Monday, May 30, 2011

In Flanders Fields by John McCrae

Today, one of the best-known war poems of all time. It's also the best-known rondeau in the English language. And although it is Memorial Day in the United States today and this post bears the image of an American flag, this poem was written by a Canadian poet.


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.


Discussion of the poem:

As already mentioned, it's a rondeau. The "chorus" line of the poem is, in this case, derived from the first three words of the poem: "In Flanders fields". Apart from that line, the poem is written in iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet per line, taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM), with end-rhyme options of "I" or "O". The first stanza has five lines, the second four, and the last stanza has six lines. The rhyme scheme is: AABBA AABX AABBAX (with X representing the shorter refrain "In Flanders fields", which is not rhymed to any other line).

This is one of the most famous of the War Poems from the First World War. It is frequently misprinted (including at The Academy of American Poets) using "grow" in the first line, but "blow" is actually correct. Flanders is, for those who aren't aware, an older name for the Flemish or Dutch-speaking portion of what is now called Belgium.

About John McCrae: McCrae was a Canadian who trained as a doctor. He trained two of the first female doctors in Canada prior to enlisting in the military. He served in battle, and was none-too-happy when he was diverted from the field and sent to organize a medical unit. In fact, he is quoted as having said, "[A]ll the goddamn doctors in the world will not win this bloody war: what we need is more and more fighting men." His poem, "In Flanders Field", became internationally famous during his lifetime, and he regarded its success with detached amusement, although he was pleased that it was used to remind young men "where their duty lay". The first stanza of the poem is on the reverse side of the Canadian $10 bill. Because so many folks substitute "grow" for "blow" in the first line (in error), rumors abounded that the Bank of Canada got it wrong and was recalling the $10 bills. As Snopes.com pointed out, the first stanza of the poem is, in fact, correct, and any rumors of a recall are false.

McCrae died of pneumonia while working at a war hospital in Boulogne, and is buried in France. Below is an image of the poem in his own writing after it was published in Punch in 1915. (McCrae initially threw it out, but a fellow soldier named Edward Morrison salvaged it and submit it to Punch magazine. It initially appeared anonymously, but was rapidly identified as McCrae's work.)



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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The man reputed to have sent the poem to be published was Edward Whipple Bancroft Morrison, later Sir, a journalist in civilian life and longtime friend and fellow officer to McCrae. Born in London Ontario.