For Veterans’ Day: On John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields”

In honor of Veterans’ Day (also known as Armistice Day), I’m posting here a short essay on the poem that inspired the Flanders poppy, John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields.” This “essay” is actually a section of my 2004 dissertation, which concerns the 19-line poetic form called “the villanelle”; in the course of researching that, I noodled around with some rondeaus as well (or “rondeaux,” if you want to get all French about it), and, to put it plainly, I just got really really interested in the most famous rondeau of all, “In Flanders Fields.”

From “Refrain, Again: The Return of the Villanelle”

A much more significant individual poem in the social history of the French forms than Pound’s “Villanelle” was John McCrae’s rondeau “In Flanders Fields,” first published anonymously in the December 8, 1915 issue of London’s widely-circulated illustrated magazine Punch:

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.

“In Flanders Fields” was a tremendous popular phenomenon in World War One. Its author, John McCrae, was a Canadian doctor, Scottish by birth, who had served in the Boer War of 1899-1902; he died in 1918, just before the war ended, of pneumonia. Although it is not clear who first singled out the poem in Punch for attention, by 1917 it was so well-known that one famous Canadian Victory Bonds poster and billboard could simply allude to it (see Figure 2).

Canadian Victory Bonds poster

Figure 2: Canadian Victory Bonds poster, Frank Lucien Nicolet, 1917.

The Victory Bonds campaign had been meant to raise $150 million; instead it raised $400 million, and the poster’s artist, Frank Lucien Nicolet, was awarded a prize by the Canadian government. At least a dozen songs based on the poem appeared between 1917 and 1919, including one by John Philip Sousa. “Reply poems” also proliferated. Most famously, the Flanders poppy became an instantly recognizable symbol worn in Canada and Britain on November 11, Remembrance Day, to commemorate the Great War dead.

Few of the patriots and propagandists who quoted the poem seemed aware that it was an example of a traditional French form, a form with a name, history, and fixed scheme. Such knowledge was irrelevant, or seemed so. Reply poems, for instance, invariably imitated “In Flanders Fields” even to the point of lifting entire phrases from it, yet just as invariably altered the scheme even when apparently attempting to emulate it. Medieval and Renaissance fixed-form rondeaus were of ten, thirteen, or fifteen lines; in the nineteenth century, the post-Romantics (including Banville in his Petit traité de poésie française) overwhelmingly preferred the fifteen-line scheme: aabba aabR aabbaR, with the refrain (“R”) consisting of the first few words of the first line of the poem. McCrae’s poem, like the rondeaus of post-Romantics such as Banville and Dobson, adheres precisely to this scheme, whereas the scheme of Moina Michael’s 1918 reply poem “We Shall Keep the Faith” is only somewhat similar:

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet — to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields. (Michael 3)

The scheme of Michael’s poem is abbcd eeffggR gghhR; it is a form based essentially on stanzas of rhymed couplets with a single hemistich appended to each stanza. With its three top-heavy stanzas of varying length, it looks like “In Flanders Fields,” but it is almost as different in structure as it is in tone, diction, meter, and sense. Moina Michael, a teacher at the University of Georgia, had seen McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” reprinted in the Ladies’ Home Journal just before the Armistice in 1918, and the poem and accompanying illustration (see Figure 3) moved her so strongly that, she reported, she immediately composed the above poem on the back of an envelope.

Ladies' Home Journal poem

Figure 3: Ladies’ Home Journal 35.11 (1918 Nov): 56.

Subsequently, Michael was the prime mover in getting the Flanders poppy adopted as a Remembrance Day symbol, and was the first to sell artificial poppies as a fundraising tactic. Despite her great investment in the poem’s message and symbolism, however, she remained unaware of the tradition behind its form.

Perhaps the most notable example of ignorance of the rondeau with respect to “In Flanders Fields” came in 1919, when a posthumous collection of McCrae’s poems was published. A biographical essay appended to In Flanders Fields, and Other Poems explained at length that “In Flanders Fields” was a highly original variety of sonnet. Sir Andrew Macphail, who had edited the University Magazine at McGill University in Montreal when McCrae was a student there, claimed that he had known that McCrae was the author of the anonymous poem in Punch because he recognized its form, having remembered publishing an earlier poem of McCrae’s titled “The Night Cometh” with the same scheme:

It will be observed at once by reference to the text that in form the two poems are identical. They contain the same number of lines and feet as surely all sonnets do. Each travels upon two rhymes with the members of a broken couplet in widely separated refrain.[…] It was a form upon which he had worked for years, and made his own. When the moment arrived the medium was ready. No other medium could have so well conveyed the thought (50).

Macphail, unaware that both poems are rondeaus, argues that their (supposedly) unusual form is proof of McCrae’s originality. Macphail, led in his opinion by another semi-literary army officer, even avers that “In Flanders Fields” has reached such a height of innovative structural excellence that its novel “sonnet” form might well become fixed:

The poem was first called to my attention by a Sapper officer, then Major, now Brigadier. […] This officer could himself weave the sonnet with deft fingers, and he pointed out many deep things. It is to the sappers that the army always goes for “technical material.”

