The Cherry Trees – Edward Thomas

‘The Cherry Trees’

The cherry trees bend over and are shedding,
On the old road where all that passed are dead,
Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding
This early May morn when there is none to wed.

NOTES

This is another short but profound poem about the fallen cherry blossom on a road, prompting a meditation that links flowers, love and loss.

STRUCTURE: An elegaic stanza– see notes for ‘In Memorium (Easter 1915)’.

The Cherry Trees: In this poem Thomas describes the cherry trees shedding their blossom. In England the flowers tend to bloom for three or four weeks after they flower in April, so once again, this a poem set during a late English spring, here in May— the associations of life and home here providing a strong contrast to the war abroad. This poem may be a response to an earlier poet’s short poem about the flowering of cherry trees: A.E. Housman’s ‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now’ (1896). You can read Housman’s fine poem at Bartleby, here. Hausman’s poem is full of humour and promise; Thomas’ dwells on tragedy and loss. Both are suitable to the story of Easter, in which Christ dies, and is born again.

“The Cherry Trees bend over and are shedding…”: The trees, as throughout the poem, are given human qualities; they “bend over” here, like old men or women, or perhaps exhausted soldiers. The ‘shedding’ of cherry blossom occurs just weeks after blooming; if they are a symbol of abundant and beautiful life, they are also a sign that life is fleeting.

“On the old road where all that passed are dead,”: the ‘old road’ again has symbolic weight. As in ‘In Memorium (Easter 1916)’, Thomas is using traditional poetic symbols here for the journey of life; the notion of “passing”, so familiar to us now that it is a euphemistic cliché, derives from this symbolism. Thomas is quite literal, however: the soldiers who marched past on this road are indeed dead.

“Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding”: The blossom appears like confetti on the grass, as if scattered by human hands (“strewing”). This is a striking and powerful simile (“as”), mixing together images of life and love (flowers, a wedding), and death (the blossoms fall because flowering has ended).

“This early May morn where there is none to wed.”: The final line is devastating. The “early May morn” in the quiet English countryside becomes a reminder of the thousands of deaths occurring abroad, leaving “none to wed”.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: Another poem by Thomas that contemplates the pain of absence and loss. It again features the motif of absent or disappeared lovers, as in ‘In Memoriam’ (p.79) and ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ (p.179). Ivor Gurney similiarly explores the effect of war on lovers in ‘To His Love’ (p.181) and the same subject is touched on in Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ (p.188).]

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In Memorium (Easter 1915) – Edward Thomas

‘In Memorium (Easter 1915)’

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

NOTES

This is a short poem of reflection: the presence of flowers in a wood prompt mourning for a richer and happier world, lost forever because of the war.

Edward Thomas: Edward Thomas was a prolific reviewer and writer before the outbreak of World War One— a man drawn to the beauty of the English countryside, who found in nature and rural life a source of deep inspiration for his work. Thomas lived in Earlsfield with his family after he and his wife defied their parents’ wishes and married. They were thrown into genteel poverty, and Thomas wrote copious literary reviews and books to sustain his family. Thomas wrote some notable books about rural life and the English countryside, only discovering poetry late on in his life, at the urgings of an American poet, Robert Frost (see ‘Range-Finding’). When war broke out Thomas (a middle-aged man of thirty-nine with a young family dependent on him) had doubts about joining up. In 1915 he did enlist, and was soon promoted to the position of officer. Before travelling to France, Thomas wrote all of the poems for which he is now famous; tragically, he was killed almost as soon as he saw action, killed in the Battle of Arras, 1917.

STRUCTURE: A simple poem of iambic pentameters in alternating rhyme, ABAB, known as an elegaic stanza (an elegy is a mournful or melancholic poem, most often written for the dead).  Part of the craft of this poem can be found in the suggestive rhyme. ‘Wood’ is rhymed with ‘should’. ‘Wood’, of course, is a homophone for ‘would’: and the poem is deeply concerned with what would have been— and what should have been. Similarly the rhyme ‘men’ and ‘again’ are linked; a hopeful possibility the poem ultimately closes off for the reader.

