Sunday, May 27, 2012

Still Bravely Singing

I recent years I’ve come to love a poem entitled, “In Flanders Fields.” It’s a WWI poem, apparently quite famous in its day. It voiced the heartbreak of those who had lost loved ones in the conflict, and the importance of completing the task to which those soldiers sacrificed their lives.

For a writing project a few years ago, I researched the poem, learning about the author and his inspiration. The poem was written by John McCrae, a Canadian physician. When World War I broke out, McCrae was sent to Belgium as a field surgeon in the Canadian artillery. In 1915, he was in charge of a field hospital during the Second Battle of Ypres [e-pray]. McCrae’s friend Alexis Helmer was killed in the battle, and his burial inspired the poem. In 1918, while still serving in the field hospital, McCrae caught pneumonia and meningitis and died.

Flanders is a region in northern Belgium. The poppies referred to in the poem grew in profusion in the fields where war casualties had been buried. Poppies have since become a symbol of remembrance for fallen soldiers. The poem reads:

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 hand 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. 

Through the years people have penned various responses to McCrae’s plea. One of them is America’s Answer by R.W. Lilliard.

Rest ye in peace, ye Flanders dead.
The fight that ye so bravely led
We’ve taken up. And we will keep
True faith with you who lie asleep
With each a cross to mark his bed,
   In Flanders fields.

Fear not that ye have died for naught.
The torch ye threw to us we caught.
Ten million hands will hold it high,
And Freedom’s light shall never die!
We’ve learned the lesson that ye taught
   In Flanders fields.

From The Best Loved Poems of the American People, compiled by Hazel Felleman, Doubleday, 1936.