We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

One hundred years after the World War I armistice, we continue to remember – and feel – the sacrifice of those who have served in armed conflict. 

By Serena Ypelaar

Trying in dismay to ignore the declining number of poppies I’ve seen on people’s lapels this year (all of theirs probably just fell off, right?), I of course wanted to pay tribute to our fallen soldiers, surviving veterans, and all those affected by war ahead of Remembrance Day.

And what better way to do so on a literary/historical blog than to revisit the famed rondeau poem In Flanders Fields (1915) by Canada’s very own John McCrae?

1280px-No-man's-land-flanders-field
Trenches and No-Man’s Land at Flander’s Fields. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

From an interpretive perspective, the strength of the poem lies in its profound ability to foster empathy. Most of us probably haven’t been in the trenches or known what it’s like to fight in a thankless conflict while watching countless friends die. Those of us who haven’t are extremely lucky – yet In Flanders Fields paints such a visceral picture of sacrifice that we get an almost firsthand glimpse of the devastation.

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.

It is hard to believe that McCrae, a physician and Lieutenant-Colonel during World War I, was dissatisfied with his work and discarded it. He had to be convinced to submit the poem for publication. Yet he uses swift imagery to conjure a painstakingly forlorn scene of war and death, having written it after performing the funeral service for a fellow soldier and close friend, Alexis Helmer. No matter where we read this, we’re hit as though standing there in Belgium: poppies blowing in the wind on the burial site; guns booming in the distance; the keen sting of love and life, all extinguished by the horrors of war.

crae
Physician and poet Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

I will freely admit that it’s almost impossible for me to read the poem without tearing up. What’s more, it has also been set to music, and the sombre melody combined with McCrae’s stark verse is even more emotional. I always cry when they sing it during the Canadian Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa, and I probably always will, because McCrae delivers empathy right to our doorstep. That is, of course the best storytelling – that which makes us feel things.

McCrae’s use of caesura in the second stanza, a halt with punctuation in the middle of a line, drives the point home: We are the Dead. Short days ago we lived … The dead speak to us in the poem, and we are accountable to them to live with honour and integrity as they no longer can. Those feelings of sadness are so well-preserved in the poem that they don’t dull down with time. Every reread reopens the wound – but justly so.

Processed by: Helicon Filter;
A poppy field in Flanders. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Yes, it’s painful to grieve, but it is necessary. Remembrance Day is an ongoing process of empathy and an enduring resolution to defend honour. That is, after all, why we wear the poppy every year. It’s a symbol of our commitment, gratitude, and respect. Perhaps in remembering the contributions of our fellow citizens, whether by sacrificing their lives or through tireless and laborious efforts, we’ll also be wary of the sorrow that accompanies war and conflict. Lest we forget.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.