Give this poem a rest?

What I am about to write will be seen by some as a “secular heresy.” I will no doubt outrage some of my readers, but please know that I am not trying to hurt anyone, simply to express my conflicted feelings, which I started to deal with in my previous post.

As a Christian with a theological training, I am well acquainted with the concept of heresy, which for most people means something akin to believing an untruth. The word comes from the Greek root meaning “to choose,” telling us that a heretic is someone who has chosen a different path from the so-called orthodox one.

The heresy I am proposing here is that we should give “In Flanders Fields” a decent funeral (or least an extended rest), and find another poem to read on November 11. John McCrae’s poem has been read at every Remembrance Day event I have ever attended. I have become used to hearing it read, often by a young person who has little connection to its roots, and even less understanding of the flow of the words. In particular, there should be no break between “we throw” and “the torch,” but because these usually lie on separate lines, the young readers break at the line change. If you’re going to read a poem in public, you could at least take pains to make sure that the language makes sense.

But that’s not my real point, and that’s not the heresy. My heresy (if you’ll allow the word in this context) is that I believe it’s time to stop reading this poem on this day. It has had its time. It has run its course. Its message is no longer appropriate for our times.

There are three verses in the poem. I have no argument with the first two, which are an elegy for those who have died in the course of war. As my previous post (I hope!) made clear, I have good reason to resonate with that sentiment. But then comes the third verse…

The elegiac tone gives way to the call to those who remain to “take up our quarrel with the foe.” The words were written in 1915, in the relatively early years of WWI, and the war may have seemed a good thing to pursue. The years to come would see the massive slaughters in the Somme, at Passchendaele, at many other places where so many people would die. For what? Who were the villains in this battle? WWI was fought for little reason, but it indelibly changed the face of Europe and much of the rest of the world. The armistice on 1918 ended the fighting, but the following years were times of huge upheaval and suffering in many places. It is safe to say that WWII, when civilians died in unprecedented numbers, was a direct consequence of the unresolved issues created by the first great war.

Back to the poem. Is it appropriate to reiterate a call to arms 114 years after it was written? To be sure, it reminds us of the reason for the deaths of the soldiers it recalls. But now we are in a different age, with a different set of issues, and a different sense of what must be done. The foes of 1915 have not been our foes for the past seventy or more years. They are our allies, co-creators of a future far different from what Col. McCrae could have imagined when he put pen to paper.

If we are going to remember the dead of past wars, as indeed we should, I would hope it would not be to remember in anger, and to continue the quarrel with the foes of yesteryear. I would rather hope that we could remember the dead both with sorrow and with the hope that the world of the future will be a world of peace.

Peace? I hold firm to the hope for peace on earth. But I struggle with the knowledge that the years since V-J Day in 1945 have rarely been blessed with peace. If anything, things seem to be getting worse.

When we gather on November 11 to remember those who gave their lives in the wars of the past century, I hope and pray that we may do so in the spirit of helping God to build that peace which is God’s desire for all people.

Can we still sound a call to arms? Or should we give “In Flanders Fields” a rest? What might we use instead? What poem expresses a call to build peace? The searing poetry of Wilfred Owen might be a place to start. Here is one of his most powerful poems, “The Parable of the Young Man and the Old,” a modern re-imagining of the story found in Genesis 22:1-14.

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, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets the trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy 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.

I read this poem once in a church service on the Sunday before Remembrance Day. I can still hear the collective gasp from the congregation as I read the last two lines. I have no regrets, but rather I continue to believe we should gasp at the horror of the inhumanity of war.

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robinw48

Retired priest of the Anglican Church of Canada, living in Edmonton AB, and serving as an Honorary Assistant at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Old Strathcona.

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