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Veterans' Day

The Story of War Poetry
By Sarah Lane
Oct 12, 2012, 13:14 PST

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The Story of War Poetry

There are many tried and true methods for reflecting and remembering difficult times in our lives. We talk endlessly to others who share our experiences. We write our stories in prose, in poetry, hoping to gain a sense of peace and the ability to move on. Some things, however, are near impossible to forget. War is one of these. No one wins in a war. On both sides people die, suffer, and never forget. Two poets who address this situation clearly and poignantly are John McCrae and Wilfred Owen.

John McCrae lived from 1872 to 1918. A Canadian physician, he fought on the Western Front in 1914. Soon he was transferred to the medical corps and assigned to a hospital in France. He died of pneumonia while on active duty in 1918. He is perhaps most remembered for his poem about the famous poppies concurrent with the soldiers who had died. He wrote his famous poem In Flanders Fields the day after presiding at the funeral of a friend and former student. His poem is now a memorial to all Veterans.

In Flanders Fields - John McCrae

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.

Wilfred Owen is another story altogether. He was born in the year 1893, but died in the same year as John McCrae, 1918. After becoming wounded in World War I he was sent to Edinburgh to recover. His poetry writing increased and his ability to depict the horror of war drew people to his work. Several poems were published and some even set to music. The most recent publication of his work was in 1963. Making his way back to France, Owen was killed in action on the Western Front. It was a week before the signing of the Armistice. His poetry serves as a bleak reminder of the tragedy of war. Dolce et decorum est was meant ironically as it translates to, ‘It Is Sweet And Honourable To Die For Ones' Country.’

Dulce Et Decorum Est
- Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! --- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime ---
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,---
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Source:       A & E Television Networks, McCrae House, Emory University

Additional Learning Links for The Story of War Poetry

The Story of John McCrae
Read the complete story of John McCrae, a famous son of Guelph, Ontario. Learn about exhibitions and events associated with him.
Source:       McCrae House

“My subject is war....”
View several selections from Wilfred Owens poetry and click the sound icon to hear an extract from a letter written by Owen in July of 1918.
Source:       Emory University

Wilfred and War
Learn the story of Owen's life, as well as the story of war. Includes his last letter home.
      Rich Geib’s Universe

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