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.]

The London Victoria Memorial 2010

A-level meetings! Excitement and intellectual thrills. Further to my post on the 10th about the journey of the Unknown Warrior to his tomb in Westminster Abbey, it so happened that I wandered through London Victoria train station last week.

There, next to Platform 8, I found the plaque erected by the Western Front Association, commemorating the arrival of the Unknown Soldier’s carriage. Further along the railings, poppy wreaths had been lain by a number of different associations- from Tube and Train Drivers Unions, various army regiments, the British Legion, and even a Jewish servicemen’s organisation.

It was interesting to see the buffers that met the end of that famous journey. The Western Front Association has an interesting site with articles about the recent remembrance ceremonies, the Battle of Loos, Churchill, instructions in how deal with gas attacks, amongst others. It also has an article on the Victoria ceremony this year, here.

Armistice Day at Southfields Community College

They say that there is a First World War memorial in just about every city, town and village in Great Britain. Within those cities, towns and villages, there will often be more than one place set aside for reflection on the sacrifice of the dead. There are memorials that go unseen by casual eyes: in churches and cathedrals to dead parishoners, in town halls, post offices, schools. Here at Southfields we have our own First World War memorial, and it’s one of the more beautiful modern memorials that you’re likely to see.

A few years ago some of our younger art students were encouraged to make tiles depicting scenes and symbols of the First World War. They made brightly coloured tiles of poppies, soldiers, trenches, airplanes and pressings of barbed wire and iron. They coloured these and gave them a beautiful glossy glaze. Finally, they constructed a tableau out of the different elements, arranged around the words, ‘We Remember’. My picture really doesn’t do the bright simplicity of the arrangement justice: you can see it in the college’s reception hallway. It’s a favourite part of the school buildings.

The Southfields War Memorial, made by our own pupils.

Today the school stopped for its minute’s silence which, as usual, was observed impeccably. History classes lead up to Armistice day and our pupils are well informed about the reasons for observing the silence and respecting the dead. Remembrance Day at Southfields also takes in those affected by many of the contemporary wars that have ravaged the planet, and too many of our pupils have been forced from the lands of their birth by conflict and death. Remembrance Day is not an abstract moment of reflection for some at our school. The war memorial at the very entrance to our school seems to commemorate that.

My AS class met today and together we read about the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior (see my post yesterday), watched a film of the coffin’s passage from France to Westminster, and the discussed the last days of the war. Then we read extracts from Max Arthur’s excellent ‘Forgotten Voices’, the words of those who knew how it felt on the 11th of November 1918.

The answer is not romantic. In London celebrations ensued. Elsewhere, exhaustion and sorrow reigned supreme. As Sergeant Major Richard Tobin of the Hood Battalion testified:

The Armistice came, the day we had dreamed of. The guns stopped, the fighting stopped. Four years of noise and bangs ended in silence. The killings had stopped.

We were stunned. I had been out since 1914. I should have been happy. I was sad. I thought of the slaughter, the hardships, the waste, and the friends I had lost.

The discussion we had about these feelings was perceptive and, for me, moving. At the end of the lesson, the class and I (well, half of the class at least– the rest were on a trip) went down to visit our memorial and allow me to take a photograph. It’s not a solemn picture, and that’s as should be when your English teacher keeps messing up with his camera.

The Southfields AS English Literature class, sharing a moment. Left to Right: Solomon, Toni, Jarry, Aakanksha, Abdul and Ryan.

A good Remembrance Day.

The Unknown Warrior

London Victoria: the end of the line.

London Victoria: the end of the line. It is for me. If I want to go into London, as I occasionally do, chances are I’ll be arriving in this unlovely station, rail hub for the South of the city, nestled between Westminster Cathedral to its east and Buckingham Palace Gardens to the North. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Except Victoria was blighted by bombing during the Blitz, and many of the byways near to the station are lined by Sixties monsters, ugly buildings made of concrete and glass. The station itself is a depressing place. Always heaving with people, it’s a characterless zone of rubbishy commuter shops. My train pulls into platforms 9 or 10. Electronic barriers and concrete greet you. You’d never think history had profoundly touched this place.