The poem, he explained, consists of thirteen lines in iambic tetrameter and two lines of two iambics each; in all, one line more than the sonnet’s count. There are two rhymes only, since the short lines must be considered blank, and are, in fact, identical. But it is a difficult mode. It is true, he allowed, that the octet of the sonnet has only two rhymes, but these recur only four times, and the liberty of the sestet tempers its despotism,–which I thought a pretty phrase.[…] One is so often reminded of the poverty of men’s invention, their best being so incomplete, that one welcomes what–this Sapper officer surmised–may become a new and fixed mode of expression in verse. (53-5)

This ingeniously incorrect explication shows that the fact that “In Flanders Fields” was a rondeau had nothing to do with its popular success. It was not held up as an excellent example of the form, as it is today in some poetry handbooks. The form was unknown to most of McCrae’s contemporary readers, even to those with literary pretensions and with a strong desire to prove that McCrae was a gifted poet. There can be little doubt that if the sapper officer had known of the rondeau, Macphail would have argued that skill with a traditional form rather than formal innovation was McCrae’s particular gift. Clearly the influence of modernism’s “make it new” philosophy had sufficiently permeated the mainstream for Macphail to be able to cite inventiveness as a positive trait for a poet–yet Macphail seems slightly embarrassed to be taking such a position: “one welcomes” innovation only because there is little else to welcome.

The explanation for John McCrae’s adoption of the rondeau form is likely to have been almost exactly the opposite of that forwarded by Macphail. McCrae’s rondeau, like Stephen’s villanelle, shows that its author is writing from the cautious margins rather making daring Poundian forays from the safe center. To be Canadian was to be at least as provincial (by London and Oxford standards) as to be Irish; McCrae, ten years older than Joyce and by profession a doctor, never made the move that Joyce made away from late-Victorian styles toward a fresh and international, or extra-national, modernist experimentalism. McCrae had begun publishing poetry in McGill’s University Magazine, Varsity, and Canadian Magazine in the eighteen-nineties. In form many of McCrae’s poems, like Joyce’s in Chamber Music, were simple abab or aabb stanzas; there were also several ballads, indicating that McCrae had been influenced by the pre-Raphaelites and/or by Scottish models. Two poems, “Isandlwana” and “The Song of the Derelict,” are on a scheme which appears to be a rather unusual ballad variation: aRaRbbbR. Robert Burns’s “Duncan Gray,” composed about 1792, is on the same scheme; the Scotland-born McCrae might here be placing himself in a Scottish tradition. That the rondeau was a “French” form may have contributed to his interest in it (though his models were more likely to be the English examples of the eighteen-eighties and eighteen-nineties); McCrae’s poetry, with its French and Scottish and English schemes, almost seems to imitate the elbow-to-elbow populations of French, Scottish, and English extraction in Montreal.

“In Flanders Fields” has in the twentieth century probably been considered most important in the context of Canadian poetry and Canadian national identity. The scholar Thomas B. Vincent addresses the question of why the heroic ideal survives in the work of McCrae and other Canadian poets of the Great War when British poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen abandoned that ideal; he attributes this difference chiefly to Canada’s emerging nationhood:

Instinctively, if not consciously, the Canadian poets discovered that, culturally, Canada was not Britain. They understood what poets like Owen were talking about; they had the personal experience required to appreciate that. But they knew in their poetic guts that the grim vision of life that energized Owen’s verse was not relevant to Canadian imagination in a central way. […] Among intelligent Canadians, there was no denial of the obscenities of war or of the moral implications of these brutalities, but there was also no denial of the perception that war contributed significantly to national maturation […] (167)

In this argument, McCrae’s poetry defines itself as Canadian by defining itself against British poetry, but it might be more accurate to say that McCrae’s poetry defines itself as Canadian by defining itself with pre-war poetry and values. McCrae’s values, like his poetic forms, were just behind the curve of nations more secure in their nationhood.

Still, when compared with the typical rondeau in Gleeson White’s 1887 anthology Ballades and Rondeaus, Chants Royal, Sestinas, Villanelles &c, “In Flanders Fields” looks remarkably modern. “The Sweet, Sad Years,” by Rev. Charles D. Bell, D. D., for instance, begins “The sweet sad years; the sun, the rain, / Alas! too quickly did they wane” and continues in the typical key of a pleasurable romantic melancholy expressed in end-stopped lines, archaic diction, and inverted syntax (153). The association of such predictable poems with the rondeau form had never fully entered public consciousness, but serious poetry professionals still remembered, and judged “In Flanders Fields” harshly not only by comparing it to the more radical poems emerging from modernism, but also by comparing it to the puerile rondeaus that had emerged from the vers de société movement. When In Flanders Fields, and Other Poems was reviewed in the July 1919 issue of Poetry along with several other war-themed works, Alice Corbin Henderson (whose unfavorable review of Joyce’s Chamber Music had appeared in the previous issue of Poetry) recognized “In Flanders Fields” as a rondeau. This, she considered, was in itself a flaw:

