In Flanders Fields

This famous poem is perhaps too familiar to us. I’d like to offer a literary analysis of some of the ideas in this poem that may not be perfectly obvious on the surface.

Firstly, notice the poppies. Poppies are a symbol of forgetfulness. Opium is made from poppies, and opium is the drug of forgetfulness. Twice this poem mentions poppies, once at the beginning and once at the end. In the first instance, it is as if creation intends to forget the dead. In the last instance, it is the dead who will NOT forget, even though the forgetfulness of the drugged sleep of death seeks to overcome their awareness. Notice the neat chiasm of the first and last lines, forming a bracket around the middle: Flanders fields-poppies…poppies Flanders fields. Notice also the careful distinction between “blow” in the first line and “grow” in the second to last line. Forgetfulness only stirs at first, but it grows over time. This would be to “break faith.” Breaking faith means either forgetting and taking for granted what was won by the dead, or it means failing to protect in the future the liberty won in the past, or both.

Secondly, notice the larks. Larks are a symbol of laissez-faire attitudes. They may be “bravely singing” (“bravely” here does not have a positive connotation, in my opinion), and yet the noise of war drowns them out. Such attitudes about war are unseemly.

Thirdly, notice that John McCrae actually gave the dead a voice here: “our place…We are the dead.” This is a remarkable literary device. The dead speak, though they die. It is another indication that the dead are not unaware of what happens in the world. The dead are watching…and judging the living.

Fourthly, notice the torch, always the symbol of liberty. This symbol passes from the dead to the living. The call on the living is to protect it and fight for it, as the dead have in the past. “To hold it high” also implies using liberty for that for which it was intended.

In Flanders Fields, by John McCrae

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.

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24 Comments

  1. May 30, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    Lane,

    With respect, you’re way off base on this one, Lane. This moving poem challenges the living to finish the mission for those who’ve paid for freedom with their last full measure of devotion. Flanders field holds casualties from the Second Battle of Ypres (amongst others) where some 69,000 allied troops died. This battle saw the first large-scale use of chemical weapons, producing hideous casualties. You can read the history of the poem and it real symbology at this Canadian site and this Australian one, and a summary of the battle here.

    For a number of recent years, I attended the annual Rememberance Day ceremony at the Canadian Embassy here in DC. I found it far more moving than most US Veteran’s Day ceremonies. The British, French, Canadians, and Australians suffered horrendous casualties in that war. On Flanders Field reflects the angst of one man who spoke for multitudes that day and down through history. McCrea himself died in 1918, a casualty of the same war. His words speak clearly to those of us who serve and have served the cause of freedom down through the years since, especially as we remember friends and/or family who gave their last full measure of devotion to preserve our freedom.

  2. greenbaggins said,

    May 30, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    Bob, I wasn’t aware that my interpretation of the literary images in this poem led in any other direction than what you’re suggesting. My point had to do with the literary allusions, and how that helps McCrae make his point, the very point you’re suggesting. I am merely trying to expound how he makes that point. I am well aware of the poem’s historical background in WW1, and was actually trying to build on that background to help expound what the poem meant, and what the poem now means.

  3. May 30, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    Got to go with Bob on this one, Lane. Are you sure you’re not over-egging the pudding, here?

  4. greenbaggins said,

    May 30, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    Well, in the links, the imagery of the poppies do seem to be going the other direction, I must admit. I am willing to be corrected on that one. However, on the other stuff I have said, I didn’t read anything that would contradict my reading of it. And even on the poppies, why couldn’t we read it that way today? Poetry is meant to point in many directions. Plus, (with the exception of the poppies), everything I have said is perfectly compatible with the historical background.

  5. May 30, 2011 at 9:01 pm

    Lane,

    Understand your comments, but I’m still in the over-egging-the-pudding camp. Maybe we can discuss further next week over brewskis. I’ll buy because I’m right. :-)

    Bob

  6. May 31, 2011 at 12:17 am

    No, no, Bob! HE should buy because you’re right…

  7. greenbaggins said,

    May 31, 2011 at 10:49 am

    I’m looking forward to that, Bob. :-)

  8. jedpaschall said,

    May 31, 2011 at 11:40 am

    Lane,

    Thanks for drawing attention to this poem. The time around WWI was a rich time for poetry. Sadly we lack the same love for poems in our day. A few years ago I picked up a great collection of poems by soldiers killed in action in France and Flanders in WWI edited by Anne Powell titled A Deep Cry. The book includes the soldiers poetry, the events surrounding their deaths, and some brief biographical information. It’s an impressive work at around 470 pages, so it takes some time to work through, but it is well worth the time spent for anyone who wants to pick it up.

  9. David Gray said,

    May 31, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    In Memoriam
    Private D. Sutherland Killed in Action in the German Trench,
    May 16th 1916, and the Others who Died.

    So you were David’s father,
    And he was your only son,
    And the new-cut peats are rotting
    And the work is left undone,
    Because of an old man weeping,
    Just an old man in pain,
    For David, his son David,
    That will not come again.

