‘In Flanders Fields’

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.

NOTES

This is a poem of remembrance, a call for those living not to forget the dead who are buried in a foreign land. It demands that the living remember why the fallen died, so that they did not die in vain. This is one of the most famous poems of the First World War.

STRUCTURE: This poem uses a specifically French form, dating back to the 13th Century, known as a rondeau. A rondeau traditionally has 13 lines of 8 syllables length; it has three stanzas, with rhyme scheme AABBA AABC AABBAC; and it features a four syllable refrain (marked C in the notation previous) that repeats the opening words of the poem. Check these against McCrae’s poem: you’ll find he follows the form quite perfectly. As writing a sonnet, composing a rondeau is demanding exercise for a poet.

John McCrae: A Canadian doctor who treated soldiers on the Western Front. He threw away the poem after first writing it, only fishing it out of his bin the next day.

In Flanders Fields: features the alliteration that helps structure this poem throughout.

“…the poppies grow”: poppies were a symbol for death in war before World War One, but it was McCrae’s poem that helped to popularize the poppy as a sign of remembrance for the Great War. Poppies have been associated with the battlefield since at least the Napoleonic wars, when poppies would thrive and grow on the fields freshly manured by blood. Poppies were also associated with sleep (opium being a poppy derivate) and McCrae, being a doctor, would have been conscious of this: the idea of sleeping under the poppies is revived in the last lines.

“We are the dead.”: the poem turns, surprisingly, to the dead, who are given voice by the poet. This is a powerful and emotive turn, a direct address of the living by the fallen.

“In the sky, the larks”: these birds, traditional poetic symbols of natural beauty and freedom, contrast strongly with the world below. As often, nature provides an idealized backdrop to the war that provides a contrast with man’s immoral actions.

“Take up our quarrel with the foe”: the message of the poem is to continue the war.

“we throw the torch… hold it high”: emotive image of passing on a burning torch to light the way forward. It must be held high— as a precious object of pride.

“if ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep…”: the suggestion is of a curse on those who do not remember the dead; an old and powerful idea.

Though poppies grow…” reminds us the somnolent (sleep-inducing) power of the poppy.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This is the first of the poems in the anthology to give the war dead a voice that directly addresses the reader: the first of the powerfully emotive poems that try to express the ‘pity’ of the soldier’s situation.]

Poppy Appeal?

As Armistice Day approaches, the question of how we should remember the First World War has again hit the news.

Channel 4 News presenter, Jon Snow, does not wear a poppy when he reads the news. Many presenters on television choose to at this time of year, but he does not. This has led to controversy in recent days, summed up in this BBC report, ‘TV’s Snow rejects ‘poppy fascism’‘.

You’ll remember that the poppy is worn as a symbol of remembrance for the deaths of soldiers during war. The blood-red flower has been associated with death in war at least since Waterloo: it flourishes in turned over ground, such as fields churned up by horses and artillery, or, a century later on the Western Front, folded and cratered by massive shell explosions. Fed by lime and human fertiliser, the poppy famously began to cover Flander’s fields.

John McRae’s famous poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’, led to a wider identification of the poppy with the butchery of the First World War, especially in his homeland Canada. The poem begins:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row…

By twists and turns, but directly inspired by the poem, the Royal Canadian Legion eventually began giving paper poppies as symbols of remembrance for the dead of the First World War. This custom spread worldwide, and hence the poppy is still worn today.

The question at the heart of the controversy is whether and why a poppy should be worn today. Snow isn’t against the wearing of poppies; he says he doesn’t wear any kind of symbol. Some people are angry that he seems to have rejected the poppy: in doing so, they say, he is rejecting the dead that the poppy represents. Tempers are high. What do you think about this issue? Some people say the whole thing has been whipped up by the media. Does it matter that Snow won’t wear a poppy on the news? The Daily Mail weighs in, here: a historian defends Snow, here.

Meanwhile there seems to be a more bothersome problem with remembering the First World War on television. Where are the stories and accounts of WWI on the mainstream terrestrial stations? A week before the anniversary of the end of the First World War, and the BBC hasn’t shown a single new documentary on the conflict. Less emotive perhaps, but more important for the nation’s remembrance than the fact that a telly newsreader isn’t wearing a flower? Perhaps.

At any rate, in a nice irony, Channel 4 has repeated a fascinating documentary on the First World War, ‘Not Forgotten’. Presented by Ian Hislop, it looks at the history of the reviled ‘conchies’, or conscientious objectors to the war. These were people who objected totally to the fighting, and decided to take no part in it, for personal or religious reasons. They suffered social isolation– and worse. You can watch the episode on the web at Channel 4 online.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 96 other followers