledge, his kindliness, and his charm. McCrae was greatly loved by all who knew him, and his contemporaries felt that death had cheated them of the best which was to come. His brother tried to comfort the family by telling them that the bitter and disillusioned man who would have returned from the war was not the sparkling man who went to it.
Had McCrae lived, he would have been proud that the war had given a new pride to Canada and a new identity to her sons in the changed relation with the mother country. From a population of eight million, 620,000 Canadians fought in France, 61,326 were killed, and one-third were wounded —the colonial country rose to nationhood through the courage of her soldiers. McCrae would have been scathing of the Treaty of Versailles, in which the next war was implicit. He would have been pleased that, because of In Flanders Fields, the poppy was adopted to remember the war dead of the British empire, and is sold in millions every November 11 around the world. He would have remained grief-stricken by the deaths of so many of his friends and patients but pleased to know that his medical colleagues remembered him in a stained-glass window in Montreal which called him “Pathologist, Poet, Physician, Soldier, a Man among Men.”
Before he died McCrae knew his poem to be the most popular of the English-language war verses. It had captured the mood of the British public in 1915. He was pleased by its effects in the empire and in the United States. Its impact was enormous. It was the poem of the British army. It was quoted everywhere—with frenzy in selling war bonds and encouraging recruiting, with conviction in harassing pacifists or pillorying profiteers, and with compassion in comforting the relatives of the myriad war dead. The poem was written by a man who had previously published little poetry and who wrote verse as a form of relaxation. But In Flanders Fields has the hallmarks of his other poems— the preoccupation with death, the desire for oblivion, and the voice from the grave.
Modern critics, favouring poets more gifted and more critical of the slaughter have placed Mc-Crae’s poem in a quiet corner. The British world was changed irrevocably by the Great War, and In Flanders Fields is now an anachronism, to be dusted off for lip-service to dead heroes, or to be learned as an exercise by school children. To understand the poem, the poet, and the circumstances of the writing is to enter a lost world, a world unscarred by the futility of the trenches. It is to know how men felt who volunteered for the War, men who believed that they were fighting evil for the future of mankind. But reality was Passchendaele, Arras, Hill 70, Verdun, Vimy Ridge, The Somme, and other killing grounds. Soldiers do not die without wounds, and McCrae saw it all, from the cheering crowds to the obscenity of corrupted flesh. The War broke his heart.
Source: Prescott, John F., In Flanders Fields: The Story of John McCrae, Erin, Ontario: The Boston Mills Press, 1985.
Brodie, A. H., “John McCrae: A Centenary Reassessment,” The Humanities Association Bulletin, Vol. 23, No. 1, winter 1972, pp 12-22.
Fleming, D. F., The Origins and Legacies of World War I, Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1968.
Harmon, H. E., “Two Famous Poems of the World War,” South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 1, January 1920, pp. 9-17.
Haythornthwaite, Philip J., The World War I Source Book, London: Arms and Armour Press, 1992.
Lamb, W. Kaye, The History of Canada: From Discovery to Present, New York: American Heritage Press, 1971.
Logan, J. D., and Donald G. French, “The War Poetry of Canada,” Highways of Canadian Literature: A Synoptic Introduction to the Literary History of Canada (English) from 1760 to 1924, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1924.
Stokesbury, James L., A Short History of World War I, New York: William Morrow and Co., 1981.
Wharton, Lewis, “Who’s Who in Canadian Literature: John McCrae,” The Canadian Bookman, Vol. 8, No. 8, August 1926, pp. 237-40.
Bergonzi, Bernard, Heroes’ Twilight: A Study of the Literature of the Great War, New York: Coward-McCann Co., 1965.
The one mention of McCrae in this text comes up during a discussion the use of “poppies” as symbols in World War I poetry. The book does, though, offer a sharp and comprehensive overview of the poets it does discuss.
Fussell, Paul, The Great War and Modern Memory, New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.
Fussell examines the ways in which literature has depicted the events of World War I and the effect of these portrayals on how we view the war today. He deems “In Flanders Fields” inferior to other poems written at the time, categorizing it as a piece of inconsistency that works as pro-war propaganda.
Quinn, Tom, Tales of the Old Soldiers, Dover, NH: Alan Sutton Publishing Inc., 1993.
This book compiles the reminiscences of ten British soldiers who were involved in World War I. Most of the interviewees were in their nineties and one was a hundred years old. The subjects are thus able to put their youthful experiences into the perspective of their full lives.
Winter, Jay, and Blaine Baggett, The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century, New York: Penguin Studio, 1996.
This book is the companion piece for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) television series of the same name. Meticulously researched and designed to make the pictures and text relevant to the modern young reader, it can be used either for a general overview of the war or for in-depth details.