In Memorium (Easter 1915): ‘In Memorium’ shows this to be a poem of remembrance. Easter, when the death and resurrection of Christ is celebrated, is the most important date in the Christian calendar; a time for reflection on sacrifices made. As Professor Tim Kendall reports on his website, this title was an editor’s later addition, the poem originally going untitled.

“The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood / This Eastertide…”: A pastoral scene; Thomas felt an intense connection with nature, as did many of the Georgian poets. It is spring; the woodland floor is “thick” with life. “Nightfall” however hints at a shadow cast over the scene this Easter.

“…call into mind the men, / Now far from home…”: the presence of the flowers (and new life) reminds the poet of an absence: that of the soldiers who are abroad.

“…who, with their sweethearts, should have gathered them…”: the poet’s recollection of the soldiers who have gone becomes intensified by the recognition that the loss of men means an end to lover’s walks, or even the possibility of love. What is mourned here is the loss of those who, together, give to this beautiful scene meaning.

“and will do never again.”: A bleak conclusion, with a terrible sense of loss; some relationships are ended forever by the war, and some relationships that might have been, never shall be.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem has a haiku-like simplicity; its draws its power from its brevity and the profound observation that the presence of the beautiful flowers signifies the absence of lovers, and so a loss of profound meaning and happiness in the world. Thomas offers the reader a glimpse of a happier world, to make clearer the true horror of the war.]

The Death of a Soldier – Wallace Stevens

‘The Death of a Soldier’

Life contracts and death is expected,
As in a season of autumn.
The soldier falls.

He does not become a three-days’ personage,
Imposing his separation,
Calling for pomp.

Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops.

When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.

NOTES

This poem considers the death of a soldier not in terms of glory, but as an anonymous, uncelebrated event: as inevitable as the fall of leaves in Autumn.

STRUCTURE NOTE: Four short, three line stanzas, each ending with a short line- as if cut off.

Wallace Stevens: An American modernist poet.

‘The Death of a Soldier’: this poem concentrates on the moment of the soldier’s death itself. Time is important in the poem: it is a poem that describes the fleeting nature of life, and moments during life.

“Life contracts…”: the poem itself seems to follow this rule of diminishment in the syllabic weighting of each line in all four stanzas.

“As in a season of Autumn.”: a key simile and natural image. The simile deliberately underplays human events, and is repeated in Stanza three. Here, the poem concentrates on time as ‘a season’. This poem is concerned, like many modernist texts, with the experience of time: to be interested in modernity was to be interested in the accelerating nature of a technological society, and the subjective experience of time within it. Here the slow ebbing away of life is compared to the slow change from Summer to Winter in Autumn.

“…a three-days personage… calling for pomp”: the soldier was clearly new to battle and the front: had less than three days to make his presence felt among his fellow soldiers. This is a more human perspective on time.

“Death is absolute and without memorial…”: the poem takes a philosophical turn— the end is the end, it seems to say, and that is that. Human attempts at memorial for the event are in vain: the point seems to be that death, as Wittgenstein said, is not an event in life. We can’t talk meaningfully about what is beyond life, because it is beyond our understanding.

“When the wind stops… and, over the heavens, / The clouds go nevertheless…”: The anonymous death of a soldier in war is like the quickly passing, windless moment. Stevens seems to be insisting on the insubstantiality of death that war brings to men. Meanwhile, the war, like the clouds moving overhead, moves on swiftly.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: The third poem written by an American in the anthology, this poem is, like the two immediately before, primarily an intellectual or philosophical exercise: it has none of the gritty realism of Sassoon or Owen, for example.]

Range Finding – Robert Frost

‘Range-Finding’

The battle rent a cobweb diamond-strung
And cut a flower beside a ground bird’s nest
Before it stained a single human breast.
The stricken flower bent double and so hung.
And still the bird revisited her young.
A butterfly its fall had dispossessed
A moment sought in air his flower of rest,
Then lightly stooped to it and fluttering clung.

