Short But Sweet: In Flanders Fields

Inscription of the complete poem in a bronze “book” at the John McCrae memorial at his birthplace in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. (image and caption text from Wikipedia)

In Flanders Fields

BY JOHN MCCRAE

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.

I’ve always been of the mind that there are two types of war poetry: the realistic and the patriotic. In fact, I wrote about that a few years ago when I compared Wilfred Owen to Edgar Guest and used both in my English classes around the same time we were reading All Quiet on the Western Front. Guest’s poetry is the type that shares the same sentiment if you were to log onto Facebook today–I wouldn’t be surprised if someone posted “The Things That Make a Soldier Great” with a graphic of a bald eagle and an American Flag.

At first glance, “In Flanders Fields,” which is unarguably one of the most famous poems of the First World War, seems like it would be that type of poem. It has a pretty simple rhyme scheme and was written by a Canadian soldier, as opposed to something more complex that came from the pen of one of the Great Masters or at least someone from the University of Iowa.

But then you hit that line, “We are the Dead.”

Every time I read that poem, I have to pause after that line. McCrae is obviously not subtle here and obviously doesn’t want to be subtle and normally I don’t usually go for poetry that is so direct. But here, it’s absolutely necessary. The dead are asking us a favor, to finish their work, to carry on what they started so that the task can be ended. Whether or not that’s to vanquish the foe or bring peace is, I guess a matter of interpretation.

I bring this up because, obviously, it’s Veterans Day. But as we honor our Veterans, it’s necessary to explore the human condition that leads to all of the death that comes with war. Yes, it’s sacrifice for a cause, but as we have seen in so many wars and so many works of literature, it can be both noble and ignoble, both worthy and useless. And to perfectly encapsulate that in three stanzas is both poignant and amazing.

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