In Flanders Fields Summary

In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae is a 1915 poem about the destruction of war and the responsibilities of the living to the dead.

  • The first stanza depicts a graveyard near Flanders fields, a World War I battlefront. Poppies grow, larks fly overhead, and sounds of gunfire ring out.
  • In the second stanza, the voices of the dead soldiers speak, telling of the lives they left behind just days earlier.
  • In the final stanza, the dead ask the addressee to take the “torch” and continue the fight. Otherwise, they will not rest.

Summary

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on April 15, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 592

Introduction

Canadian poet John McCrae wrote his haunting poem “In Flanders Fields” in May 1915 while serving as a lieutenant colonel in World War I. His poem was published to critical acclaim later that same year. The source of his inspiration was his friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, who died during the Second Battle of Ypres. Helmer was only twenty-two when he was killed.

Illustration of PDF document

Download In Flanders Fields Study Guide

Subscribe Now

According to Captain Lawrence Cosgrave and Sergeant-Major Cyril Allinson, McCrae wrote his poem while sitting on the step of an ambulance in front of the mess hall. Both men said the poem was a means of catharsis for the grieving McCrae. The poem’s imagery of larks flying overhead and poppies blooming among graves described exactly what McCrae saw from his dugout on the day of Helmer’s death. In a letter to his mother, McCrae expressed his anguish at the nightmarish experience of trench warfare. McCrae's poem serves as a snapshot of the hellish reality he and his fellow soldiers endured in defending the Western Front during the war.

In the present age, numerous people recite the lines of McCrae’s poem during memorials and annual Remembrance Day ceremonies. Indeed, the poppy has become the international symbol of Remembrance Day as a result of McCrae’s image of poppies in “In Flanders Fields.”

Summary

The first stanza of the poem tells of poppies swaying with the breeze in Flanders Fields, an area in Belgium where trench warfare was waged during World War I. Across the landscape, there are rows upon rows of crosses marking the graves of fallen soldiers, and it is between these crosses that the poppies blow. The speaker notes that these crosses “mark our place,” suggesting that the speaker is either commemorating his fallen comrades or representing the deceased soldiers. In the sky, the speaker can see larks flying. The birds circle overhead, singing bravely to anyone who will listen. However, their songs can hardly be heard over the din of guns and the sounds of battle below. Despite the temporary tranquility of the scene described, it is evident that the war rages on.

The second stanza marks an ominous and sorrowful shift in tone. It becomes clear that the speaker’s voice is actually the collective voice of the fallen soldiers, speaking in unison. Together, these disembodied voices proclaim that “We are the Dead.” They address the reader and reveal that they were recently among the living. In fact, just a matter of days ago, they welcomed the dawn and appreciated the beauty of the sunset. They loved and were loved by others. These war dead now lie buried in Flanders Fields as the war continues onward. They no longer breathe the air or experience the joys of living.

In the third stanza, the voices make a request. They implore the reader to take up the “quarrel with the foe,” evidently beseeching their compatriots or comrades to continue fighting the war on their behalf. In the grave, these fallen soldiers are rendered helpless. Their “failing hands” can no longer grasp the instruments of war. Thus, they pass “the torch,” a symbol of duty, responsibility, and freedom, to those who are alive and ask that they hold it high. The voices declare that, if the living “break faith” with them, they will have no peace in death. In fact, they will not “sleep” at all, although their graves lie where poppies grow. The beauty and serenity of the poppies should not mask the continued urgency of the cause to which the fallen soldiers gave their lives.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial
Next

Themes

Explore Study Guides