On the bare upland pasture there had spread
O’ernight ‘twixt mullein stalks a wheel of thread
And straining cables wet with silver dew.
A sudden passing bullet shook it dry.
The indwelling spider ran to greet the fly,
But finding nothing, sullenly withdrew.

NOTES

This poem makes the flight of a bullet that will kill a man incidental to the effects it has upon the insects and small flowers on a battlefield.

STRUCTURE NOTE: This poem is a Petrarchan sonnet.

Robert Frost: Frost was a renowned American poet.

Range-Finding: A speculative shot intended to find out a gun’s accuracy over distance. Here though, also a metaphor for how speculating how far the effects of war are felt.

First Stanza / Octet: The poem lies in a tradition of poetry that uses animals to provide a perspective on human affairs, particularly human carelessness— the most obvious precursor here being Rab Burns’ ‘To a Mouse’ (in which a farmer bemoans destroying a field mouse’s nest while tilling the soil: he declares that “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft gley”). The Octet concentrates on how the bullet flies through a spider’s web, nearly bisects a flower that grows near a ground-bird’s nest, and upsets the actions of a butterfly.

“Before it stained a single human breast…”: The bullet will kill or maim a human at the end of its flight. This poem is not concerned with that terrible moment, but it remains in the background of the poem throughout. Instead the octet concentrates on a “stricken flower” and what occurs around it.

“…still the bird revisited her young.”: Nature and its creatures persist and continue to work, even during (man’s) war.

“A butterfly its fall had dispossessed…”: the focus here is on the delicate butterfly close-up, to the exclusion of all other things: hence the detail of the “fluttering” creature clinging to the stalk. The contrast between the fine beauty of a butterfly and the monstrous events that lie in the poem’s background is understated, but stark.

Second Stanza / Sextet: The perspective of the poem shifts here, as sonnets traditionally do. The ‘turn’, however, is not from nature to man, as might be expected, but to the spider first mentioned at the beginning.

“a wheel of thread / And straining cables wet with silver dew”: The beauty of the spider’s web is described through metaphors that accentuate technology and invention: the spider is, to this degree, humanized.

“The indwelling spider ran to greet the fly, / But finding nothing, sullenly withdrew”: The spider is fooled by the movement on its web to think that it has prey to feed on. There is a bitter irony here, for the mechanical action of the spider belies the truly inhuman actions occurring above and beyond, on the field of battle.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: The second of the poems to look at nature and human nature in an unconventional manner. Both poems are by Americans, whose country at this point had not entered the war (Frost however was in Britain at the start of the war). Perhaps this allowed the sense of objectivity and philosophical space that these two poems seem to work in.]

Grass – Carl Sandburg

‘Grass’

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and the passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.

NOTES

This poem takes a peculiar perspective on the war, whereby the human perspective is decentred, placed to one side. The nature of ‘Grass’ is not the nature of the pastoral poets, who take nature as a part of the human experience— a mirror or setting for man’s dramatic struggles. Nature in ‘Grass’ is non-human, unsympathetic, almost alien. Focussing on the grass rather than the men fighting in the war necessarily belittles man- for the purpose, here, of showing his pettiness and violence.

STRUCTURE NOTE: This poem is unusually structured. It is an example of free verse, which refuses the rules of metre and rhyme for a more conversational voice. It’s three stanza’s unusual layout, however, do invite speculation. Are the shorter lines ‘buried’ under the longer ones, as the bodies are under the grass?

Carl Sandburg: Sandburg was an American poet from an impoverished background who served for 8 months in the US army during the Spanish-American War of 1898. He first published as a poet in 1904, and wrote the rest of his life. Sandburg died in 1967.

