Sunday, 7 November 2010

John McCrae: 'In Flanders Fields'

No better time to discuss John McCrae's 'In Flanders Fields' than Remembrance Week, when the poem, or at least a generous excerpt, will be quoted at countless public events across the English-speaking world.

Rarely has the question been asked: how appropriate is the poem to an occasion of remembrance? Or to put it another way, what else might we be submitting to when we submit to this poem? Lest this seem like a finicky concern in the context of overwhelming grief, one fact must be spelt out: in political terms, McCrae could not be more distanced from Owen and Sassoon, whose work 'In Flanders Fields' is often read alongside. And in McCrae's case, the politics shape the poetry; without the politics, there is no poetry. We may not feel obliged to take sides, but an appreciation of these poems must acknowledge that sides have been taken.

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.

'In Flanders Fields' is often read without its final stanza in an attempt to shear away the awkward surprise: that this is a recruitment poem. The best parallel may be with the reception of Psalm 137, 'By the waters of Babylon', in which every effort is made to forget that it ends with an infanticidal revenge fantasy: 'Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.'

Sassoon believed, and persuaded Owen, that the War had been prolonged well past its natural course, and had become a war of punishment and conquest. McCrae's poem calls for the War to be prolonged: the dead would not be able to rest if the cause for which they died were betrayed by peace terms. McCrae and Sassoon represented two extremes of a spectrum of opinion among the fighting men: that Germany and her allies should be crushed; and that peace should be negotiated at the earliest opportunity.

My own difficulty with McCrae's poem is caused not by his politics but by the way that that he pressgangs the dead to make his case. 'We are the Dead', his second stanza begins, and the poem puts into their mouths McCrae's own views on the War. The dead are obliged to speak with a unified voice (which is, of course, more than they managed while alive), through which they insist that the living should go on sacrificing themselves in order to keep faith. This is brilliant propaganda: no one would dare argue with those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. 'In Flanders Fields' attempts an outrageous act of appropriation, which insults the very men whom the poem is meant to honour.

Update: Thanks to Ed Leimbacher, who directs me to this site. It publishes more of McCrae's poems, including 'The Anxious Dead', which seeks to allay the fears expressed by 'In Flanders Fields'. The guns will tell the dead that the living have heard their call and 'will not turn aside... till we win or fall'.


  1. I don't fundamentally disagree about the poem, but it was written in 1915, and I'm not sure the war could actually have been successfully concluded as early as that.

    Re pressganging the dead, I agree that's a problem, but again there's particular circumstance. He's writing it for the burial service of one particular dead man, his friend Lt Helmer, at which he's going to speak the next day. It's possible he did know how this dead man felt and would have expressed himself. Where he then goes astray, I think, is in letting Helmer become a mouthpiece for all the rest - as you say, making them speak with a unified voice.
    It's interesting that the first editor he sent it to rejected it. I think it's that central image of the red fields that keeps it alive - also the fact that many people don't really listen to the message in the third verse. I think they tend to drift off after verse 1 and return for the last 2 lines - which can then be misinterpreted; I did just that for years and thought the end of the poem was saying "even though flowers grow on our graves, we are not dead" ("we shall not sleep" meaning "we're still here in spirit"). That isn't what he meant at all, but that's what the more soporific kind of rondeau tends to do to the attention span...

  2. Bias, recruitment, propaganda--the charges are readily made. But technically the poem is a wonder. No word longer than two syllables; easy chiming sounds (the repeated open -iii's and -ohh's); the sing-song, rondeau-ish rhythm with slight repetition. A beautiful, descriptive opening stanza (though the larks can scarcely be heard) followed by a stark and poignant second.

    But these are restless Dead. Pushing the envelope perversely, one might suggest a few small doubts: "and now we lie" followed by a comma; does that hint at "prevaricate"? If already buried beneath those crosses, how can hands still be "failing" or the speaker(s) be "us who die." It might be instructive to mount an argument that these restless souls are not as confident as they seem at first... "What did we die for, really? It's up to you who live to vindicate our death."

