Poetry Break: “In Flanders Fields”

Another in our continuing series of “poems that remind us there’s more to life than endless political sniping and obsession with the latest celebrity’s latest offenses.”  It’s a classic by John McCrae, a soldier-poet who died of pneumonia while on duty during World War I.

In Flanders Fields

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.

 

I used to teach this poem in a college lit unit about art and war, and it was interesting that most students interpreted it as an anti-war poem. It’s often billed as such.  But, playing the devil’s advocate, I would ask students if they were adding a modern or post-modern spin that the speaker in the poem would not accept.

 I base that reading on the last stanza, in which the speaker asks his audience not to “break faith” with those who have died in battle here. Speaking for the dead, he makes clear what they want:  “Take up our quarrel with the foe.” In other words, the dead soldiers believe their cause is just and do not want to see it abandoned. If we want to honor them, the speaker says, we have to continue their mission. We’re free to disagree with what he wants,  and many students did, but we’re not free to say that’s not what he wants.

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