Grass: This poem personifies grass, which directly addresses the reader. It is a striking tactic in writing a war poem. Grass, of course, shares some things in common with human beings: it lives and dies in abundance. Yet it is far more abundant than human beings, and its omnipresence makes man peripheral: to the extent that the grass personified in this poem is dismissive of man. Grass has religious and literary roots as a symbol for transience too. Isaiah 40:6 declares “All flesh is grass”, that is, nothing human lasts (when compared to the eternal nature of God): and it is interesting that Sandburg uses grass, personified, to explore the transience of man. The American poet Walt Whitman (an influence on Sandburg’s work) self-deprecatingly adopted the title ‘Leaves of Grass’ for his most famous collection, alluding to the possible transience of the poems printed on the leaves within.

“Pile the bodies high…”: The unsympathetic perspective of grass is immediately established. There is a lack of understanding here of the meaning of death for humans. Grass is everywhere, and while life remains on Earth, seemingly eternal, given the long time scales of evolution.

“…Austerlitz and Waterloo… Gettysburg… Ypres and Verdun.”: All famous battles with large amounts of dead. Austerlitz (1805) was fought by Napoleon against the Russians and Austrians; Waterloo (1816) by the British against Napoleon; Gettysburg by the North and South in the US civil war; and Ypres (1914-17) and Verdun (1916) were the scenes of recurring battles throughout World War One.

“Shovel them under and let me work”: Grass has no sympathy for the dead, nor those who grieve for them. The impassive word ‘shovel’ seems important here, replacing the more humane term, ‘bury’. The bodies will sustain the grass. The ‘work’ it does is to cover the ground: “I cover all.” The grass covers the dead like a shroud; it cover’s man’s shame.

“Two years, ten years…”: There is a carelessness about dates here that tells of the different timescales that nature works in.

“passengers ask the conductor…”: this almost has an ecological message to it: men are the passengers, nature is the conductor. The tone here is facetious, conversational, making human concerns seem laughably trivial: “What place is this? / Where are we now?” The conductor does not answer. The grass simply says, “I am the grass. / Let me work.”

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This is the first of two poems which decentre human perspectives on the war through nature. These are unusual and rather brave selections.]

All the Hills and Vales Along – Charles Sorley

‘All the Hills and Vales Along’

All the hills and vales along
Earth is bursting into song,
And the singers are the chaps
Who are going to die perhaps.
O sing, marching men,
Till the valleys ring again.
Give your gladness to earth’s keeping,
So be glad, when you are sleeping.

Cast away regret and rue,
Think what you are marching to.
Little live, great pass.
Jesus Christ and Barabbas
Were found the same day.
This died, that went his way.
So sing with joyful breath,
For why, you are going to death.
Teeming earth will surely store
All the gladness that you pour.

Earth that never doubts nor fears,
Earth that knows of death, not tears,
Earth that bore with joyful ease
Hemlock for Socrates,
Earth that blossomed and was glad
‘Neath the cross that Christ had,
Shall rejoice and blossom too
When the bullet reaches you.
Wherefore, men marching
On the road to death, sing!
Pour your gladness on earth’s head,
So be merry, so be dead.

From the hills and valleys earth
Shouts back the sound of mirth,
Tramp of feet and lilt of song
Ringing all the road along.
All the music of their going,
Ringing swinging glad song-throwing,
Earth will echo still, when foot
Lies numb and voice mute.
On, marching men, on
To the gates of death with song.
Sow your gladness for earth’s reaping,
So you may be glad, though sleeping.
Strew your gladness on earth’s bed,
So be merry, so be dead.

NOTES

This poem describes a group of soldiers who are marching off to battle, singing as they do so. They are watched— or perhaps more appropriately for this poem, heard— by the speaker as they move away.

STRUCTURE: ‘All the hills and vales along’ has a complex and intricately developed structure. Written in rhyming couplets, it comprises four stanzas each of which adds two lines to the first so that there are progressively eight lines, ten, twelve and finally fourteen. This, along with the repetition which is a feature of the poem, brings a cumulative effect whereby the ending has power and ‘weight’. The lengthening of the verse also mimics an interminable march where each set distance travelled seems longer and longer. Nonetheless, the poem is written in a jaunty, ‘tripping’, trochaic rhythm; a rhythm which contrasts ironically with the grim journey of the soldiers.