The books listed above are mostly journalism, but now and then some poem lifts the emotion of the moment into song, thus winning a chance of survival after the moment has passed. John McCrae achieves this in the much-quoted In Flanders Fields–achieves it by sheer simplicity and concentration in the expression of a moving and tragic appeal. Another poem on the same motive a living soldier’s address to The Anxious Dead is perhaps still finer, and its quatrains fit the subject better than the too slight rondeau form of the first. (221)

Henderson was virtually alone among critics in awarding even this qualified praise to “In Flanders Fields”; the poem’s very success with an ignorant public probably doomed it in the discriminating eyes of the modernists and their inheritors even after the reputation of the French forms for “slightness” had been forgotten. Yet “In Flanders Fields,” rather like Stephen’s villanelle, was neither wholly akin to its “too-slight” schematic progenitors nor wholly divided from them, though certainly the poem achieved too perfect a compromise with traditional forms and values to be attractive to the modernists.

“In Flanders Fields” has long been disregarded or harshly judged by literary scholars, most notably by Paul Fussell in his well-known work The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), who writes that “words like vicious and stupid would not seem to go too far” to describe the final stanza of the poem. Fussell also avers that “indeed it could be said that the rigorously regular meter with which the poem introduces the poppies makes them seem already fabricated of wire and paper,” even though the poem’s meter is by no means clumsy, varying through caesura and enjambment if not through substitution (249). Fussell nevertheless makes an interesting point about the implications of the poppy as a choice of symbol; in Fussell’s argument, the image of the poppy–like the rondeau form, which Fussell does not discuss–serves to link McCrae’s poem with the work of the Decadents:

It would be a mistake to imagine that the poppies in Great War writings got there just because they are actually there in the French and Belgian fields.[…] For half a century before the fortuitous publicity attained by the poppies of Flanders, this association with homoerotic love had been conventional, in works by Wilde, Douglas, the Victorian painter Simeon Solomon, John Addington Symonds, and countless others. (247-8)

Fussell sees “the conception of soldiers as lovers” in the lines “Short days ago / We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, / Loved and were loved, and now we lie / In Flanders fields”; such references serve to link the poem only too firmly, in Fussell’s view, to “Victorian male sentimental poetry” (248).

Fred Crawford, in his 1988 book British Poets of the Great War, shares Fussell’s judgment: “That the poem’s closing seems unworthy of its beginning results from two abrupt shifts–the change in tone to the demand and threat of the last six lines and the use of chivalric imagery and diction […] outside the pastoral tradition for which the reader has been prepared” (38). Both critics seem to resent what is after all nothing but a standard volta in the third stanza, finding the turn both unconvincing and offensive, and the more so because the first two stanzas of the poem seem to promise a fully modernist take on the Great War. As Vincent writes, “Indeed, the narrative voice of the poem has some disturbing similarities to that of Eliot’s ‘Hollow Men’ ” (169). Vincent, like Crawford and Fussell, places the poem in the pastoral tradition, but because none of these critics discuss the rondeau form, they all miss the point that the poem is most influenced by the faux-pastoral and decidedly chivalric “tradition” of late-Victorian Paris and London. The false pastoral of the “French forms” becomes, even if unintentionally, highly appropriate for the false pastoral of the battlefield, and one of the chief points of “In Flanders Fields” is that pastoral conventions simply cannot be applied any longer.

One of the most interesting aspects of the poem, I would also argue, is the very “demand and threat” that Crawford recoils from. Surely one of the best reasons for its effectiveness as propaganda is its barely buried exposé of the true engine of war: the poem appeals only apparently to loyalty; ultimately, it appeals to fear. And fear is why we fight. The central image is of a spectral vengeance that seems more frightening than any merely human war, and the foe seems less menacing than the potentially traitorous civilians on “our” side. The poem’s readers were no doubt glad to purchase absolution from an unconfessable fear and guilt by buying indulgences in the form of Victory Bonds and British Legion poppies.

One thought on “For Veterans’ Day: On John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields”

  1. So is the rondeau really an ambitious limerick? Look:

    There once was a teacher named French
    Who wrote about songs from the trench,
    All while showing mondo
    Knowledge of the rondeau,
    A form to make teary eyes clench.

    From the king to the bum on a bench,
    Every Brit felt his heart in a wrench,
    And even the Yankees were fond o’
    That poem by John McCrae.

    The villanelle’s wrapped in a stench
    Of mendacity. But just ment-
    Ion the popular rondeau,
    And in every home and condo,
    To our patriot breasts we’ll clench
    That poem of John McCrae.

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