Petals and Poem a Tradition Make: A Canadian Poet’s Effect on the World
In 1915, ninety-seven words came together and merged with thousands of beautiful flowers. Unexpectedly, this created a tradition that lasts to this day in many countries around the world.
This embodies that tradition – the wearing of poppies in November, leading to a minute’s silence at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – which incidentally is another tradition that began due to the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I in 1918, right at that day and time: the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. November 11th is now Remembrance Day. But why would poppies remind us of the First World War?
For those who didn’t grow up in Canada or Europe, and who might not know the origin of some of the West’s customs – and for those who are familiar but who could use a refresher – I found some old photos to share with you. I will also provide the poem I’m about to discuss: “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae.
John McCrae was a Canadian doctor, poet and soldier. His job in the war was to give medical aid to the wounded, and after yet another friend succumbed to injury and died in the cold, wet trenches in 1915, McCrae penned a poem, “In Flanders Fields,” so called because his battalion was fighting in the Flanders area between Belgium and Holland. Millions of soldiers died in the First World War, many more than in the Second World War, and thousands were buried in the fields at Flanders. Many were young men – 25 years old, 17 years old – fighting for the world’s freedom: brave men from countries ranging from Britain, all the way through to Canada, India and Australia.
It had been observed in Flanders that after fields filled up with graves, hundreds of poppies bloomed on them. It turns out that poppy spores can last for years, but not germinate until conditions are right. The constant upturning of the soil and exposure to the air had helped get them started, and Flanders’ fields were a burst of poppies. So McCrae, grieving for his friend, wrote his poem about poppies. One of his comrades insisted on getting it mailed to a printer in London, where it was published in Punch magazine. John McCrae lived long enough to know his poem had been well received. He did not, however, live long enough to see the end of the war – he died in 1918 just a few months before World War I ended. He didn’t live to see how well loved his poem became, nor how his image of those poppies was going to inspire generations of people, to this day, to wear those poppies that he immortalized, those poppies that symbolized all those lost soldiers, that poem that spoke from the point of view of those lost soldiers. We’ll look at the words, but first, about the impact.
Have a look at a Canadian $10 bill. On one side, near the birds, you’ll see the first stanza of McCrae’s poem, in English and French. You’ll also see veterans and poppies. In fact, the $10 bill’s back cover is a whole tribute to Remembrance Day. And its illustration of an elderly man with children is from a photo of an actual veteran called Robert Metcalfe. He was called by a government official about twelve years ago and asked to come and pose for a photo op for Veterans. He wasn’t told what for. Two years later, he found his image on the newly styled bill! (Mr Metcalfe lived until 90, by the way.) Canadian coins have been manufactured with stylized poppies on the flip sides; a quarter minted in 2004, and another quarter in 2010. There are countless postage stamps, paintings, heralds and so on that have been created with this symbol, in order to bring to mind, and acknowledge, all the soldiers and citizens who were killed in that and every other war. The poppy became our way of remembering, paying respect, of thanking those who fought for freedom and protection.
We remember not only those dead soldiers but also survivors who came back horribly injured. We also recall the families and friends of the dead. In the First World War, which McCrae served in, many millions died, as I said. Often there was neither time nor resources to do more than merely inform the family of the death, which left parents, sisters, wives, wondering for the rest of their lives if their loved one had died an instantaneous, painless death, or whether he had suffered. There was no closure for them. They would have spent the rest of their lives wondering. I can only imagine what that must have been like. And now…below…John McCrae’s poem:
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.
Do you think the form of “In Flanders Fields” is free verse? Or is it a traditional form of poetry, in the same way a sonnet, a villanelle or haiku has a traditional form? “In Flanders Fields” is, in fact, what is known as a French rondeau – a form that’s been around since the thirteenth century. The number of lines, the total of two rhymes throughout, and a refrain: the rhyme pattern, repetition and refrain all follow a set form. John McCrae knew his poetry! How he was able to write something like this when bombs, mustard gas and bullets were flying around his trench, I’ll never know. I think it was meant to be!