In Flanders Fields And Other Poems (2 page)

BOOK: In Flanders Fields And Other Poems
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The Oldest Drama

_"It fell on a day, that he went out to his father to the reapers. And he said unto his father, My head, my head. And he said to a lad, Carry him to his mother. And . . . he sat on her knees till noon, and then died. And she went up, and laid him on the bed. . . . And shut the door upon him and went out."_

Immortal Story That No Mother's Heart

Ev'n yet can read, nor feel the biting pain That rent her soul! Immortal not by art Which makes a long past sorrow sting again

Like grief of yesterday: but since it said In simplest word the truth which all may see, Where any mother sobs above her dead And plays anew the silent tragedy.

I Saw Two Sowers In Life's Field At Morn...

I saw two sowers in Life's field at morn, To whom came one in angel guise and said, "Is it for labour that a man is born? Lo: I am Ease. Come ye and eat my bread!" Then gladly one forsook his task undone And with the Tempter went his slothful way, The other toiled until the setting sun With stealing shadows blurred the dusty day.

Ere harvest time, upon earth's peaceful breast Each laid him down among the unreaping dead. "Labour hath other recompense than rest, Else were the toiler like the fool," I said; "God meteth him not less, but rather more Because he sowed and others reaped his store."

There Stands A Hostel By A Travelled Way...

There stands a hostel by a travelled way; Life is the road and Death the worthy host; Each guest he greets, nor ever lacks to say, "How have ye fared?" They answer him, the most, "This lodging place is other than we sought; We had intended farther, but the gloom Came on apace, and found us ere we thought: Yet will we lodge. Thou hast abundant room."

Within sit haggard men that speak no word, No fire gleams their cheerful welcome shed; No voice of fellowship or strife is heard But silence of a multitude of dead. "Naught can I offer ye," quoth Death, "but rest!" And to his chamber leads each tired guest.

I Saw A King, Who Spent His Life To Weav...

I saw a King, who spent his life to weave Into a nation all his great heart thought, Unsatisfied until he should achieve The grand ideal that his manhood sought; Yet as he saw the end within his reach, Death took the sceptre from his failing hand, And all men said, "He gave his life to teach The task of honour to a sordid land!" Within his gates I saw, through all those years, One at his humble toil with cheery face, Whom (being dead) the children, half in tears, Remembered oft, and missed him from his place. If he be greater that his people blessed Than he the children loved, God knoweth best.

I Saw A City Filled With Lust And Shame,...

I saw a city filled with lust and shame, Where men, like wolves, slunk through the grim half-light; And sudden, in the midst of it, there came One who spoke boldly for the cause of Right.

And speaking, fell before that brutish race Like some poor wren that shrieking eagles tear, While brute Dishonour, with her bloodless face Stood by and smote his lips that moved in prayer.

"Speak not of God! In centuries that word Hath not been uttered! Our own king are we." And God stretched forth his finger as He heard And o'er it cast a thousand leagues of sea.

One Spake Amid The Nations, "Let Us Ceas...

One spake amid the nations, "Let us cease From darkening with strife the fair World's light, We who are great in war be great in peace. No longer let us plead the cause by might."

But from a million British graves took birth A silent voice -- the million spake as one -- "If ye have righted all the wrongs of earth Lay by the sword! Its work and ours is done."

Amid Earth's Vagrant Noises, He Caught T...

Amid earth's vagrant noises, he caught the note sublime: To-day around him surges from the silences of Time A flood of nobler music, like a river deep and broad, Fit song for heroes gathered in the banquet-hall of God.

The Earth Grows White With Harvest; All...

The earth grows white with harvest; all day long The sickles gleam, until the darkness weaves Her web of silence o'er the thankful song Of reapers bringing home the golden sheaves.

The wave tops whiten on the sea fields drear, And men go forth at haggard dawn to reap; But ever 'mid the gleaners' song we hear The half-hushed sobbing of the hearts that weep.

The Dying Of Pere Pierre

". . . with two other priests; the same night he died, and was buried by the shores of the lake that bears his name." Chronicle.

"Nay, grieve not that ye can no honour give To these poor bones that presently must be But carrion; since I have sought to live Upon God's earth, as He hath guided me, I shall not lack! Where would ye have me lie? High heaven is higher than cathedral nave: Do men paint chancels fairer than the sky?" Beside the darkened lake they made his grave, Below the altar of the hills; and night Swung incense clouds of mist in creeping lines That twisted through the tree-trunks, where the light Groped through the arches of the silent pines: And he, beside the lonely path he trod, Lay, tombed in splendour, in the House of God.

The Day Is Past And The Toilers Cease;

The land grows dim 'mid the shadows grey, And hearts are glad, for the dark brings peace At the close of day.

