Blog Post

Remembrance Day and the Case of the $400,000,000 Poem

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

I like to think of John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields" as the $400,000,000 poem, and not just because its first stanza has appeared on the back of the Canadian $10 bank note—a fact that, all by itself, makes McCrae's World War I-era verse one of the most widely circulated poems in history. I also think of it as the $400,000,000 poem because, shortly after it appeared in the December 8, 1915, issue of Punch magazine, the Canadian government made "In Flanders Fields" a central piece of its public relations campaign advertising the sale of the first Victory Loan Bonds, printing it, or excerpts from it, on billboards and posters like the one pictured here. According to Canadian Veterans Affairs and other sources, the campaign was designed to raise $150,000,000 but ended up netting—wait for it—more than $400,000,000.

Whoever said that "poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper" clearly wasn't thinking of McCrae's rondeau, which is the centerpiece of Remembrance or Veterans Day (November 11) activities worldwide and turned the red or "Buddy" poppy into the day's icon, manufacture and sale of which has been a regular source of funding for disabled and needy VFW veterans as well as for war orphans and surviving spouses of veterans in the U.S. since 1923. It is memorized by school kids, recited at Remembrance Day events, has elicited all sorts of reply poems and been put to music, and resulted in the restoration of McCrae's birthplace in Guelph, Ontario, as a museum. In Ypres, Belgium, there's even a World War I museum that takes its name from the poem.

By most accounts, McCrae composed "In Flanders Fields" in 1915, the day after witnessing the death of his 22 year-old friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, and legend has it that McCrae ripped the poem out of his notebook and cast it aside amongst the blood-red poppies on the battlefield where it was rescued by an onlooker and sent to Punch, which printed it anonymously:

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.

By 1917, the Canadian government had paired "In Flanders Fields" with the painting (by British-born Canadian artist Frank Lucien Nicolet) of a soldier standing in the poppy fields and was raising its millions of dollars in Victory Loan Bonds.

In the most famous piece of literary-critical commentary on "In Flanders Fields," Paul Fussell (see The Great War and Modern Memory) doesn't have too many good things to say about the poem, claiming that the "rigorously regular meter" makes the poppies of the poem's first stanza "seem already fabricated of wire and paper" (249). Nevertheless, he finds the verse "interesting" for the way in which it "manages to accumulate the maximum number of [emotion-triggering] motifs and images ... under the aegis of a mellow, if automatic, pastoralism" (249). In the first nine lines alone, Fussell explains, you've got "the red flowers of pastoral elegy; the 'crosses' suggestive of calvaries and thus of sacrifice; the sky, especially noticeable from the confines of a trench; the larks bravely singing in apparent critique of man's folly; the binary opposition between the song of the larks and the noise of the guns; the special awareness of dawn and sunset at morning and evening stand-to's; the conception of soldiers as lovers; and the focus on the ironic antithesis between beds and the graves 'where now we lie'" (249). But Fussell saves his most damning critique—what he calls "[breaking] this butterfly upon the wheel" (250)—for the poem's final lines, which devolve into what he calls "recruiting-poster rhetoric apparently applicable to any war" (249). "We finally see—and with a shock—" he writes, "what the last lines really are: they are a propaganda argument—words like vicious and stupid would not seem to go too far—against a negotiated peace" (250). (For another examination of the poem in relation to McCrae's Canadian national identity and the rondeau form, see Amanda French's paper "Poetic Propaganda and the Provincial Patriotism of ‘In Flanders Fields'" first presented at the 2005 SCMLA conference.)

Fussell's right, isn't he? As the slogan "If ye break faith—we shall not sleep" in the "Buy Victory Bonds" ad indicates, McCrae's poem was in fact pitch-perfect "recruiting-poster rhetoric," wasn't it? Well, almost. I would submit that it's worth noting how the Canadian government didn't exactly quote "In Flanders Fields" word for word. Instead, it excised the four words ("with us who die") that separate "If ye break faith" from "we shall not sleep" in the original poem—an act that works to repress the war's human costs and thus redirect the expression of faith to its financial ones. That is, in staging the purchase of Victory Bonds as an act of remembrance, the Canadian advertisement actually erases the object of the McCrae's memorial ("us who die"). In this bowdlerized version of the poem—and I don't use the term bowdlerize facetiously, as it means "to remove those parts of a text considered offensive, vulgar, or otherwise unseemly"—the poster sanitizes the war by silencing the voices of its dead, depicting war as a financial commitment rather than a human struggle and thus making the "propaganda argument ... against a negotiated peace" that Fussell describes.

But the repressed has a way of returning, just like the dead do. Consider, for example, the awesome item pictured here—a used ink blotter with Canada's "Buy Victory Bonds" ad featured on front. On the reverse, the ink stains grimly read like blood stains. And on the "front" (where the pun asks us to also read it as the battle line of war), the artifact's owner Vivian Hogarth signed her name in the upper right corner and corrected Canada's version of the poem, restoring the phrase "with us who die" and thus—in an act of what we might think of as zombie poetics—effectively writing the dead back into existence. Thank you, Vivian Hogarth. That's the type of memorial we would do well to keep in mind this Remembrance Day.

I'm an Associate Professor of English at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, where I teach and write about American poetry, especially the intersections of poetry and popular culture. My books are a monograph, Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America (Columbia UP, 2012), and a co-edited collection of essays, Poetry after Cultural Studies (U of Iowa P, 2011). I also write and maintain the blog Poetry & Popular Culture. For the Fall 2015 semester, I'll be writing and doing research in residence at the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress.