A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature: over 400,000 monthly users
As the first shots of World War I were fired in the summer of 1914, Canada, as a member of the British Empire, became involved in the fight as well. John McCrae was appointed brigade-surgeon to the First Brigade of the Canadian Field Artillery.
In April 1915, McCrae was stationed in the trenches near Ypres, Belgium, in an area known as Flanders, during the bloody Second Battle of Ypres. In the midst of the tragic warfare, McCrae’s friend, twenty-two-year-old Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, was killed by artillery fire and buried in a makeshift grave. The following day, McCrae, after seeing the field of graves blooming with wild poppies, wrote his famous poem “In Flanders Fields,” which would be the second to last poem he would ever write. It was published in England’s Punch magazine in December 1915 and was later included in the posthumous collection In Flanders Fields and Other Poems (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1919).
As a sad postscript, McCrae started suffering from asthma attacks and bronchitis in the summer of 1917, then died of pneumonia and meningitis in January of 1918. It’s fitting that Leonard Cohen (an accomplished poet before he became famous as a song-writer and musician) recites “In Flanders Fields” in honor of his father who served in the Canadian army.
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.
Biographical information adapted from various sources, including Poets.org