Yesterday was Veteran’s Day here in the United States, elsewhere called Armistice Day. Originally intended to celebrate the end of World War One, Veteran’s Day now honors all those service personnel still living (both active and retired). For the past 48 hours or so I’ve been reflecting on two poems written during the First World War.
The first – “In Flanders Fields” – was written by Canadian physician John McRae. Its success has made it widely popular, and some credit the poem with popularizing the remembrance poppy. I remember memorizing this poem for a patriotic program in elementary school, and it has stuck with me ever since.
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.
The second poem – “Dulce Et Decorum Est” – was written by Wilfred Owen, a poet I was not introduced to until my college years. If I recall correctly, my freshman speech instructor used it as a dramatic reading. Her impassioned presentation brought Owen’s recollections to life and – I think – began my disillusionment with America’s military complex. It made me realize the reality of war and the myriad complexities involved in recovering from what one has seen, heard, and done in the name of one’s country.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.
GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
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.