Some favored flowers are living poems, while others fall more into the category of lovely, amusing, timely, fragrant, gregarious or – damning with faint praise – functional.
But in that category of living poetry the time-honored winner has to be the poppy. All credit goes to a World War I Canadian physician, a Lieutenant-Colonel named John McCrae, who just over a century ago wrote “In Flanders Fields”:
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.
McCrae was 41, and could have joined the Canadian medical corps, but instead opted to lead an artillery unit in a war so bloody 20,000 British soldiers were slaughtered in a single day.
McCrae fought in the second battle of Ypres in the Flanders region of Belgium. The Germans attacked with chlorine gas. The battle raged for 17 days. On May 2, 1915 Alexis Helmer, a close friend and student was killed. McCrae performed the burial service in a small cemetery outside his surgical dressing station – noting how the wild poppies grew in the ditches near where Helmer’s grave was marked with a wooden cross.
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.
There are several stories surrounding the poem, it’s enduring power. The most quoted is that McCrae – also a poet – wrote it the day after Helmer’s death while sitting in an ambulance; taking 20 minutes to pen 15 lines of verse that will last forever.
He first showed it to a Cyril Allinson, a 22-year-old sergeant-major, who, while delivering mail, had stood silently by while McCrae finished the poem.
“His face was very tired, but calm,” Allinson was quoted as saying. “He looked around from time to time, his eyes straying to Helmer’s grave.”
The story also goes that McCray, not happy with his poem, threw it away, but other soldiers rescued it and saw it published in “Punch” magazine on Dec, 8, 1915.
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 poem instantly took on many meanings; propaganda for the war effort, a rallying cry for the many soldiers mired in trench warfare. It was used to sell bonds throughout Canada and England for a war in which 11 million military personnel and 7 million civilians would die – along with the patriotic fever than came with it. McCrae also became a casualty, dying in 1918 of pneumonia and meningitis.
The poppy – as a result of his poem – still remains our symbol of conflict; so many dead in all our wars.
The poppies growing at our house – perhaps a little more orange that those of Flanders fields – grow wild along our driveway, and in a neighbor’s yard.
They always remind me of McCrea’s mournful poem – and this Monday, May 2, is the 101st anniversary of Alexis Helmer’s death. That’s a lot of responsibility for a flower.