Charles Sorley: Charles Sorley was a talented and athletic student who gained a scholarship to study at one of Britain’s top public schools, Marlborough College. In 1913, at the age of 18, he moved to Germany for a year to study at the University of Jena before going up to Oxford University. War broke out in 1914, however, and Sorley was briefly interned by the German government before he was allowed to sail home to England. He promptly joined up and was made a captain in the Suffolk regiment. He arrived in France in May 1915— but was killed by a sniper at the Battle of Loos in October 1915, at only twenty years of age.

All the Hills and Vales along: Sorley did not title his poems; they were found rough-written in his backpack after he died at Loos. Poetic convention is to take the first line as title.

“All the hills and vales along / Earth is bursting into song”: The trochaic rhythm is evident: “ALL the HILLS and VALES aLONG / EARTH is BURSTing INto SONG”. This provides a tripping, upbeat rhythm that seems appropriate to the seemingly happy, pastoral description of the opening lines (compare Blake’s opening lines to Songs of Innocence and Experience: “Piping down the valleys wild / piping gentle songs of glee…”). The living “Earth” is a motif throughout the poem; there is an almost paganistic symbolism to this fertile imagery. The “bursting” of these opening lines speaks of spring, but also foreshadows the shells of the front that may kill the marching men.

“And the singers are the chaps / Who are going to die perhaps.”: the tone of the first two lines is immediately undercut by the fierce irony of these following. The colloquial tone of the third line seems to suggest a kind of Georgian jollity— but the almost offhand conclusion, that the soldiers may be about to die, makes us bleakly reconsider the seemingly romantic scene Sorely has described.

“O sing, marching men”: the form of Sorley’s poem, with verse and chorus, reflects and replies to the soldier’s marching song in a darker, more self-conscious tone.

“Give your gladness to earth’s keeping / So be glad when you are sleeping”: The listener seems to enjoy the men’s song, a moment of happiness in the short time of optimism and expectation given to them.

“Cast away regret and rue / Think what you are marching to.”: The beginning of the second stanza seems to exult in or at least enjoy the men’s happy fearlessness, as they march to war and possible heroism. Note the alliteration (r) that orders the beginning of the stanza.

Little live, great pass. / Jesus Christ and Barabbas / Were found the same day.”: The reference is to the story of Christ and Barabbas. Arrested as Sorley speculates here on “the same day”, the Roman magistrate Pontius Pilate condemned both men to die as Jewish rebels. He gave the Jews of Jerusalem the chance, however, to release one from crucifixion: they chose to free Barabbas. Hence the “little” man lived, but the “great” man passed: “This died, that went his way”. Using this Christian imagery, Sorley seems to be suggesting that the greater man will lay down his life for his friends and country. It was a common metaphor to compare the sacrifice of soldiers to the sacrifice of Christ.

“So sing… you are going to death”: it is reiterated that death can be welcome— but this is nonetheless unsettling.

Teeming earth will gladly store / All the gladness you can pour”: The earth ‘teems’— it is ‘full of life’. There seems to be a metaphorical equation here between life and gladness: understood abstractly, the lines seem to suggest a kind and infinitely comforting earth. If we literalise the metaphor, however— which means to make those abstract terms more realistic— the life that pours into the earth is blood: the blood of soldiers lying dead on the battlefield. This couplet is typical of the poem as a whole: superficially simple, even epigrammatic, but in fact deliberately ambiguous and ironic. 

Earth that…”: This phrase begins each line and is repeated rhetorically, in a technique known as anaphora. Anaphoraic rhetoric builds intensity with the accumulation of the same insistent phrase. Earth here becomes personified as a curiously unfeeling and amoral creature.

…bore with joyful ease / Hemlock for Socrates…”: a classical allusion after the religious. Socrates (469-399 BC) is one of the most important Greek philosophers. He was forced by the state of Athens to take poison (the plant, hemlock) because his ideas supposedly corrupted the city’s youth, and were thus dangerous to the status quo. In this image, then, Earth seems to be boasting of producing the poison that killed one of Western culture’s great thinkers and original radicals.