Ninety years ago tonight, it did. At platform 8, at 8.32 p.m., November 10th 1920, a train pulled into the station, carrying something that would soon become immeasurably precious to those British people still mourning the dead of the First World War.

That thing was the body of an unknown British soldier. Previously, in act of elaborate symbolism, the bodies of four dead soldiers of unknown identity were exhumed from Ypres, Somme, Arras and Aisne. From these one was chosen ‘blindly’ to represent all the ‘unknown’ British soldiers– those soldiers without a name on their grave, or a grave at all. The body of this soldier, amidst much reverent ceremony, was shipped home to London. It arrived at Victoria the night before its transfer to a final resting place.

The Cenotaph, 1920. Note the coffin of the Unknown Warrior, bottom left.

The next day– the third Armistice Day– that soldier would be buried in Westminster Abbey. The coffin bearing the body was taken by carriage to Whitehall, where a new memorial to World War One, the Cenotaph, was unveiled by King George V. From there the king and the government’s ministers followed the coffin to the Abbey, where the body was buried in soil taken from the battlefields of Ypres, “where so many of [the soldier’s] comrades had lost their lives”.

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, its dedication inscribed into black Belgian marble.

The act of burying this ‘Unknown Warrior’ was profoundly moving for many in the country. Many families across the nation had lost fathers, brothers and sons in the four years of war; too many families had no grave to visit to mourn their losses. It is a horrifying Commonwealth Graves statistic (found on the excellent 1914-18 website) that of all those British and Commonwealth forces killed in the First World War, 526,816 men have no named grave. Furthermore, while these dead men are listed on WWI memorials, of that figure 338,955 men were never buried at all. Their identifiable remains were never traced. That sickening fact alone explains why the act of honouring this anonymous soldier drew tens of thousands into the streets on the 11th, and many thousands more to the grave itself in the months and years to follow. Some may have felt that it was their loved one who was buried at the entrance to the Cathedral; many more will have found consolation in the country’s deep gesture of respect for the unknown dead.

Westminster Abbey

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior was a profound moment in the mourning of many people in Britain in 1920, and it remains a focus point for remembrance today. Tomorrow, the grave of the unknown warrior will again be revisited with a wreath of poppies, signifying that the country has not forgotten the sacrifice of the body below the stones.

Tonight, as has happened every November 10th since 1920, a small ceremony was held at Platform 8, Victoria Station, London, to remember the arrival of the unknown soldier. There’s something heartening in the continuity of that ceremony, I think: progress, after all, means embracing the new, and honouring the best of the past. If you get the chance, and are someday stuck in the grim extended waiting room that is Victoria station, walk along to Platform 8 and pay your respects too.

If you want to learn more about the tomb of the unknown warrior, you can find out about it on the web. There’s an excellent page on the soldier and grave at the Imperial War Museum’s Collections; another at Home of Heroes; a good history with an amazing video of the actual passage of the body from France to London at the Westminster Abbey website; and a short account on the BBC history pages.

Poppy wars: the battle over remembrance

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.

The Soldier – Rupert Brooke

The Soldier

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

NOTES

This sonnet finds a soldier speculating as he goes away to war about his possible death, which he feels should not be mourned, but understood as part of a selfless tribute to his much-loved England.

STRUCTURE: A sonnet. The sonnet form is particularly appropriate here. Sonnets are traditionally love poems. In many renaissance poems, written by the likes of Plutarch, Thomas Wyatt or the Earl of Surrey, such poems are dedicated to an idealized lover— a lover represented as having the best qualities possible. ‘The Soldier’ is indeed a love poem, written for a much-loved and idealized England.