    Oh, the letters he wrote you,
    And I can see them still,
    Not a word of the fighting
    But just the sheep on the hill
    And how you should get the crops in
    Ere the year got stormier,
    And the Bosches have got his body,
    And I was his officer.

    You were only David’s father,
    But I had fifty sons
    When we went up in the evening
    Under the arch of the guns,
    And we came back at twilight –
    O God! I heard them call
    To me for help and pity
    That could not help at all.

    Oh, never will I forget you,
    My men that trusted me,
    More my sons than your fathers’,
    For they could only see
    The little helpless babies
    And the young men in their pride.
    They could not see you dying,
    And hold you while you died.

    Happy and young and gallant,
    They saw their first-born go,
    But not the strong limbs broken
    And the beautiful men brought low,
    The piteous writhing bodies,
    They screamed, “Don’t leave me, Sir,”
    For they were only your fathers
    But I was your officer.

    Ewart Alan Mackintosh (1893-1917)

  10. Richard said,

    May 31, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    My favourite poem on this theme is the following by Wilfred Owen.

    Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
    Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
    Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
    And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
    Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
    But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
    Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
    Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

    Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
    Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
    But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
    And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
    Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
    As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

    In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
    He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

    If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
    Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
    And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
    His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
    If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
    Pro patria mori
    .

  11. May 31, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    DG – That is an excellent choice.

    Lane – I’m scoping out the craft beer locations. There look like some good choices in the area. I’m driving down so we’ll have my car if needed.

    Bob

  12. Cris Dickason said,

    June 1, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    Thanks all for those items. Here are a couple of reflections from “folk music.”

    Singer, multi-instrumentalist John McCutcheon tells a story/song relating how on Christmas Eve troops lined up in opposing trenches called a truce and played a game of soccer and exchanged pleasantries and snacks in no man’s land between the lines. Starts out with the recognition that the Germans were singing Silent Night (Stille Nacht). Moving even if not historical fact.

    And another quite moving song re WW1 is Eric Bogle’s “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” The song is structured as reflections of an Aussie at Battle of Gallipoli. An outdoorsman suffers loss of legs in the war and reflects on those who glorify, romanticize war. It ends:
    For I’ll go no more waltzing Matilda, all around the green bush far and free
    To hump tent and pegs, a man needs both legs
    No More waltzing Matilda for me.

    I’ve always heard the June Tabor cover on Philly folk radio.

    These reflections make me feel the pacifist pull (I do have Quaker ancestors). I’m predisposed to be a flag-waving, Red-White-and-Blue Neck. I’m grateful that Gospel and Confession teach me to value Christ’s Church (which is his kingdom) above country and patriotism.

    -=Cris=-

  13. Jed Paschall said,

    June 1, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    FWIW, as I read through A Deep Cry the descent from patriotic optimism in the poems as the war began to solemnity and even despair as the war progressed was palpable in the book. The poems highlighted the disillusionment of war, that it hadn’t delivered what was promised – glory for oneself and one’s country, but it had delivered death and too many bright young lives ended before their time. You see many of these ideas of the disillusion of war reflected in T.S. Eliot’s later poem The Hollow Men, written in 1925. Many of the poets in this collection were educated at the likes of Cambridge and Oxford. In a sense the brightest and best of a generation were lost. I found the poems to be as sobering and inspiring of an account of war as say the WW2 histories of Stephen Ambrose.

  14. Cris Dickason said,

    June 1, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    Jed: despite being a history major for most of my BA days, and an avid WW2 Aviation and Submarines buff (my Dad served on a sub in the Pacific in WW2), it was reading about J.R.R. Tolkien that really brought home the tragedy, waste, and evil of war. Not his fiction, but one biography in particular very effectively set Tolkien in that context. Indeed a whole generation of men died in WW1 (both allied & axis of course). The scale of destruction in WW1 and the vindictiveness in victory of the allies practically ensured the 2nd WW.

    I’ll have to read Eliot’s The Hollow Men.

    -=Cris=-

  15. Jed Paschall said,

    June 1, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    Cris,

    I can’t agree with you more on Tolkien. His own experiences in WW1 seem to echo in nearly all of his writings. I really pick this up in the Silmarilion and in his posthumously produced book of personal letters. He does highlight the acts of bravery and personal valor, and deep bonds that can be forged in battle, but it is surrounded by the sorrow, horror, and tragedy of war. Good thoughts.

  16. Jed Paschall said,

    June 1, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    Cris,

    Here’s the text for TS Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”

    The Hollow Men

    Mistah Kurtz—he dead.

    A penny for the Old Guy

    I

    We are the hollow men
    We are the stuffed men
    Leaning together
    Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
    Our dried voices, when
    We whisper together
    Are quiet and meaningless
    As wind in dry grass
    Or rats’ feet over broken glass
    In our dry cellar

    Shape without form, shade without colour,
    Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

    Those who have crossed
    With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
    Remember us—if at all—not as lost
    Violent souls, but only
    As the hollow men
    The stuffed men.

