By Dr Oliver Tearle
Although the association between fields of poppies and commemorating the war dead predates the First World War, the war-poppies connection was certainly popularised by WWI and in particular by this John McCrae poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’. John McCrae (1872-1918), a Canadian lieutenant colonel, was inspired to write it after he conducted the burial service for an artillery officer, Alexis Helmer, who had been killed in the conflict. In the chaplain’s absence, McCrae, as the company doctor, presided over the burial of the young man.
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.
McCrae was inspired to write the poem on 3 May 1915, following Helmer’s funeral. In summary, the poem observes how poppies blow in the fields where the fallen soldiers (including Helmer) are buried. The sound of the guns firing on the western front has almost drowned out the natural birdsong in the skies above – almost, but not entirely, it’s worth noting. There is yet hope. But not for the men who have died, who until so recently lived and loved.
But the poem does not call war futile (as Wilfred Owen, in his poem ‘Futility’, would, later in the War): the final stanza calls for those who are living to take the baton (or, to use McCrae’s symbol, the torch) and continue the fight against the enemy. If the living do not finish the fight begun by those who gave their lives, the dead will not be able to rest in their graves (this makes McCrae’s poem like a modern revenge tragedy, where the ghost of the wronged dead returns and announces that he cannot be at peace until his death is avenged – see Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for instance). The poem begins with the three words that make its title, and ends with the same three words: ‘In Flanders fields’.
On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro’ the field the road runs by
To many-tower’d Camelot.
The two poems share a similar rhythm, references to sky and fields, and similar rhyme words. Coincidence, perhaps. But it’s suggestive to think that McCrae was perhaps recalling Tennyson’s rural paradise in his own poem; in Tennyson’s poem, too, paradise will soon be lost.
On the issue of rhyme, it’s notable that McCrae’s poem utilises just two different rhyme sounds: the ‘I’ sounds of sky/fly/lie/high/die and the ‘O’ sounds of blow/row/below/ago/glow/foe/throw/grow. And, of course, ‘fields’, in that repeated refrain, ‘In Flanders fields’. This makes the poem almost chantlike, and lends conviction to its final stanza in particular.
The phrase ‘We are the Dead’ from the beginning of the second stanza may have inspired the phrase which Winston and Julia use in George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four. But even before WWI was over, the mood had darkened, with later war poets analysing the horrors of war more closely, with ‘warts and all’. Wilfred Owen could not share McCrae’s faith that the war was worth persevering with. Death led simply to more death. McCrae, like Owen, would not survive to see the Armistice: he died of pneumonia in January 1918.
The finest affordable anthology of war poetry is Poetry of the First World War An Anthology (Oxford World’s Classics). It’s well worth investing in, especially as it costs no more than lunch usually does.
For more nature poetry with a darker side, see our analysis of Blake’s poem of corruption and ‘crimson joy’, ‘The Sick Rose’. Alternatively, check out our top tips for writing a good English Literature essay. For more war poetry, see our analysis of Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and Rosenberg’s ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’. If you’re studying poetry, we recommend checking out these five books for the student of poetry.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: John McCrae in c. 1914, by William Notman and Son; Wikimedia Commons.