Last Updated on April 15, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1052
“In Flanders Fields” is a rondeau of fifteen lines with a rhyme scheme of AABBA–AABR–AABBAR, with the R representing the eponymous refrain that arrives at the end of the second and third stanzas. The poem’s three stanzas are a quintet, quatrain, and sestet, as is typical of rondeaus. The refrain can also be seen in the first line of the first stanza, as is also typical of the form.
The poem is largely composed of iambic tetrameter—a four-beat line whose feet alternate between unstressed and stressed syllables. This meter, which is standard in ballads, gives the poem a musical, even song-like quality; it is thus perhaps unsurprising that numerous composers have set McCrae’s poem to music. The only exceptions to the poem’s tetrameter are the two instances of the two-beat refrain, “In Flanders fields.” In both instances, McCrae uses the relative shortness of the refrain to create a sense of contrast with the preceding line. In the second stanza in particular, this abrupt end of the line conveys the abrupt deaths of the soldiers who just “days ago . . . lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow.”
McCrae imbues his poem with musicality, beauty, and stateliness using other poetic techniques as well. He employs alliteration in such phrases as “Flanders fields,” “saw sunset,” “from failing,” and “hold it high.” There is repetition in phrases such as “row on row” and “loved and were loved.” McCrae’s control of such sound effects can be seen in his subtle use of consonance and assonance—that is, the repetition of consonant and vowel sounds, respectively. The phrase “poppies blow” combines p and b sounds, which are voiced and unvoiced forms of the same consonant pair. “Break faith” is a bold example of assonance, and “The torch; be yours” combines both consonance and assonance in the same phrase. Altogether, these effects deepen the poem’s music and contribute to its stately, elegiac tone. Indeed, just as McCrae evokes images of beauty against the brutal backdrop of war and death, his prosody brings a sonorous decorum to a grim and sorrowful subject. McCrae’s style is in keeping with his theme in that the poem helps honor the dead through the sheer beauty and poise of its form.
McCrae’s use of imagery is most notable for its contrasting nature. In the first stanza, images of “poppies” and “larks” that are “bravely singing” are juxtaposed with the sight of “row on row” of cross-shaped grave markers and the sounds of “guns below.” These images show the interweaving of life and death in wartime. The second stanza conjures images of the recently fallen soldiers’ lives: “We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, / Loved and were loved, and now we lie.” These lively evocations deepen the pathos of the dead soldiers’ address. The key images in the final stanza are the “torch” passed from the dead to the living addressee, which symbolizes the continuation of the soldiers’ cause, and again the “poppies [that] grow / In Flanders field.” This recurrence of the image of the poppies frames them as a symbol of commemoration, responsibility, and redemption: the promise of the living not to “break faith” with the dead.
“In Flanders Fields” is a poem directly tied to the historical circumstances from which it arose, and so a discussion of its context—including some remarks on McCrae’s life and the lasting influence of the poem—is appropriate.
McCrae’s poem foregrounds the history of Flanders Fields, the region where the Second Battle of Ypres was fought. In fact, the town of Ypres, in the province of West Flanders, was the location of no fewer than three conflicts during World War I. The Second Battle of Ypres was a turning point in World War I. It was during that conflict the use of poison gas was first introduced as a weapon by Germany. In retaliation, the Allied powers released their own gases on German troops. At the height of hostilities, both sides produced dozens of thousands of tons of chlorine gas and phosgene gas. Due to the devastating effects of poison gas, the 1925 Geneva Protocol banned the use of chemical and biological agents in future warfare. The devastating result of these modern weapons is suggested by the “row on row” of graves in McCrae’s poem.
At the start of the war, the Canadian-born McCrae had been on his way to England for vacation. But when he heard the call of duty, the 41-year-old McCrae signed up to serve his country. At the Second Battle of Ypres, he served as a surgeon; he spent long, exhausting days tending to wounded soldiers in the Ypres Salient and later at hospitals in Boulogne-Sur-Mer and Wimereux, France.
At the height of the Second Battle of Ypres, the Allied forces endured an incessant barrage of gunfire and exploding shells for seventeen straight days. During that time, McCrae neither changed out of his bloody clothing nor retreated from his position. The Canadians and English were beset on every side by German bombs and poison gas, but the soldiers kept their posts.
McCrae’s poem delineates the losses his fellow soldiers sustained. The men lie in hastily-dug graves, their hopes and dreams forever dashed by the destruction of the war. In all, more than 6,500 Canadian soldiers died during the Ypres battlefield conflicts. McCrae was adamant that they would not be extinguished from human memory. Hence, he set about composing one of the most famous war poems in history.
McCrae’s purpose for his poem was realized even before his death. On a lonely night in December of 1915, a company of Canadian soldiers gathered for a quiet reading of McCrae’s poem. The soldiers recognized the solemnity of the words and agreed that the poem conveyed their collective experiences in war. The poem quickly became popular across the world and was translated into numerous languages.
In 1916, posters appeared across London, urging the public to wear a poppy in honor of fallen soldiers, a nod to McCrae’s poem. Both the American and British Legions began distributing poppies and asking for public donations to aid returning soldiers and their families. Today, the United States, the United Kingdom, and other Commonwealth and European countries use the symbol of the poppy in annual ceremonies to honor fallen soldiers.
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