Earth that blossomed and was glad / ‘Neath the cross that Christ had,”: Earth again appears pitiless in this image. ‘Gladness’ might again here equate to blood— the blood that fell from Christ’s side after he was pierced by the centurion’s spear. The imagery of spring and blossoming recalls the Easter story, of Christ’s sacrifice for man on the cross.

Earth… shall rejoice and blossom too / When the bullet reaches you”: an unconsoling thought, given the examples given prior.

Wherefore, men marching… sing!”: there is a note of defiance in this exhortation. Note the continued alliteration, the rhythm of which is suitable for “men marching”.

So be merry, so be dead.”: the pithy rhetorical tone continues with the use of anaphora; while this line also uses another common rhetorical / poetic device, antithesis, that is the opposition or contrast of ideas in parallel or balance within a sentence. This becomes a refrain that will end the poem.

From the hills and valleys earth  / Shouts back the sounds of mirth,”: the countryside echoes to the sound of the soldier’s happiness. Another classical reference may be contained here: the myth of Narcissus and Echo, the water-nymph forever condemned to only repeat the last words of her lover. The Earth here seems to reply to the soldiers who will soon be lying down with it, pouring gladness “on earth’s head”, a consummation that results in a bloody baptism or rebirth. Tragedy qualifies this happy image, especially as we are already aware of the ambiguous, ‘other’ nature of Earth’s relationship with men.

All the music of their going”: another ironic statement: ‘their going’ speaks of the beginning of the soldier’s march, but also of their coming deaths.

Earth will echo still, when foot / Lies numb and voice mute.”: the end of the last ‘verse’ in this stanza ends with silence (mute) and ultimate death— the singing is done.

…on / to the gates of death with song”: the destination is stated clearly now. There is a classical clarity to the warrior’s journey at the end of the poem, but there remains a disturbing taint to the juxtaposition of death and life.

Sow your gladness for earth’s reaping”: harvest imagery that promises a new spring. The poem’s vision of sacrifice is disturbing because it refuses a kind of moral transcendence; the men will die, and a new world will come of this, but only the fecund and ultimately silent earth is the recipient of their gift.

Strew your gladness on earth’s bed, / So be merry, so be dead.” A final image of pagan fertility, where the ‘gladness’ that was blood now becomes definitively seminal. The final refrain captures the deeper antithesis running throughout the poem: that the living can celebrate death, and death inspire the living. Such a perspective is necessarily ironic.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: Sorley’s poem is neatly placed in the Anthology. Positioned just after poems which depict the feelings of exultation that accompanied the outbreak of war, it both reflects this celebratory tone and subtly subverts it. In many ways it is a similar poem to Hardy’s ‘Men Who March Away’, in that it presents the happiness of soldiers as they march off to fight: but like that poem the poet seems to take a more objective position than the earnestness shown by the soldiers. ‘All the Hills and Vales Along’ is a deliberately ambiguous and ironic poem in contrast to, say, Brooke’s sonnets, which are more romantic and straightforwardly patriotic. Sorley seems to take in the perspectives of both the early, enthused participants in the war, and the later, warier critique of poets like Owen and Sassoon. This poem also bears comparison to other WWI poems that describe singing or marching men: such as ‘The Men Who March Away’, Sassoon’s ‘Everyone Sang’, and Ivor Gurney’s ‘Strange Hells’. It also bears interesting comparison to poems that dwell on Nature and man’s relationship to nature, especially WWI poems that depict nature as pitiless or inhumanly other in some way. Sandburg’s ‘Grass’ (p.168), Steven’s ‘Death of a Soldier’ (p.169) and Owen’s ‘Futility’ (p.193) have some of this objective and alienated vision of Nature. Instead of finding comfort or pastoral beauty in nature, these poems suspect that man has been born into a world hostile to man and morality. These poems take the perspectives of paganism and inspect them in the light of modernity, and find consolation about the horrors of war hard to find as a consequence.]

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.]