‘The Soldier’: the poem’s voice is that of the unnamed and so anonymous soldier. This soldier therefore seems to speak not only for himself, but for other soldiers too. This is, literally, a poem about selflessness: the idealized selflessness of the soldier who sacrifices his life for his country.

“If I should die”: the opening clause may be conditional, but Brooke here reflects the contents of many letters home from soldiers to families, filled with foreboding about possible death.

“think only this of me:”: the tone of selflessness, of refusing mourning, is contained in this command to “think only this”.

“There is some corner of a foreign field that is forever England”: an image full of pathos and patriotism. The idea of an unnamed “corner of a foreign field” where the soldier will be buried speaks of the unsung and anonymous nature of death in war. Yet the notion that this small space will “forever” be part of England elevates the sacrifice the soldier makes— as if he has in a small way conquered this land. The soft alliteration here lends these opening lines a subdued tone.

“In that rich earth a richer dust concealed”: the fertile earth of the foreign field (fertile in part because of the dead beneath) has hidden within it the soldier’s body (dust). ‘Dust’ is a common literary metaphor for the body: coming as it does from the funeral oration in the Book of Common Prayer, which speaks of the body returning to the earth, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.

“A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,”: England here is personified as a mother; first with child, then rearing her young. The link with the mother, of course, emphasises the deep intimacy and importance of England her ‘sons’.

“gave, once, her flowers to love… to roam”: England’s abundance and pastoral beauty is emphasised here as a kind gift. Giving is an important and recurrent metaphor for Brooke when writing about soldiers sacrifice— a way of giving meaning to death by placing it in the context of a kind of social exchange.

“A body of England’s”: the soldier’s body actually belongs in a fundamental way to England; it is hers. This sense of intimate connection— of actually joining with England— is key to this poem.

“breathing English air…washed…blest…home: England is again mentioned— six times in this poem in total. By sheer repetition of the name, this poem gains patriotic intensity. Here the pleasant experience of everyday life is described as an English experience. The final mention of “home” in the octet brings us back to the tragic scene described in the first line.

“And think”: the sextet is more speculative, about life after death, about the soul rather than the body; this call to the reader to “think”, or imagine, is appropriate.

“this heart…eternal mind”: the heart here stands in for the soul; we are asked to imagine this soul after death, when “all evil” or sin has been cast off, and has become part of God himself. The soul is now “a pulse” in the mind of the greater being.

“this heart… no less / Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given”: This line refers back to the octet, where England made the soldier and his thoughts; now we are asked to imagine that equally (“no less”) the soul of the soldier gives all its accumulated thoughts of a lifetime in England to God.

“Her sights and sounds… laughter, learnt of friends;”: the soldier lists all the wonderful experiences that the soldier has gained from England. These pleasant thoughts and memories will be given back to God as the soldier becomes one with Him.

“and gentleness, in hearts at peace / Under an English heaven”: the poem ends with a startling proposition— the soldier finds rest and peace at last in heaven, but heaven has been transformed by the thoughts and memories that the soldier has given to God. This heaven is now “an English heaven”: the connection with England will remain forever unbroken. The sonnet’s turn from an idyllic or idealized vision of England to the idea of a transcendent and literally heavenly England is complete.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This is a sophisticated patriotic response to the First World War that can be contrasted with the more xenophobic and crude patriotism of poets like Jessie Pope and Rudyard Kipling— or at least Kipling’s early responses to the war. Brooke’s characteristic blend of intellectual and emotional power is in evidence, though some may find the poem troubling: the notion of an English heaven suggests, after all, that there is something special about England, in no less eyes than those of God. Can there be, in such a time of war, such a thing as a German heaven?

Brooke is certainly aware of the dangers of projecting our own ideas and prejudices onto heaven. His amusing 1913 poem ‘Heaven’, about fish heaven, makes that clear: “of all their wish,” he declares, “There shall be no more land, say fish.” Yet he seems to rely on the force of his patriotic imagination to make an ‘English heaven’ plausible. Can we- should we- take this English heaven seriously?]

