In Flanders Field Poem: Why This Poem is Controversial?

Cover image for In Flanders Field Poem analysis

Poetry is rarely a collection of rhyming words, but a collection of suppressed emotions. Poets write what they feel, without knowing it. A poet’s poems are nothing but their emotional autobiography. This definition perfectly describes the poem “In Flanders Field” by Canadian poet John McCrae. The damages of war affect the battleground the least, and the heart the most. 

In Flanders Field is a poem of war, death, sacrifice, pain, and mostly hope. It is a beautiful description of how beauty can sometimes hide atrocities behind them. In this article, we’ll describe in detail the meaning of the poem Flanders Field, with a line-by-line analysis. 

But what’s uncommon is the controversy behind the message of this poem and how to some people, the poet’s message might feel like holding a thorny rose; beautiful to behold, painful to hold. Before the analysis, here’s the poem. 

In Flanders Fields by 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.

Summary of In the Flanders Field

In the shortest way of summarizing this poem, it is a cry for help, a call for action, and a plea to avenge all the dead soldiers who lost their lives tragically in the war. Flanders Field is a war poem, written during World War I. The poet here speaks in the first person, which indicates he is one of the soldiers who lost his life in the battle. The entire poem is written from the point of view of a dead soldier. 

Flanders Field puts two very opposite and non-fitting components together to create a dramatic effect. A beautiful sky above and a field of red poppies swaying in a sweet breeze sounds like a perfect place you’d want to sit to have a peaceful moment. But the poet puts graves right between those flowers, which adds a dark effect to the scene. 

He does the same thing again with the line “The larks, still bravely singing, fly…scarce heard among the guns below”. Two very different scenarios put together. This is what makes the poem so impactful and effective. 

The poem is about the Flanders field where a battle was fought, and as it is with every battle, countless lives were lost. It tells a tale about the battle and how the soldiers are now lying dead amongst the poppy flowers. 

Not too long ago these people were alive, feeling what we are feeling, feeling the sunrise heat, seeing the glow of the setting sun, and feeling the breeze of air. They did everything the readers could do, but now all of that is gone. 

In the end, the dead soldiers tell the readers to take arms and fight their battles. The last part of the poem contains the message and its essence of it. The soldiers are dead, but they are not at peace. There is unrest in them for their battle is unfinished. The poet (as a dead soldier) says that the fight must go on, and the living should fight for what the dead were fighting. To continue their battle or the dead soldiers will never be in peace. 

Analyzing the Poem Line-by-Line 

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.

Flanders Field is the field where the battle took place. This is the place where the graves of the fallen soldiers are. The poet here speaks through one of the soldiers who is dead. There are poppy flowers between the crosses (graves) that sway in the wind. 

The larks in the sky are singing, but they can hardly be heard amid the sound of gunshots and the battle. The use of poppies here is very symbolic because of the blood-red color of the flowers. It is as if all the spilled blood on the field has been taken up by the flowers, and in a mute and immobile way, the soldiers still live in the flowers.

The first stanza is used to establish a scene and give a brief story of what has happened already. It is like the readers reach Flanders fields and this is what they see. 

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.

The second stanza tells about the battle that was fought just a few days ago. These soldiers were alive several hours ago. Here, the poet tries to establish a connection between the readers and the soldiers. Just saying “dead” cannot stir up enough emotions in the living, because it is something they have not experienced. 

This is why the poet says that just a few days ago these people were able to feel the dawn, see the sunset glow, love their families and friends, and were loved by them too. This establishes an emotional connection because now the readers can relate to these soldiers through empathy. Whatever the living are doing so happily, the dead can never do. Now they lie dead in the Flanders fields.

The second stanza establishes an emotional connection between the readers and the soldiers. This stanza is meant to stir up the emotions, to make the readers feel what the soldiers are feeling. And after the story has been given and emotion has been stirred up, now comes the call to action.

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.

The third stanza is all about action and is the most controversial stanza of the entire poem. The soldier asks us to take up their quarrel with the foe. He asks us to fight and win their battle. Their hands are failing, and so they pass on this torch of hope (for whom the soldiers were fighting). They want us to take up the battle and defeat their enemy. 