Each weary toiler, with lingering pace, As he homeward turns, with the long day done, Looks out to the west, with the light on his face Of the setting sun.

Yet some see not (with their sin-dimmed eyes) The promise of rest in the fading light; But the clouds loom dark in the angry skies At the fall of night.

And some see only a golden sky Where the elms their welcoming arms stretch wide To the calling rooks, as they homeward fly At the eventide.

It speaks of peace that comes after strife, Of the rest He sends to the hearts He tried, Of the calm that follows the stormiest life -- God's eventide.

Upon Watts' Picture "Sic Transit"

_"What I spent I had; what I saved, I lost; what I gave, I have."_

But yesterday the tourney, all the eager joy of life, The waving of the banners, and the rattle of the spears, The clash of sword and harness, and the madness of the strife; To-night begin the silence and the peace of endless years.

(One sings within.)

But yesterday the glory and the prize, And best of all, to lay it at her feet, To find my guerdon in her speaking eyes: I grudge them not, -- they pass, albeit sweet.

The ring of spears, the winning of the fight, The careless song, the cup, the love of friends, The earth in spring -- to live, to feel the light -- 'Twas good the while it lasted: here it ends.

Remain the well-wrought deed in honour done, The dole for Christ's dear sake, the words that fall In kindliness upon some outcast one, -- They seemed so little: now they are my All.

A Song Of Comfort

_"Sleep, weary ones, while ye may -- Sleep, oh, sleep!"_ Eugene Field.

Thro' May time blossoms, with whisper low, The soft wind sang to the dead below: "Think not with regret on the Springtime's song And the task ye left while your hands were strong. The song would have ceased when the Spring was past, And the task that was joyous be weary at last."

To the winter sky when the nights were long The tree-tops tossed with a ceaseless song: "Do ye think with regret on the sunny days And the path ye left, with its untrod ways? The sun might sink in a storm cloud's frown And the path grow rough when the night came down."

In the grey twilight of the autumn eves, It sighed as it sang through the dying leaves: "Ye think with regret that the world was bright, That your path was short and your task was light; The path, though short, was perhaps the best And the toil was sweet, that it led to rest."

An Uphill Path, Sun-Gleams Between The S...

An uphill path, sun-gleams between the showers, Where every beam that broke the leaden sky Lit other hills with fairer ways than ours; Some clustered graves where half our memories lie; And one grim Shadow creeping ever nigh: And this was Life.

Wherein we did another's burden seek, The tired feet we helped upon the road, The hand we gave the weary and the weak, The miles we lightened one another's load, When, faint to falling, onward yet we strode: This too was Life.

Till, at the upland, as we turned to go Amid fair meadows, dusky in the night, The mists fell back upon the road below; Broke on our tired eyes the western light; The very graves were for a moment bright: And this was Death.

At The Drowsy Dusk When The Shadows Cree...

At the drowsy dusk when the shadows creep From the golden west, where the sunbeams sleep,

An angel mused: "Is there good or ill In the mad world's heart, since on Calvary's hill

'Round the cross a mid-day twilight fell That darkened earth and o'ershadowed hell?"

Through the streets of a city the angel sped; Like an open scroll men's hearts he read.

In a monarch's ear his courtiers lied And humble faces hid hearts of pride.

Men's hate waxed hot, and their hearts grew cold, As they haggled and fought for the lust of gold.

Despairing, he cried, "After all these years Is there naught but hatred and strife and tears?"

He found two waifs in an attic bare; -- A single crust was their meagre fare --

One strove to quiet the other's cries, And the love-light dawned in her famished eyes

As she kissed the child with a motherly air: "I don't need mine, you can have my share."

Then the angel knew that the earthly cross And the sorrow and shame were not wholly loss.

At dawn, when hushed was earth's busy hum And men looked not for their Christ to come,

From the attic poor to the palace grand, The King and the beggar went hand in hand.

Cometh The Night. The Wind Falls Low,

The trees swing slowly to and fro: Around the church the headstones grey Cluster, like children strayed away But found again, and folded so.

No chiding look doth she bestow: If she is glad, they cannot know; If ill or well they spend their day, Cometh the night.

Singing or sad, intent they go; They do not see the shadows grow; "There yet is time," they lightly say, "Before our work aside we lay"; Their task is but half-done, and lo! Cometh the night.

If Night Should Come And Find Me At My T...

If night should come and find me at my toil, When all Life's day I had, tho' faintly, wrought, And shallow furrows, cleft in stony soil Were all my labour: Shall I count it naught

If only one poor gleaner, weak of hand, Shall pick a scanty sheaf where I have sown? "Nay, for of thee the Master doth demand Thy work: the harvest rests with Him alone."

