A few weeks ago, I read Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. I hadn’t read anything by the well-known contemporary Canadian author before, but I did see her speak last spring at a humanities symposium my university sponsored. She was magnificent. I bought one of her books to be autographed, and while I’ve always heard great things about classics like The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake and Cat’s Eye, and even been recommended The Blind Assassin and Lady Oracle, it was the subtitle Writer on Writing that caught my eye. Negotiating with the Dead was a fascinating study on the psychology and thematic elements that occupy a writer’s thoughts and give meaning to a writer’s life, and I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone who fits even vaguely into the category of “writer,” but that is not the end purpose of this post.
In the last chapter of the book, Atwood reprints the famous WWI poem “In Flanders Fields.” I had not thought of these few verses in quite a long time, but I’m very glad that Negotiating with the Dead brought them back into the forefront of my memory. I’ve found myself reciting – almost chanting – the few lines I know by heart several times since I read the book… McCrae’s words have stuck with me. And so I have copied them here, along with a little background on the author and the history of the poem for those unfamiliar:
Canadian poet John McCrae was a medical officer in both the Boer War and World War I. A year into the latter war he published in Punch magazine, on December 8, 1915, the sole work by which he would be remembered. This poem commemorates the deaths of thousands of young men who died in Flanders during the grueling battles there. It created a great sensation, and was used widely as a recruiting tool, inspiring other young men to join the Army. Legend has it that he was inspired by seeing the blood-red poppies blooming in the fields where many friends had died.
In Flanders Fields
By Lt. Col. 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.
This poem was actually first known to me in high school when my chamber choir sang a haunting and beautiful musical arrangement of it by Paul A. Aitken. The composition needs no other introduction; hear a heartrending choral rendition of the piece here: