The Legacy of "In Flanders Fields"
While John McCrae was able to find enough of a quiet moment to sketch out "In Flanders Fields", the demands of the battlefield and his duties as a doctor left little time to do anything else with the poem. His own letters from that day suggest that after pouring out his sorrows in poetry, he set his new composition aside and resumed his duties as the battle waged on.
It seems doubtful that publication had been on McCrae's mind when he first wrote "In Flanders Fields". But neither did he regard it as an entirely private piece of writing, as anecdotes from his friends on the battlefield indicate that he shared it with them. While not a professional poet, McCrae was not a novice, either, and had published before. Encouraged by those friends, McCrae decided to try to put his latest work in print. Surprising to us now, the first magazine McCrae send it to - a British publication, the Spectator - rejected it. After making a few adjustments he tried again, this time sending it to the famous British satirical magazine, Punch. It appeared in print on December 8, 1915.
It took a little longer for McCrae's words to reach North American soil. In January of 1916, a month after its British debut, it appeared in the Washington Post. It took until March of 1916 to reach Canadians, when it was published in the Vancouver Daily World. Until that point it had been circulating anonymously, as Punch had left the poem unsigned, but with its appearance in the Daily World McCrae was identified as the author.
Within less than a year, the poem McCrae had originally scribbled on the back of a piece of wrapping paper was known around the world and its poet, previously of moderate accomplishment, had become famous. Andrew Macphail wrote in 1919, “It is little wonder then that ‘In Flanders Fields’ has become the poem of the army. The soldiers have learned it with their hearts, which is quite a different thing from committing it to memory.”2 A year later, H.E. Harmon claimed “that some kind of copy of it was found in the pocket of almost every hero who fell in that hateful season around Ypres. Many of these copies were smeared and stained – many with blood – almost beyond legibility.”3 For the soldiers who read it, McCrae's authentic words spoke directly to their shared experience - an experience that only those in the trenches could ever fully comprehend. For the wives, parents, and other family members and friends away from the battlefields, it spoke directly to the sorrows and fears the experienced in different ways. Yet despite its sombre tone, the faint promise hinted at in the third verse that the torch could still be thrown, caught, and carried on offered just enough of a glimmer of hope that all the deaths would not be in vain.
With its vivid imagery, "In Flanders Fields" appealed to the visual senses as well. Just as its famous lines – "we throw the torch", "if ye break faith", "we shall not sleep” – became oft-quoted slogans, images of poppy-covered crosses became the visual icons of the war. McCrae's death in 1918 only served to intensify his famous poem's entrenchment in the popular consciousness.
Following the war's conclusion, "In Flanders Fields" continued to provide verbal and visual comfort once the Western nations could mourn their loss is properly and attempt to reconcile the heavy price of War. In 1919, an American woman named Moina Michael first suggested using the poppy as a symbol of Remembrance; in 1921, the Great War Veterans Association – now known as the Royal Canadian Legion – officially adopted their floral icon.4 A century after the war's end, McCrae's poppies remain the predominant symbol of Remembrance and his poem is printed, etched, and inscribed on pamphlets, monuments, and plaques around the world. Each year, words are recited a thousands of people on November 11th as it has become one of the key texts in the solemn liturgy of Remembrance.
For many people, "In Flanders Fields" is a Remembrance Day poem, for it is in that context when it is most often encountered. Less common are some of the other purposes it has served over the course of its 100-year history. During the years of World War 1, its text and imagery we're conscripted to serve a variety of purposes on behalf of the war effort. It inspired the rhetoric used by politicians, military recruiters, even war widows to convince others to contribute – time, money, lives, etc. – on behalf of the great cause. It provided both the slogans and iconography for advertising to sell everything from surgical dressings to liberty bonds. The cessation of the war brought an end to recruitment, but not to the poem's active service; "In Flanders Fields" was re-purposed to sell memorials and to inspire the new rhetoric of peace.5
Although the frequency at which "In Flanders Fields" references are made has since diminished, McCrae's poem continues to supply both slogans and iconography for political as well as other types of campaigns. In these contexts, the purposes "In Flanders Fields" is made to serve are seemingly at odds with its status as a Remembrance text. . For instance, Nancy Holmes notes Canadian politician Preston Manning’s use of the poem to criticize Canada’s declination to participate in the war on Iraq – a failure to catch the torch that, in Manning’s view, that would leave McCrae unable to rest.6 Similarly, historian Jonathan Vance notes its use in American politics, serving causes ranging from anti-abortion to a Senator's campaign to impeach President Bill Clinton.7
Vance writes, "But for all the high ideals the poem represented, its very ubiquity cheapened it."7 In the years immediately following the war, "In Flanders Fields" sparkled as the crown jewel of both Canadian literature and War poetry. Literary critics praised its merits, ranked it one of the war's preeminent poems, and printed and reprinted it in poetry books and anthologies. Archibald MacMechan, who was highly critical a Canadian literature, called it "McCrae's perfect rondeau";9 McCrae’s first biographer, Andrew Macphail, wrote that it gave “expression to a mood which at the time was universal, and will remain as a permanent record when the mood is passed away.”10 In the latter 20th century, though, "In Flanders Fields" began to lose its luster within literary circles. Its first, and perhaps harshest critic has been Paul Fussell (also a World War 1 soldier) who denounced the poem in his influential book, The Great War and Modern Memory. Fussell’s particular issue comes with the final verse, which he called “a propaganda argument against a negotiated peace – words like vicious and stupid would not seem to go too far.”11 Although undoubtedly one of Canada's best-known poems, since the 1970s McCrae's masterpiece has seldom been selected to appear in anthologies of Canadian literature.
Its absence is probably due, at least in part, to its overuse: mass popularity is seldom regarded as a sign of great art. But the critical turn against "In Flanders Fields" has also been brought about by the poem itself and the sentiment that first incited Fussell's disdain. For instance, although Nancy Holmes maintains a more generous stance on the poem's overall merits than Fussell, calling stanzas 1 and 2 "marvels of artful construction", she too condemns stanza 3 as a "disappointment so acute that it erases the sympathetic reading of the first nine lines."12 Beyond literary critics, others also find McCrae's call to "take up our quarrel" problematic, decrying the poem hateful, propagandist, and violent.
"And yet," as Jonathan Vance writes, "the general public has never been especially interested in the views of literary critics. They don't particularly care if the poem's rhyme scheme is facile or its imagery Victorian, and they're not swayed by the uses and abuses of McCrae's work after his death. ... The fact that "In Flanders Fields" has long been politicized, commercialized and commodified does not compromise its powerful imagery and genuine sentiment.”13 Perhaps what all of these "uses and abuses" best illustrate is that "In Flanders Fields" - like many other cultural documents - has a chameleon-like ability to assume many forms and meanings. Whether McCrae would balk at or applaud his poem's use in memorials, advertising, or politics is now irrelevant; when he passed his poem on to publication, he gave the world a work of art that each person could assimilate, interpret, and draw from it their own understanding what can be gained from the experience of Flanders fields.
This chameleon-like ability becomes most apparent through performance, herein lies the power of music to continue the legacy of what McCrae began in writing "In Flanders Fields."
1. Andrew Macphail, In Flanders Fields and Other Poems by Lieut.-Col. John McCrae, M.D., with an Essay in Character (New York and London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1919), 53
2. Macphail, 57.
3. H.E. Harmon, “Two Famous Poems of the World War,” South Atlantic Quarterly 19/1 (1920): 12; quoted in Jennifer A. Ward, “American Musical Settings of ‘In Flanders Fields’ and the Great War,” Journal of Musicological Research 33 (2014): 101.
4. Nancy Holmes, “‘In Flanders Fields’ – Canada’s Official Poem: Breaking Faith,” Studies in Canadian Literature 30/1 (2005): 16.
5. Jonathan Vance, “A Moment’s Perfection”, in in In Flanders Fields: 100 Years: Writing on War, Loss and Remembrance, edited by Amanda Betts (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), 195-199
6. Holmes, 30.
7. Vance, 203-204.
8. Vance, 199.
9. Quoted in Vance, 196.
10. Macphail, 53
11. Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 250.
12. Holmes, 18 & 21.
13. Vance, 205.