In Flanders Fields Themes

The main themes in “In Flanders Fields” are honoring the dead, the devastation of war, and the cycle of life.

  • Honoring the dead: The poem commemorates the dead soldiers by showing the tragedy of their loss and giving voice to their views and wishes.
  • The devastation of war: McCrae depicts the immense human toll that war takes and evokes the pathos of such loss.
  • The cycle of life: The poem illustrates the interweaving of life and death, which constitute an inevitable cycle.

Themes

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Last Updated on April 15, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 894

Honoring the Dead

John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” shows the importance of honoring the dead. The poem was written as a tribute to McCrae’s fallen comrades in World War I, and McCrae’s formal choices reinforce this attitude of respect.

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The poem’s first stanza depicts a graveyard on the battlefront, a scene of temporary beauty amid the clash of war. McCrae’s imagery lends the scene an atmosphere of serenity. “Poppies blow” between the cross-shaped grave markers, and larks fly overhead, singing courageously. The existence of flowers among the graves calls to mind memorial bouquets, and the larks’ bravery represents the bravery of the soldiers below who gave their lives. The respectful, commemorative tone of this stanza is troubled by the final line, which notes that the larks’ singing is “Scarce heard amid the guns below.”

In the second stanza, McCrae reveals the primary way in which his poem honors the dead: by speaking from their perspective. The stanza begins with the phrase “We are the Dead.” This short declaration is defiant in the face of death’s oblivion, demanding that the dead be heard. The rest of the stanza reminds the reader that the dead were once fully human, experiencing dawn and sunset, giving and receiving love. The reality of these lived experiences is underscored by the phrase “Short days ago,” which emphasizes the thin barrier of time and circumstance that separates the living from the dead.

In the third stanza, McCrae’s poem honors the dead by channeling their wishes. The first line presents a bold demand: “Take up our quarrel with the foe.” The dead can no longer carry on their fight with the enemy, and the collective speaker acknowledges that their “failing hands” have already played their part. Thus, the dead pass “the torch”—a symbol for the soldiers’ cause—to the poem’s addressee, noting that “We shall not sleep” if their work is left incomplete. By allowing the dead to reach through the poem to the addressee and reader, McCrae’s poem gives voice to the fallen and asks that their cause be carried out, lest their deaths be in vain.

The Devastation of War

“In Flanders Fields” laments the immense losses of war. Its tone and intent is classically elegiac in that it memorializes the dead, but the poem’s wartime setting means that the scale of the loss is great. The poem does not commemorate a single soul but rather “row on row” of fallen soldiers in their graves.

The tangible terror and destruction of war first intrudes at the end of the first stanza, when the larks’ singing is drowned out “amid the guns below.” This image is startling in that it both disturbs the repose of the fallen soldiers and foregrounds the fact that the war in which they died continues to rage. The suggestion, then, is that the “row on row” of graves will continue to expand as the war claims ever more lives.

The full tragedy of the soldiers’ deaths is brought to the fore in the second stanza, when they speak in unison and describe the lives they left behind “Short days ago.” Here, McCrae summons experiences of quotidian beauty and joy: the warmth and glow of dawn and sunset, the feeling of loving and being loved in turn. The pathos of these lines brings the vast devastation of war to a relatable, human scale. McCrae ends the stanza with the dimeter refrain of “In Flanders fields,” whose shortness conveys the abruptness of the soldiers’ deaths, dramatizing the suddenness by which these often youthful lives ended. In this way, McCrae uses the rondeau form to powerful thematic effect.  

The Cycle of Life

“In Flanders Fields” juxtaposes images of life and death, conveying that the cycle of life always moves onward. Just as life inevitably gives way to death, death gives way to life in turn.

The poem’s first stanza presents this contrast most directly. After establishing the setting, the poem’s first image is that of “the poppies [that] blow,” which connotes vivacity and beauty. The next two lines clarify the location of the poppies: “Between the crosses, row on row, / That mark our place.” Thus the poppies, symbols of life, are intermingled with the grave markers, symbols of death. The stanza presents another such juxtaposition with the image of the larks that, “still bravely singing, fly.” Like the poppies, the larks connote life and joy. Just as before, McCrae jarringly brings death into the scene in the stanza’s final line, noting that the birdsong is “Scarce heard amid the guns below.” Tracing these shifts, it becomes clear that the stanza moves from life to death, then again to life, and finally to death. This overwhelming back-and-forth illustrates how life and death are inextricably interwoven, all the more evidently in war.

The poem’s final stanza marks a final dramatic shift from death to life, showing how the fallen soldiers’ deaths might be redeemed by those who are still living. The speaker—the collective voice of the dead—asks the addressee to “Take up our quarrel” and to receive the “torch” of their cause and carry it high. This rhetorical move shows how death might be honored and redeemed through a living legacy. More generally, it affirms that despite the finality of death, life moves onward.

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