I. In Flanders Fields

"In Flanders Fields", the piece of verse from which this little book takes its title, first appeared in 'Punch' in the issue of December 8th, 1915. At the time I was living in Flanders at a convent in front of Locre, in shelter of Kemmel Hill, which lies seven miles south and slightly west of Ypres. The piece bore no signature, but it was unmistakably from the hand of John McCrae.

From this convent of women which was the headquarters of the 6th Canadian Field Ambulance, I wrote to John McCrae, who was then at Boulogne, accusing him of the authorship, and furnished him with evidence. From memory--since at the front one carries one book only--I quoted to him another piece of his own verse, entitled "The Night Cometh":

"Cometh the night. The wind falls low, The trees swing slowly to and fro; Around the church the headstones grey Cluster, like children stray'd away, But found again, and folded so."

It will be observed at once by reference to the text that in form the two poems are identical. They contain the same number of lines and feet as surely as all sonnets do. Each travels upon two rhymes with the members of a broken couplet in widely separated refrain. To the casual reader this much is obvious, but there are many subtleties in the verse which made the authorship inevitable. It was a form upon which he had worked for years, and made his own. When the moment arrived the medium was ready. No other medium could have so well conveyed the thought.

This familiarity with his verse was not a matter of accident. For many years I was editor of the 'University Magazine', and those who are curious about such things may discover that one half of the poems contained in this little book were first published upon its pages. This magazine had its origin in McGill University, Montreal, in the year 1902. Four years later its borders were enlarged to the wider term, and it strove to express an educated opinion upon questions immediately concerning Canada, and to treat freely in a literary way all matters which have to do with politics, industry, philosophy, science, and art.

To this magazine during those years John McCrae contributed all his verse. It was therefore not unseemly that I should have written to him, when "In Flanders Fields" appeared in 'Punch'. Amongst his papers I find my poor letter, and many others of which something more might be made if one were concerned merely with the literary side of his life rather than with his life itself. Two references will be enough. Early in 1905 he offered "The Pilgrims" for publication. I notified him of the place assigned to it in the magazine, and added a few words of appreciation, and after all these years it has come back to me.

The letter is dated February 9th, 1905, and reads: "I place the poem next to my own buffoonery. It is the real stuff of poetry. How did you make it? What have you to do with medicine? I was charmed with it: the thought high, the image perfect, the expression complete; not too reticent, not too full. Videntes autem stellam gavisi sunt gaudio magno valde. In our own tongue,--'slainte filidh'." To his mother he wrote, "the Latin is translatable as, 'seeing the star they rejoiced with exceeding gladness'." For the benefit of those whose education has proceeded no further than the Latin, it may be explained that the two last words mean, "Hail to the poet".

To the inexperienced there is something portentous about an appearance in print and something mysterious about the business of an editor. A legend has already grown up around the publication of "In Flanders Fields" in 'Punch'. The truth is, "that the poem was offered in the usual way and accepted; that is all." The usual way of offering a piece to an editor is to put it in an envelope with a postage stamp outside to carry it there, and a stamp inside to carry it back. Nothing else helps.

An editor is merely a man who knows his right hand from his left, good from evil, having the honesty of a kitchen cook who will not spoil his confection by favour for a friend. Fear of a foe is not a temptation, since editors are too humble and harmless to have any. There are of course certain slight offices which an editor can render, especially to those whose writings he does not intend to print, but John McCrae required none of these. His work was finished to the last point. He would bring his piece in his hand and put it on the table. A wise editor knows when to keep his mouth shut; but now I am free to say that he never understood the nicety of the semi-colon, and his writing was too heavily stopped.

He was not of those who might say,--take it or leave it; but rather,--look how perfect it is; and it was so. Also he was the first to recognize that an editor has some rights and prejudices, that certain words make him sick; that certain other words he reserves for his own use,--"meticulous" once a year, "adscititious" once in a life time. This explains why editors write so little. In the end, out of mere good nature, or seeing the futility of it all, they contribute their words to contributors and write no more.

The volume of verse as here printed is small. The volume might be enlarged; it would not be improved. To estimate the value and institute a comparison of those herein set forth would be a congenial but useless task, which may well be left to those whose profession it is to offer instruction to the young. To say that "In Flanders Fields" is not the best would involve one in controversy. It did give expression to a mood which at the time was universal, and will remain as a permanent record when the mood is passed away.

The poem was first called to my attention by a Sapper officer, then Major, now Brigadier. He brought the paper in his hand from his billet in Dranoutre. It was printed on page 468, and Mr. 'Punch' will be glad to be told that, in his annual index, in the issue of December 29th, 1915, he has misspelled the author's name, which is perhaps the only mistake he ever made. This officer could himself weave the sonnet with deft fingers, and he pointed out many deep things. It is to the sappers the army always goes for "technical material".

The poem, he explained, consists of thirteen lines in iambic tetrameter and two lines of two iambics each; in all, one line more than the sonnet's count. There are two rhymes only, since the short lines must be considered blank, and are, in fact, identical. But it is a difficult mode. It is true, he allowed, that the octet of the sonnet has only two rhymes, but these recur only four times, and the liberty of the sestet tempers its despotism,--which I thought a pretty phrase. He pointed out the dangers inherent in a restricted rhyme, and cited the case of Browning, the great rhymster, who was prone to resort to any rhyme, and frequently ended in absurdity, finding it easier to make a new verse than to make an end.

At great length--but the December evenings in Flanders are long, how long, O Lord!--this Sapper officer demonstrated the skill with which the rhymes are chosen. They are vocalized. Consonant endings would spoil the whole effect. They reiterate O and I, not the O of pain and the Ay of assent, but the O of wonder, of hope, of aspiration; and the I of personal pride, of jealous immortality, of the Ego against the Universe. They are, he went on to expound, a recurrence of the ancient question: "How are the dead raised, and with what body do they come?" "How shall I bear my light across?" and of the defiant cry: "If Christ be not raised, then is our faith vain."

The theme has three phases: the first a calm, a deadly calm, opening statement in five lines; the second in four lines, an explanation, a regret, a reiteration of the first; the third, without preliminary crescendo, breaking out into passionate adjuration in vivid metaphor, a poignant appeal which is at once a blessing and a curse. In the closing line is a satisfying return to the first phase,--and the thing is done. One is so often reminded of the poverty of men's invention, their best being so incomplete, their greatest so trivial, that one welcomes what--this Sapper officer surmised--may become a new and fixed mode of expression in verse.

As to the theme itself--I am using his words: what is his is mine; what is mine is his--the interest is universal. The dead, still conscious, fallen in a noble cause, see their graves overblown in a riot of poppy bloom. The poppy is the emblem of sleep. The dead desire to sleep undisturbed, but yet curiously take an interest in passing events. They regret that they have not been permitted to live out their life to its normal end. They call on the living to finish their task, else they shall not sink into that complete repose which they desire, in spite of the balm of the poppy. Formalists may protest that the poet is not sincere, since it is the seed and not the flower that produces sleep. They might as well object that the poet has no right to impersonate the dead. We common folk know better. We know that in personating the dear dead, and calling in bell-like tones on the inarticulate living, the poet shall be enabled to break the lightnings of the Beast, and thereby he, being himself, alas! dead, yet speaketh; and shall speak, to ones and twos and a host. As it is written in resonant bronze: VIVOS . VOCO . MORTUOS . PLANGO . FULGURA . FRANGO: words cast by this officer upon a church bell which still rings in far away Orwell in memory of his father--and of mine.

By this time the little room was cold. For some reason the guns had awakened in the Salient. An Indian trooper who had just come up, and did not yet know the orders, blew "Lights out",--on a cavalry trumpet. The sappers work by night. The officer turned and went his way to his accursed trenches, leaving the verse with me.

John McCrae witnessed only once the raw earth of Flanders hide its shame in the warm scarlet glory of the poppy. Others have watched this resurrection of the flowers in four successive seasons, a fresh miracle every time it occurs. Also they have observed the rows of crosses lengthen, the torch thrown, caught, and carried to victory. The dead may sleep. We have not broken faith with them.

It is little wonder then that "In Flanders Fields" has become the poem of the army. The soldiers have learned it with their hearts, which is quite a different thing from committing it to memory. It circulates, as a song should circulate, by the living word of mouth, not by printed characters. That is the true test of poetry,--its insistence on making itself learnt by heart. The army has varied the text; but each variation only serves to reveal more clearly the mind of the maker. The army says, "AMONG the crosses"; "felt dawn AND sunset glow"; "LIVED and were loved". The army may be right: it usually is.

Nor has any piece of verse in recent years been more widely known in the civilian world. It was used on every platform from which men were being adjured to adventure their lives or their riches in the great trial through which the present generation has passed. Many "replies" have been made. The best I have seen was written in the 'New York Evening Post'. None but those who were prepared to die before Vimy Ridge that early April day of 1916 will ever feel fully the great truth of Mr. Lillard's opening lines, as they speak for all Americans:

"Rest ye in peace, ye Flanders dead. The fight that ye so bravely led We've taken up."

They did--and bravely. They heard the cry--"If ye break faith, we shall not sleep."

BOOK: In Flanders Fields And Other Poems
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