Poem of the Day: ‘In Flanders Fields’

This work by John McCrae, in its small way, has an effect as great as any poem. It touched people, and gave them a symbol. Much greater poets have achieved much less.

Ad Meskens via Wikimedia Commons CC4.0
Poppies growing in Flanders fields. Ad Meskens via Wikimedia Commons CC4.0

The British wear poppies on Armistice Day because a Canadian doctor wrote a poem that mentions poppies. It’s a small thing, that poppy-wearing, when compared to the horror of World War I, with the trenches and the mustard gas and the murderous machine guns. But in its small way, “In Flanders Fields” has an effect as great as any poem. It touched people, and gave them a symbol. Much greater poets have achieved much less.

John McCrae (1872–1918) was a distinguished doctor from Ontario who had fought in the Boer War. When World War I began, he reenlisted. After the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, he tended the wounded in a sleep-stripped, horror-laden 17-day marathon that left him nearly ruined — and prompted the best-known poem of the war, written after a friend could not be saved and published in the magazine Punch in 1917. He died in 1918 of a pneumonia his exhaustion would not let him fight off. A minor posthumous collection of his poems appeared after his death.

Written in rhymed tetrameter stanzas of varying length, “In Flanders Field” gains from its lack of high artfulness — in its initial popularity, certainly, but also in our reading now, more than a hundred years later. The two-foot title line, which is the coda to two of the stanzas, is memorable and spare: the right last line to our week of World War I poetry here in The New York Sun.

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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With “Poem of the Day,” The New York Sun offers a daily portion of verse selected by Joseph Bottum with the help of the North Carolina poet Sally Thomas, the Sun’s associate poetry editor. Tied to the day, or the season, or just individual taste, the poems are drawn from the deep traditions of English verse: the great work of the past and the living poets who keep those traditions alive. The goal is always to show that poetry can still serve as a delight to the ear, an instruction to the mind, and a tonic for the soul.


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