In Flanders Fields – John McCrae

‘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.]

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14 thoughts on “In Flanders Fields – John McCrae”

  1. This poem teaches that the soldiers who die in war lie in peace after their death “…Flanders fields” fields suggests that they have enough space and the description of the place is nowhere near suggesting that the dead bodies are squashed or fighting for breath. In fact “…the poppies blow…” here i think the poppies are symbolic of the soldiers who are creating the air. this is a very powerful image and the poet is giving authority to the dead by saying that they blow and what they blow out makes the air we breath in.

  2. Hi there,

    I think that the ‘crosses’ literally refer to the graves of the soldiers, but also have religious inferences; Jesus Christ sacrificed himself on the cross in a similar way that the soldiers sacrificed themselves for their country.

  3. I don’t know what McCrae meant when using “poppies” in the poem (and I think nobody knows for sure). For me it stands for life’s victory over death; even after all these terrible things that happened, life went on… poppies growing on dead humans.

    1. He literally saw poppies growing all over the battlefield and graveyards. Poppy seeds like disturbed and heavily limed soil. The soil around battlefields and graveyards was disturbed by artillery explosions and shovels digging graves. Lime was added to the soil as as a byproduct of the millions of explosions from bombs/shells/bullets. As a result, poppies quickly grew in the graveyards and battlefields that were not constantly fought on. There is a lot of information about the poppy in this poem online. Check it out…

      1. Dave I think your interpretation is very accurate. Poppies reseed themselves very easily as they blow in the wind and fall onto the soil. Also, I believe the poppies represent the vast number of lives taken during this war. The poppies being red was the perfect analogy of the vast numbers of the injured and dying soldiers and the blood that was spilled in Flanders Fields. He wanted to express to the world and have them know how terrible it was. He tried his utmost as a doctor and surgeon to mend these soldiers and to keep up but he was terribly frustrated as he couldn’t keep up to the numbers. He possibly had such sorrow that those who died would not be remembered but forgotten. In the end he is asking all to promise to remember these soldiers who fought for their country and yet died in doing so.
        Frances

  4. Hello,

    I think that the symbolism packed in this poem can be analyzed and understood to have various meanings. This fact makes it brilliant! My favorite part is the frank entrance of the soldiers “We are the dead.” One cannot help but read on as this puts the reader face to face with those on the battlefield.

  5. I think that this poem means that we should be grateful and thankful that the solders fought in war, because without them we wouldn’t be here or living in peace.

    1. Except we still don’t live in peace. War still occurs all over the world. It’s not like they chose to be there either, they were either forced or bullied by propaganda… not something we should be grateful for.

  6. I remember as a child being told about The Flowers of Flanders Field. My grandfather was in the trenches during the first world war in the Royal West Kent Regiment and later with the Royal Army Cycle Corp. He would write to my grandmother in the typical way of the period. He like so many Tommies used what I know as sweetheart card’s to send his messages of love and reassurance home.
    My grandparents would tell me about the Flowers. I still have vivid memories of them telling me about the real Flowers on the fields of that murderous pasture. The poppies were the memorials of every life lost. To grandmother the flowers were all of the young men who gave their lives for freedom and love of country.
    So the humble poppy reminds me of all of those who gave their lives for our today.
    The Flowers of Flanders Field to me represents the life of real people. The poppy is the symbol of sacrifice and unselfishness but the real Flower is the life that was lost in those foreign fields.
    Since the end WW1 and long before our armes forces have protected us.
    I thank you.

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