The poem, In Flanders Field by John McCrae, explains the emotions of the soldiers who fought in World War 1. McCrae demonstrates this with the words he uses to set the changing tone of this poem. The poem switches from pride to depressing and then to a warning which shows how quickly emotions can change in the course of war. In addition to the tone of the poem
the theme is also thought provoking.</p> <p style="text-align: justify;">In the first paragraph the narrator speaks with pride for not only the people who died in battle but also for the people at home who cheered the soldiers on. Poppies are used as symbols for the deceased soldiers and to make people remember that they died for our freedom, ” In Flanders Field the poppies blow/Between the crosses row on row”(11.1-2). John McCrae then compares civilians with larks, showing their pride for their men in battle and that even though their cheers aren’t heard by the soldiers, “The larks, still bravely singing, fly/Scarce heard amid the guns below”(ll.4-5).</p> <p style="text-align: justify;">In the second paragraph, the tone then switches into a depressing mode, that discusses the dead people from war. The narrator is humanizing the lost soldiers. He is trying to make the reader know and feel what it was like for all the civilians who lost a brother, dad, or son in war. John McCrae tells how the warriors had a good life and now they are dead, “We are the dead short days ago/We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow”(ll.6-7).</p> <p style="text-align: justify;">Then, in the third and last stanza, the speaker switches into a manipulating warning and threatening tone. He tells the reader to take their place and to keep faith in case of a future war. The speaker is trying to tell the reader about how important it was for soldiers to go to war and how important it is for people to take the soldiers places, to keep faith and to fight for the people around them, ” Take up our quarrel with the foe:/To you from failing hands we throw/The torch be yours to hold it high”(lll.10-11-12). John McCrae then warns the readers that if they do not take the soldiers places or fail to remember them, that the soldiers’ souls will be tormented.</p> <p style="text-align: justify;">I believe that the theme of this poem is to never give up fighting for what you believe in and, if you have to, make sure someone will take your place if you die. The theme is also making the reader aware of all that the soldiers in World War 1 went through in order to keep our freedom. This is what I think made the poem so famous; it not only makes the reader remember the dead but also think about the future and, if needed, fight for it.</p> <p style="text-align: justify;">In Flanders Fields, by John McCrae, is a very emotional poem. McCrae brings these emotions to the surface by using various tones throughout the poem. As well, he creates a theme of fighting for what you believe in by, not only using words for description, but also by using words to invoke certain emotions.</p>
An introduction to one of the most famous poems of WWI
Although the association between fields of poppies and commemorating the war dead predates the First World War, the war-poppies connection was certainly popularised by WWI and in particular by this John McCrae poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’. John McCrae (1872-1918), a Canadian lieutenant colonel, was inspired to write it after he conducted the burial service for an artillery officer, Alexis Helmer, who had been killed in the conflict. In the chaplain’s absence, McCrae, as the company doctor, presided over the burial of the young man.
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.
McCrae was inspired to write the poem on 3 May 1915, following Helmer’s funeral. In summary, the poem observes how poppies blow in the fields where the fallen soldiers (including Helmer) are buried. The sound of the guns firing on the western front has almost drowned out the natural birdsong in the skies above – almost, but not entirely, it’s worth noting. There is yet hope. But not for the men who have died, who until so recently lived and loved. But the poem does not call war futile (as Wilfred Owen, in his poem ‘Futility’, would, later in the War): the final stanza calls for those who are living to take the baton (or, to use McCrae’s symbol, the torch) and continue the fight against the enemy. If the living do not finish the fight begun by those who gave their lives, the dead will not be able to rest in their graves (this makes McCrae’s poem like a modern revenge tragedy, where the ghost of the wronged dead returns and announces that he cannot be at peace until his death is avenged – see Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for instance). The poem begins with the three words that make its title, and ends with the same three words: ‘In Flanders fields’.
Does the idyllic opening stanza of Tennyson’s Arthurian poem ‘The Lady of Shalott’ lurk behind the first stanza of McCrae’s poem? Tennyson’s poem begins:
On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro’ the field the road runs by
To many-tower’d Camelot.
The two poems share a similar rhythm, references to sky and fields, and similar rhyme words. Coincidence, perhaps. But it’s suggestive to think that McCrae was perhaps recalling Tennyson’s rural paradise in his own poem; in Tennyson’s poem, too, paradise will soon be lost.
On the issue of rhyme, it’s notable that McCrae’s poem utilises just two different rhyme sounds: the ‘I’ sounds of sky/fly/lie/high/die and the ‘O’ sounds of blow/row/below/ago/glow/foe/throw/grow. And, of course, ‘fields’, in that repeated refrain, ‘In Flanders fields’. This makes the poem almost chantlike, and lends conviction to its final stanza in particular.
The phrase ‘We are the Dead’ from the beginning of the second stanza may have inspired the phrase which Winston and Julia use in George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four. But even before WWI was over, the mood had darkened, with later war poets analysing the horrors of war more closely, with ‘warts and all’. Wilfred Owen could not share McCrae’s faith that the war was worth persevering with. Death led simply to more death. McCrae, like Owen, would not survive to see the Armistice: he died of pneumonia in January 1918.
The finest affordable anthology of war poetry is Poetry of the First World War An Anthology (Oxford World’s Classics). It’s well worth investing in, especially as it costs no more than lunch usually does.
For more nature poetry with a darker side, see our analysis of Blake’s poem of corruption and ‘crimson joy’, ‘The Sick Rose’. Alternatively, check out our top tips for writing a good English Literature essay. For more war poetry, see our analysis of Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and Rosenberg’s ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’. If you’re studying poetry, we recommend checking out these five books for the student of poetry.
Image: John McCrae in c. 1914, by William Notman and Son; Wikimedia Commons.