Sometimes a poet can write for their entire life and still be forgotten…and then there is John McCrae (1872-1918). With one magnificent poem, this Canadian military physician forever secured his place in the pantheon of classical poetry. First published in Punch magazine, “In Flanders Fields” has subsequently been anthologized countless times in textbooks throughout the English-speaking world. It is this poem that precipitated the adoption of the poppy by Britain and the British commonwealth as the official Flower of Remembrance to honor those soldiers killed in World War I. This poem and the poem below it, “The Pilgrims,” are two of a small handful of poems posthumously published as In Flanders Fields and Other Poems in 1919.
In Flanders Fields
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.
An uphill path, sun-gleams between the showers,
Where every beam that broke the leaden sky
Lit other hills with fairer ways than ours;
Some clustered graves where half our memories lie;
And one grim Shadow creeping ever nigh:
And this was Life.
Wherein we did another’s burden seek,
The tired feet we helped upon the road,
The hand we gave the weary and the weak,
The miles we lightened one another’s load,
When, faint to falling, onward yet we strode:
This too was Life.
Till, at the upland, as we turned to go
Amid fair meadows, dusky in the night,
The mists fell back upon the road below;
Broke on our tired eyes the western light;
The very graves were for a moment bright:
And this was Death.