Poppies That Were Ever Dropping
The first spring following the onset of the Great War saw a profusion of poppies growing in the fields of Flanders, both among the graves where the newly-buried soldiers lay, and in No-Man’s Land between the entrenched armies of the Allies and the Kaiser. The poppies became a symbol of the war, and are still used to mark Remembrance Day each year on the 11th of November.
The Canadian poet John McCrae popularized the symbol with his well-known poem:
|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.
Written in 1915, the poem still embodies the Victorian ideal of war. Idealism has not died; the patriotic fire still burns. Verdun and Ypres are over the horizon, and the awful, pointless carnage that will rage until 1918 has not yet become evident.
But by the following year, the English poet Isaac Rosenberg wrote about poppies in quite a different tone:
|The darkness crumbles away.
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens ?
What quaver — what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe —
Just a little white with the dust.
Notice that the Victorian voice has disappeared: here we have a thoroughly modern poetic style and sensibility. Just two years into the war, and the blazing youthful innocence is gone.
Neither of these poets was to survive the Great War. McCrae died of pneumonia in 1918, and Rosenberg was killed in battle the same year.
The First World War cut through the intellectual flower of the British Empire like a gigantic scythe. Educated and well-bred young men who rushed to volunteer in the idealistic autumn of 1914 were shot down, blown apart, gassed, and killed by fever in their thousands before the armistice came in 1918. Brilliant men, destined to be authors, poets, magazine editors, university dons — wiped out before their lives really began.
Even now, almost a century later, it is heartbreaking to contemplate the utterly pointless waste of youthful talent that was poured down the shell-holes of the Western Front.
It was this dreadful slaughter of the literate classes that turned elite opinion towards pacifism in the years after the war. The working-class victims in the trenches were mute; all they left were grieving widows and parents, and fatherless children. But the losses to English literature and poetry were felt in the highest reaches of the culture, and are reflected in the conventional wisdom even today.
Later posts will feature more of the Great War martyrs of English poetry.