I allowed Armistice Day, Veterans Day, Remembrance Day to pass by yesterday without posting my thoughts on perhaps the most famous of World War I poems, “In Flanders Fields.” The poem is brief enough that it warrants posting in its entirety:
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.
This poem has been criticized by some who expect all World War I poetry to be the bleak sort of stuff that demonstrates the stupidity of war. Such criticism, I think, is unfair. Dr. McCrae, the Canadian surgeon who penned these fifteen lines, does not sentimentalize war, nor does he launch into the sort of dulce et decorum est pro patria mori bravura that Wilfred Owen scorns. The grimness witnesses by McCrae does not depend on the particular horrors of long-range artillery or gas attacks. In the middle stanza, he finds the grim legacy of war quite poignantly in the untimely death of capable young men. How horribly they died, it seems, doesn’t matter.
Lt. Col. John McCrae, writing in a traditional form, the rondeau, employing some fairly conventional and even archaic verbiage–e.g., “If ye break faith”–can be imagined attempting to restore some order to the chaos of trench warfare, performing in verse the same sort of work he performed as a surgeon.
Death, however, resists attempts at such ordering. The Dead beneath the rows of crosses in the cemetery will remain dead regardless of the response of the reader. Despite McCrae’s best efforts to elevate the cause, the opposition to the foe, above the needs of the individual, the rows of crosses continue to proliferate and would for three more years after he wrote this poem.
The sad truth of this poem, one that makes it even more tragic than the more obviously grim poems by Owen or Brooke or Sassoon, is the absence in its lines of the One who could bring an end to the power of death. Where Christianity celebrates the singular, effectual cross of Christ, McCrae’s poem evokes an endless sea of crosses simply signifying in white stone the decomposition taking place below. Certainly there is a tragedy in lives cut short, but that tragedy is merely different in degree from the vast population for whom death is a certain end.
Perhaps the most remembered image of this poem is the poppy, which has been employed since that war as an emblem of remembrance, yet the poppy has long symbolized sleep and death. Argue as he might about the “quarrel with the foe” and torches being past, if McCrae asks young men to sacrifice their lives for something no more significant than a hazy concept of duty to King and Country, he asks too much.