The last three lines are very strong and impactful, giving the poem most of its dramatic effect. The poet says that if we cannot take up this battle and fail to avenge the fallen soldiers, even though the poppies will grow in Flanders fields, the countless souls who died there shall never be in peace. 

The last stanza is meant to create unrest in the readers, a sense of something unsettled. This feeling that the people who died in the battle protecting them are now in unrest and forever will be until the war is won is what invokes the will to do anything. The last stanza is supposed to inspire, strengthen, and to some degree, infuriate. And this is where the controversy begins. 

in flanders field poem

The Controversy with Flanders Field Poem

If this poem was read in 1913 or 1942 during the two World Wars, it would have been loved by all. But times have changed and thankfully, the perspective of people around war. There are no winners in a war. Everyone loses, thousands of people die and that is all that war gives. 

So the idea of inciting others to take up battle against the other side and to keep fighting and killing will be distasteful to many, especially during this time. Society has grown out of the “death for death” ideology. And this is why many people have spoken against the message of the poem, despite the poem being written beautifully.

The first two stanzas are perfect on their own. It is about grief, loss, and tragedy. It makes one think about the atrocities of war, and the toll it takes not only on the fallen soldiers but on everyone else. It talks about how they loved and once were loved, but now can only be missed. How the beautiful poppy fields will be a stark reminder of the lost souls. 

But the third stanza just turns the whole message around and asks the people to do the same to the other side. To kill their soldiers and cover some other field red, perhaps another field of poppies filled with crosses. And then their side shall keep the torches of the fallen soldiers high by shedding more blood. So when does it stop? Perhaps when every field has crossed all over them. 

What is In Flanders Fields and what is the story behind it?

Flanders Fields is an actual place and it is situated in Belgium. The place is not exactly called that but has been popularized by John McCrae. It is an area around East and West Flanders in Belgium.

The poet, John McCrae was a part of the Second Battle of Ypres fought in the area called Ypres Salient. McCrae served as the Major and surgeon in the Canadian division of the army of 18,000 soldiers, which included his close friend, Alexis Helmer. 

This was the battle where the Germans attacked using chemical warfare. They used large-scale poison gas and one can imagine how the battle must have been. McCrae was moved and deeply traumatized while treating the soldiers. It was made worse when Helmer died. 

The death of Helmer was a big blow to McCrae. He described the whole ordeal as a “nightmare”. McCrae buried his close friend and he wrote a few lines at the grave of his friend. These few lines were the beginning of the poem “In Flanders Field”. 

Flanders Fields is a very popular poem, and one of the most popular war poems in the world. This poem was so popular that it popularized red poppies as a symbol of remembrance. 

How to Understand this Poem

Figurative language is used in this poem, but more importantly, understanding the structure of the poem will help in understanding the poem better. The first thing to note is the use of enjambment. 

Take a look at the example below. Notice how you need to read lines one to three to get one part of what the poet is saying, and then read lines three to six to understand the second part. This is called enjambment and caesura. Let’s divide the lines into chunks to understand them better. 

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.

Literary Devices in the Poem 

In the first stanza, the larks have been personified in the line “The larks, still bravely singing”. The last line “We shall not sleep” is a metaphor for not being in peace until the battle is won. Other literary devices in the poem include:

  • Asyndeta 
  • Alliteration 
  • Metonymy
  • Repetition

Paraphrased Version of In Flanders Field


To help you understand the poem better, we have come up with a simple, paraphrased version of the same poem. 

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between our graves, row on row

These red flowers mark our place on the field

In the sky larks bravely sing

And fly above the deafening gun blows below

We died a few days ago 

Before that we lived, loved, and were loved

We could feel the breeze and the sun’s glow

Whatever you can do now, but now we are dead

Lying in the Flanders field. 

Take up the battle, fight for us

We give the batton for you to carry

Hold it high and make us proud

Promise to keep the fight and avenge the dead

If you do not fight and keep quiet

The poppies will grow and the winds will blow

But the dead shall never be in peace

Forever in Flanders field amongst sorrow. 

Conclusion

And that was all about the poem In Flanders Field. Even though controversial for this age, it is a powerful poem that evokes emotions and makes us wonder about the horrors of war. It is written brilliantly and in just 10 lines and three stanzas, McCrae manages to take us through so many emotions.