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'.