Nov 11, 2015 - Uncategorized    Comments Off on An Exercise in War Poetry

An Exercise in War Poetry

It’s become my personal FB tradition to post John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” on Veterans Day (just as I habitually suggest donating blood on September 11th).  As I was considering what to post here for the day, it occurred to me that I could share more than one of the war poems that move me.

In Flanders Fields (John McCrae)

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.

I’ve assumed for years that the fictional poem in L. M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside, “The Piper,” was inspired by this one.  It haunts, but it inspires.  The contrast between it and Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est–both poems written during WWI–is profound.

Dulce et Decorum Est (Wildred Owen)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
One cannot help but shudder, and yet the message is every bit as powerful; both messages, moreover, are integral to the understanding of war.  Reading the two poems together provides a higher degree of truth.
The English major in me would love to write a paper on the subject; the mother in me just laughs and reminds me that even blog posts are difficult to manage on the amount of sleep I’ve been getting. Someday, perhaps.  The other two war poems that have stayed with me are about as different as two war poems that end in death can be.  Contrasting Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” would be quite a different paper, but then again, perhaps I’ll get to that as well.  In the meantime, I honor the veterans in my life, my country, and my world.
Thank you for your service.

Comments are closed.