  3. The trope of the dead urging other soldiers to keep fighting became quite common in fiction in the dispiriting later years of the War. For example Ronald Gurner's "Guardianship" (Windsor Magazine, July 1918) features the ghost of a 1914 soldier ("‘E was a good plucked ’un, sir. I can see ’im now.")appearing, to boost the morale of troops who are losing their motivation.
    McCrae's poem is a very early use of this trope. I wonder whether that is part of the reason why it had such an impact?

  4. In "Disarmament," so early as 1899, McCrae had the dead saying it would be a bad idea.

  5. I like the phrase "pressgangs the dead". It reminds me of Brecht's "Legende vom toten Soldaten', where the Kaiser orders a dead soldier, resurructed and dressed as a hero, to be paraded through the streets as an inspiration to spectators. And a poem by Marc Larreguy de Civrieux in the anthology Les Po├Ętes contre la guerre. It's called "Debout les Morts!"--a favoured expression amongst French jingoists--and the speaker pleads on behalf of the dead that, having done their patriotic duty, they should be now just be left in peace. I must admit I hadn't thought of MacCrae's poem in those terms, but it does fit (though of course, unlike these two, it is not a poem of protest).

  6. In War Graveyards

    In war graveyards the flowers show
    Against the headstones row on row
    That mark our place. And in the sky
    The birds, still blithely singing, fly
    Scarce heard by those who grieve below.

    We are the Dead. From long ago
    and to today our tally grows
    We loved, were loved, and now we lie
    In so many fields.

    We made our quarrel with the foe
    To put an end to grief and woe
    And for loved ones who vainly wait
    And so that love might outlive hate.
    And every soldier whose breath has passed
    Wishes that he were the last.

  7. If the thing for which one is fighting is of such great value - that is, our **Freedom**- then surely it is admirable to encourage others to take up that same quarrel with 'the foe' (those who threaten to take our freedom), and to 'catch the torch' (and this is the 'torch of freedom', as held in the hand of the statue of Liberty):

    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 this light, we have most certainly failed our forefathers who thought it worthy to fight for our Freedom, because these days we have less freedom than ever- we live in the digital age of high tech and surveillance, cleverly marketed as giving us freedom.

    In this light, our forefathers will not be resting because we have already failed them. The last bastions of freedom reside in our rights to grow our own food in our gardens, and the younger generation is already hopeless at that. Warfare is not just fought only in guns and uniforms but is also fought economically and ideologically. So therefore taking up the quarrel with the foe ought not to be such a statement of propaganda, but should be in fact a very sensible thing to do. Failure to take up the quarrel is the road to tyrrany.

  8. If one only looks at Lt. Col John McCrae's poem without having personally experienced what he did as a soldier and a doctor in the Great War, it would be easy to interpret what he wrote as simply someone whose words in this poem press ganged the dead. I disagree. Working in the trenches as a soldier and a medic near the battlefield during this war must have been utterly horrific, let alone watching young lives destroyed in front of you when nothing under such abhorrent conditions could be done to save them. The term 'Shell Shock' has finally been recognized properly today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; ostensibly, and arguably, something McCrae et al. were suffering from at the time. Think about it: we can sit back and attempt to analyze these things from our comfy seats of freedom, but during that time, most of the allied populace were working together for the common good against a terrible foe in a war that was supposed to be over in a matter of a few months, not four years. Things must have looked devastatingly bleak; seeing so much death and destruction with the loss of friends and comrades on a daily basis would have made one terrified that the lives lost and the huge toil taken would all be for nought, and that the enemy would win. A call to arms was perhaps in order after what those brave men endured and were attempting to secure for us all - love of God, love of country, love of fellow man - something most of us have zero first-hand knowledge about, let alone watching men blown apart before our very eyes - completely mind-boggling. I would argue that because of those war-time traumatic experiences, McCrae and other soldiers might have already aligned themselves with the dead - hence as stated by the collective "We are the Dead" - not only in spirit, but with the constant thought their own mortality could very well be imminent. One also cannot forget that the subtext of the last verse has also been interpreted by many as the simple act of remembrance, especially those from this war (where even those who survived and returned home were forgotten during their lifetime), a battle that many of us are still waging as we try to pass on the 'torch of remembrance' to future generations when it comes to the ultimate sacrifices made for our freedom...