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.