Friday, 30 October 2009

In which I slam my fingers badly in A Little Knowledge.

Just passed a young guy selling poppies at King's Cross tube station, with the words: 'Poppies! Getcher poppies! All profits go to the armed forces!'

Er... no. No no no. To an armed forces charity. That's probably an important difference. I mean, it's not that I'm such a hopeless leftie I don't think we should have an armed forces, or even that they should be adequately funded, but I do think maybe buying a symbolic representation of a Flanders Fields poppy to help get the Royal Tank Regiment a new Challenger 2 might be ever so slightly missing the point.

Or so I thought. The above is what I composed in my head between hearing the guy and getting to my computer, but to my shame I realised I couldn't remember who wrote 'In Flanders Fields'. I assumed, however, that it was one of the Owen / Brooke / Sassoon / Graves gang, and I was absolutely sure - it didn't even occur to me to doubt - that the sentiment was of the 'Dulce Et Decorum Est' variety. Not at all, as I'm sure everyone but me knows. 'In Flanders Fields' is by the Canadian John McCrae, and ends:

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.

Those don't sound to me like the words of a man who'd be unhappy if we all chipped in for a tank.

(The tattered remains of my original point still just about stand, though. That's not what we're doing, and I'm glad about that.)


riffle said...

In the abstract, this all makes sense.

One would expect poems that became popular during or near the war to be more militaristic than those that are read more in later years. WWI is just such a colossal botch it's hard to conceive that from this distance.

Wilfred Owen was unknown and nearly unpublished before his death and only became popular in the 1960s. Probably something to do with proto-hippies in Literature departments (kudos to them for spreading his great poetry).

So, yes, it all makes sense. But, to your credit, you checked!

Sometimes one memorable bit trumps nearly everything else, and

"In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row"

Is memorable.

To pick a far more prosaic example of the part fighting back at the whole, Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" is a caustic indictment of capitalism.

"Born down in a dead man's town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that's been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up"

Reagan used it (until forbidden by Springsteen) because it would have people who couldn't parse the verses cheering the chorus "Born In The USA!" at rallies.

Persephone said...

John McCrae was a doctor and a teacher. He served in both the Boer War and the First World War as a medical officer, so I doubt he spent much time trying to kill people. In Flanders Fields was written shortly after he had watched a close friend die, and shortly before McCrae himself was killed off -- by pneumonia.

A lot of Canadians, myself included, can recite the poem by heart. Very few of us think of it as being pro-war, rather a plea to remember.

John Finnemore said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Finnemore said...

Please don't think I'm critising McCrae. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with being pro-war, at some points in history, and in any case I agree that it is largely a poem about grief, loss, remembrance and waste.

All I was saying is that it does express a pro-war sentiment - 'Take up our quarrel with the foe' is pretty unambiguous, surely - and that that took me by surprise. It was a comment on my lazy assumptions rather than on the poem or the poet.

Stu said...

John, I rather like the verse and imagery of the war poets. They come from a time when 'signing up' and defending your country was seen as a noble thing to do.

War was different then. Virtually 'hands on'.

Social attitudes have changed to such an extent that today's armed forces are advised not to wear their uniforms outside their barracks.

In the early 90's, a particular high point of the conflict, I did 2 tours of Bosnia. A 'war artist' was sent out to spend a month capturing images of HM Forces at work. Is that a job you apply for? Do you have business cards printed? After 10 days of spending time with what was described as an 'observer corps' (UN troops were there to watch, rather than defend or attack), the 'war artist' had to be evacuated back to the UK with a severe dose of the jitters.

The poets of WW1 were soliders who wrote from the heart and who, generally speaking, signed up for service. Their language and passion will remain a symbol for humanity and the generations that follow.

Slightly more, I feel, than someone who billed themselves as a 'war artist', took a few trips in a heavily armoured Warrior tank, scribbled a few sketches, crapped himself and played  the 'I want to go home' card.

We will never read the likes of Sassoon, Owen or McCrae again.

(I still reckon the guy selling poppies was up to something else!)

Persephone said...

I didn't think for a minute that you were tearing a strip off John McCrae, John. I think Stu is right in pointing out the historical context. The response of "take up our quarrel" comes from a man who had watched men, some friends, die up close. I do family history and the scale of the carnage of WW1 is hard to grasp, very few families in Britain, Canada, Australia, etc. untouched, a whole generation of young men wiped out for what was essentially a dog's breakfast of treaties. But that would not have been the thing to say to the grieving families.

It was a different time. The poem has lasted because it expressed this with simplicity and without bombast.

Richard O. Smith said...

Just to add to Riffle's point..... Springsteen became so disillusioned with the public's ability to misinterpret the song's/poem's meaning based on one famous line, that whenever he subsequently performed "Born in the USA" live, it invariably appeared on the set-list in Springsteen's own handwriting re-titled "USA Blues".

Stu said...

Well, I never: