Two poems of World War One

Last night’s excellent episode of the ABC’s The War That Changed Us traced aspects of the Western front from the disaster of Fromelles in July 1916 – coincided with my mother’s 5th birthday I noticed – through Pozieres and onwards through 1917. I commend the ABC’s Centenary of WW1 page again. The episode ended with the singing of the first part of the famous Canadian poem “In Flanders Field”. Given what we had been seeing in the preceding hour I thought it proper that the patriotic conclusion of the poem was omitted. I shall do the same.

by John McCrae, May 1915

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.

You may read the whole poem here, and detail of how it came to be written.

It is thought that doctor John McCrae (30th November 1872 — 28th January 1918) began the draft for his famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ on the evening of the 2nd May, 1915 in the second week of fighting during the Second Battle of Ypres.

It is believed that the death of his friend, Alexis Helmer, was the inspiration for McCrae’s poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. The exact details of when the first draft was written may never be known because there are various accounts by those who were with McCrae at that time…

The part quoted stands as a most touching elegy, beautiful in its simplicity.

Another poem beautiful in its simplicity but far from lacking depth is a favourite of mine: W B Yeats, “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death”.

I know that I shall meet my fate,
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

There is a rather schoolteacherly account of the poem here – but it has quite a few interesting points to make. According to Wikipedia: “Wishing to show restraint from publishing political poems during the height of the war, Yeats withheld publication of the poem until after the conflict had ended.”

Last night’s episode alluded to the impact of Easter 1916 in Ireland on Australia, particularly in relation to the controversy over conscription. My reading earlier in the year of  Alan Monaghan’s Soldier’s Trilogy came to mind.

I managed to get the first and third parts of the trilogy – The Soldier’s Song and The Soldier’s Farewell – from Wollongong Library . I do regret not having read them in proper order. Even so, the three are among my top reads so far this year. See Goodreads and John Boland’s review.

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