The Dead – Rupert Brooke

The Dead

Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!
There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old,
But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.
These laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene,
That men call age; and those who would have been,
Their sons, they gave, their immortality.

Blow, bugles, blow! They brought us, for our dearth,
Holiness, lacked so long, and Love, and Pain.
Honour has come back, as a king, to earth,
And paid his subjects with a royal wage;
And Nobleness walks in our ways again;
And we have come into our heritage.

NOTES

This sonnet is a tribute to those British soldiers who died serving their country in the First World War. Brooke declares that the dead men have made the deepest sacrifice possible; but in return they have ennobled themselves and brought honour back to Britain.

STRUCTURE: A sonnet. This is a Plutarchan sonnet: note the ABBA CDDC pattern in the octet. Also note the difference in the sextet to Peace (p.162).

‘The Dead’: this poem expresses a sense of deep reverence for the sacrifice of those who have died in the war.

“Blow out, you bugles”: a bugle is a simple trumpet used in military funerals— in the British Empire, ‘The Last Post’ was played over the bodies of the dead. Note the assonance, here, that runs throughout the poem– perhaps here reminiscent of the bugles themselves.

“rich Dead!”: the highly valued dead are repeatedly referred to through metaphors of earned wealth. The opening line is a passionate call to memorialize the dead soldiers.

“None of these so lonely and poor… made us rarer gifts than gold”: Even the poorest man has, by dying for his country, given a gift more precious than gold. This paradox continues the metaphorical equation of death at war to the passing on of wealth— freely given to the people of Britain (note Brooke writes of “us”; he speaks for the nation). The line also recalls Shakespeare’s Henry V: “For he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, / This day shall gentle his condition” (Act IV, scene iii). The sacrifice of death gives nobility to the poorest.

“These laid the world away”: the world is willingly laid aside.

“poured out the red / Sweet wine of youth”: in death, youth is used up, like wine decanted from a glass.

“gave up the years to be…”: the dead men’s sacrifice is vividly drawn out by Brooke as he speculatively imagines their years of “work and joy” lost; as is their “serene” time, or peaceful time, of old age. He even conjectures that the men have given up their “immortality” by not having “sons”, whom also “they gave”.

“Blow, bugles, blow!”: the repetition at the beginning of the sextet emphasises the message of remembrance that the poem insists upon.

“They brought us…Holiness…Love and Pain…”: Brooke again insists that, to a place of “dearth”— ‘lack’ or famine— the soldiers bring back the personified characters of Holiness, Love and Pain. The soldiers in fact redeem the fallen world, like Christ.

“Honour has come back, as king, to earth”: the personification continues, here with Christ-like connotations: also a suggestion of the medieval myth of ‘the return of the king’— which brings restoration and new life to the land.

“…paid his subjects with a royal wage”: the metaphor of wealth given or paid to others continues. The soldier’s personal sacrifice and ‘gift’ has now become a greater gift to a nation, personified in the figure of the king, Honour, ruling over the land.

“Nobleness walks in our ways again”: The sextet, with its evocation of knightly chivalry, develops the Shakespearian notion of new-found nobility and a ‘gentled condition’ ruling over the land, after the willing sacrifice of men’s lives. If the Octet is concerned with the soldier’s loss, the sextet is concerned with what others have gained by their death.

“we have come into our heritage”: the people of Britain have inherited a different and ennobled country, full of virtue— thanks to the soldier’s sacrifice. This closing image collapses together the two metaphorical strands in the poem— of wealth and nobility— in the suggestion of children receiving their inheritance or land from their dead father.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This second of Brooke’s sonnets is his attempt at an exceedingly common type of war poem— the memorial poem, or poem of remembrance. It can be compared to Brooke’s other great poem of remembrance, ‘The Soldier’ (p.163); also, to the sentiments expressed in other poems like McRae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’ (p.165), Thomas’ ‘In Memoriam’ (p.179) and Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ (p.188).]