My subject is War, and the pity of War

War has always brought forth some of the most intriguing works of art, and I would argue that World War I gave us the most significant poetry. In Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey is a memorial to 16 Great War poets with the inscription, "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the Pity."

Great War memorial - Ypres, Belgium
That inscription was taken from a poem by Wilfred Owen, probably the finest of the war's poets, and one of its last casualties. Known primarily for Dulce et Decorum est and Anthem for Doomed Youth, Owen was greatly influenced by Siegfried Sassoon, who is probably my favorite writer from this time - as regards his entire body of work. A quick read of How to Die and Counter-Attack evoke strong feelings even today. Both Owen and Sassoon displayed their bravery on the battlefield, but their works reflected a curve toward pacifism as the battles continued on the Western Front.

The famous names continue: Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves, Charles Sorley, Edward Thomas, et al. But the most famous Great War poem, at least to the general public, is likely In Flanders Fields. A personal favorite of mine, In Flanders Fields was written by Dr. John McRae, a Canadian physician.

Essex Farm Cemetery
In Flanders Fields was written just behind the lines of battle, a couple miles north of Ypres, Belgium. McRae originally threw the poem away, thinking it lacking. Thankfully it was picked up by a compatriot, and was eventually submitted to Punch magazine. Published on this date in 1915, the poem took hold among the British public, and eventually found fame across the world. Mourning the loss of a friend on the battlefield, McRae wrote of the tendency for poppies to spring up where the ground had been disturbed, and his opening stanza became one of the verses that schoolchildren would memorize for decades.

In Flanders Fields

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.

Battlefield poppies
McRae composed the poem at a spot called Essex Farm Cemetery, and today it's one of the most visited places on the Western Front. It's not uncommon to see double-decker buses lined up at the small cemetery, with school children traipsing down to see the spot where the poem was composed. They also visit the grave of Private Valentine Joe Strudwick, famous for joining the British army at 14 years of age and being killed in action a month before turning 16. So many come to see the grave of the boy their same age that artificial grass has been installed at that part of the cemetery. They pause for a moment, take a few pictures, then climb back on the bus for a quick drive back toward Ypres - perhaps to visit the In Flanders Field museum in the rebuilt cloth hall.

Cloth Hall - Ypres, Belgium
McRae's poem is still significant today, and just as poignant and lovely. But to balance it, lest war seem too glorious, I would suggest the last stanza from the Wilfred Owen classic.

"My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori."

(Translated from Latin - The old Lie: Sweet and honorable it is to die for one's country.)

There is nothing more that I can add. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the Pity.

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