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In Flanders Fields by John McCrae

How on earth to follow a poem like The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe, particularly after providing you with performances by Christopher Walken and Vincent Price? Well, certainly not with something in the same vein. Rather than focusing on the words or themes of the poem, I decided to focus on a little something in its form: the repetition of a shorter ending line in all the stanzas, all of which end with the word "more", the most famous iteration being, of course, "nevermore."

And so it was that I got to thinking about a form called the rondeau, which involves a short, chorus-like line from time to time. And that is how I came to share with you the best-known rondeau in the English language:

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 mentioned at the start of the poem, 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 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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Comments

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
docstymie
Apr. 21st, 2009 11:27 am (UTC)
also an appropriate choice for Holocaust Remembrance Day.
What a wonderful poem.
kellyrfineman
Apr. 21st, 2009 12:53 pm (UTC)
I'd forgotten it was Yom Ha'Shoah until you said something. I adore this poem. Oddly, though, when one tries to find other examples of rondeaux (the plural), it's nearly impossible, since this one so eclipses the field.
jenny_moss
Apr. 21st, 2009 12:19 pm (UTC)
"We are the Dead. Short days ago / We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow." So simple, but not, and beautiful.

I wonder if he died of influenza-induced pneumonia?
kellyrfineman
Apr. 21st, 2009 12:56 pm (UTC)
This page from Veteran's Affairs in Canada says that he'd suffered from bronchitis, and that he died of "pneumonia and meningitis", so while I can't say for certain, it sounds as if it was bacterial, not viral.

The story about his horse leading his funeral procession, with McCrae's boots in the stirrups facing backwards, makes me teary-eyed.
(Anonymous)
Apr. 21st, 2009 03:42 pm (UTC)
Tanita Says :)
I read this so often it's half-memorized. It's mesmerizing -- and it has to do with both the simplicity of the words and the complexity of the emotions. The dead are so much closer here, in the UK; no church seems complete without a massive war memorial, and there are graveyards, graveyards, graveyards.

Thank God someone rescued this one, it's one of my favorites.
kellyrfineman
Apr. 21st, 2009 03:56 pm (UTC)
Re: Tanita Says :)
This webpage tells the story of how the poem came to be very nicely, with a quote from McCrae's young comrade, Cyril Allinson, who says that the poem depicted exactly the scene they were looking at.
angeladegroot
Apr. 21st, 2009 06:18 pm (UTC)
So sad and so beautiful.
kellyrfineman
Apr. 21st, 2009 09:41 pm (UTC)
After it became popular, McCrae said he was pleased, because it would remind young men to do their duty.
jamarattigan
Apr. 21st, 2009 10:27 pm (UTC)
I remember hearing this poem for the first time in grade school. Certain things just stay with you forever. Loved seeing McCrae's handwriting.
kellyrfineman
Apr. 22nd, 2009 01:08 am (UTC)
I was pleased to find his handwriting online. It's a handwritten copy of his own poem that he made after the poem was published in Punch (since the original was either in the offices of Punch, or had been discarded after being typed or something like that).
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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