The Great War produced some wonderful poetry; it’s strange that an event so so ugly could create such beauty. There was something about men under shell fire and stretched to their very limits which made them pick up a pen and compose amazing prose and verse.
Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier romanticizes war with its opening lines ‘If I should die think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is forever England.’
Wilfred Owen, on the other hand, wrote Dulce et decorum est’, considered by many to be the greatest anti-war poem ever written, with its vivid description of the after effects of a gas attack: ‘If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs.’
And then there is the greatest war poem of them all, ‘In Flanders Fields’, by Canadian army medic John McCrae. He wrote it in the aftermath of the death of a friend whose body was torn apart by a shell; his body parts had to be gathered up in a sack for burial.
Yet it was not written in anger, but more in hope that this one tragic death, among so many, should not be in vain. And so it is a call for others to finish what those who are dead have started: ‘Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw the torch.’
This anthology, which includes contributions from a wide range of commentators such as novelists Joseph Boyden and Margaret Attwood, and historians Tim Cook and Jonathan Vance, is testimony to the enduring relevance of In Flanders Fields, which was written in a muddy trench in Belgium, 100 years ago.
John Pateman is Chief Librarian of the Thunder Bay Public Library.