    II

    Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
    In death’s dream kingdom
    These do not appear:
    There, the eyes are
    Sunlight on a broken column
    There, is a tree swinging
    And voices are
    In the wind’s singing
    More distant and more solemn
    Than a fading star.

    Let me be no nearer
    In death’s dream kingdom
    Let me also wear
    Such deliberate disguises
    Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
    In a field
    Behaving as the wind behaves
    No nearer—

    Not that final meeting
    In the twilight kingdom

    III

    This is the dead land
    This is cactus land
    Here the stone images
    Are raised, here they receive
    The supplication of a dead man’s hand
    Under the twinkle of a fading star.

    Is it like this
    In death’s other kingdom
    Waking alone
    At the hour when we are
    Trembling with tenderness
    Lips that would kiss
    Form prayers to broken stone.

    IV

    The eyes are not here
    There are no eyes here
    In this valley of dying stars
    In this hollow valley
    This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

    In this last of meeting places
    We grope together
    And avoid speech
    Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

    Sightless, unless
    The eyes reappear
    As the perpetual star
    Multifoliate rose
    Of death’s twilight kingdom
    The hope only
    Of empty men.

    V

    Here we go round the prickly pear
    Prickly pear prickly pear
    Here we go round the prickly pear
    At five o’clock in the morning.

    Between the idea
    And the reality
    Between the motion
    And the act
    Falls the Shadow
    For Thine is the Kingdom

    Between the conception
    And the creation
    Between the emotion
    And the response
    Falls the Shadow
    Life is very long

    Between the desire
    And the spasm
    Between the potency
    And the existence
    Between the essence
    And the descent
    Falls the Shadow
    For Thine is the Kingdom

    For Thine is
    Life is
    For Thine is the

    This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    Not with a bang but a whimper.

  17. Richard said,

    June 2, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    I love that TS Eliot poem, I came across it reading Samuel Balentine’s The Torah’s Vision of Worship.

  18. Cris D. said,

    June 2, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    Again, thanks Jed! Pondering from the Columbia, SC airport. Where Doolittle & his raiders once trained in their B-25s

  19. ray kikkert said,

    June 2, 2011 at 10:11 pm

    “Lane,

    Understand your comments, but I’m still in the over-egging-the-pudding camp. Maybe we can discuss further next week over brewskis. I’ll buy because I’m right. :-)

    Bob”

    LOL … Bob doesn’t write much …but when he does …it is good down to earth sense.

    Might I suggest a worthy brew… Scotland’s finest … Innis & Gunn – Original … and unlike Advil … one is often not enough.

  20. Darrell Todd Maurina said,

    June 2, 2011 at 10:28 pm

    A caution — I think many of us can concur that there is tremendous waste and evil in war, even just wars according to biblical standards.

    However, we can never allow the reality of the evils of war to blind us to the fact that there **ARE** things worth going to war over.

    An officer I know here at Fort Leonard Wood (he happens to be a rare Southerner who isn’t very religious) made a point of telling me a few weeks ago that soldiers won’t fight for their country, won’t fight for God, and won’t fight for ideology, but they will fight for their buddies. I won’t deny that there’s a lot of truth to his comments, and in small unit operations, since motivation is so critical, he realizes the importance of motivating people by whatever will cause them to fight, no matter what it is.

    The problem is that the primary enemy we’re fighting today — Islamofascists — most emphatically **IS** willing to fight for their idea of God. If they win, they get glory and can set up another Islamic emirate in one more nation. If they lose, they get 72 virgins.

    That willingness to die for God defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan — just the most recent of many nations which have fallen to the power of the Crescent. If we don’t think it poses a risk to the Western world, we simply fail to understand how dangerous Islam really is.

  21. June 3, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    ray,

    Thanks for your kind words. Been too busy for quite a while to write much. I appreciate your recommendation and see what I can find in Va Beach.

    Bob

  22. June 3, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    DTM, RE #20,

    There absolutely are things for which we must fight. The current fight against radical Islamists seeking to enslave us and wipe Christianity and freedom from the globe definitely falls in that category.

    G. K. Chesterton once said that, “The true Soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because He loves what is behind him.” So it is in the case of our current war against radical Islamists.

    The point of Rememberance Day is that freedom isn’t free, and that we owe a great debt to those who pay that price for us. But, it’s a messy business and one which we should not take lightly. The trick is to soberly and carefully balance that equation.

    Bob

  23. Jerry said,

    June 3, 2011 at 9:04 pm

    Cris D,

    Almost of of Doolittle & his pilot’s training occured at Eglin Airforce Base in the Florida panhandle. There were many surrounding airfields but that is where the training took place.

    It is well documented. Way too much documentation to deny otherwise.

    Doolittle’s Raiders have held a reunion there for years

  24. June 6, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    [...] so difficult. We can’t just ask, “What does it mean to me?” Here’s a post on how “In Flanders Fields” might be interpreted. It serves as a helpful model as to [...]


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