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For and Against Poppies

on Remembrance Day

Kenneth Westhues, University of Waterloo, 2007

I've gotten into the habit, every fall around Remembrance Day, of taking ten minutes of a class to compare two poems from World War I, both written by soldiers on the Allied side who died in the war. Since I'm spending the fall term of 2007 in research and writing instead of teaching, I'll put the two poems side by side on this webpage.

The one below on the left, "In Flanders Fields," is by the Canadian John McRae. Most Canadians remember it from school, and many Brits and Americans know it, too. The custom of wearing a poppy on Remembrance Day comes from this poem.

The one below on the right, "The Parable of the Old Man and the Young," is by the Englishman Wilfred Owen. This poem is not as famous as McRae's but still widely known, especially in the UK.

I wouldn't mind if the two poems were reversed in popularity. McRae's reflects the blinkered vision essential to making war: compassion for fallen comrades on one's own side and a call to arms against the enemy. McRae warns that the dead will not rest unless readers of the poem "take up our quarrel with the foe."

Owen's poem springs from a wider vision. It shows compassion for all the soldiers who died, regardless of which side they were on, and it invokes God's judgment on the old men, the politicians responsible for making war.

Like most Canadians, I wear a poppy on November 11. For me, it is a reminder of a poem I like more than the one about Flanders fields.

In Flanders Fields

John McRae (1872-1918)

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 Parable of the Old Man and the Young

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac, the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, the fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there.
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not a hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.