An Old Refrain
The medic who went around in circles
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
— John McCrae
The Canadian military doctor John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” was an instant success when it appeared in Punch magazine in December 1915. It went on to become the most widely published and quoted English poem of the First World War.
The intricate structure, however, caused some confusion: the poem’s fifteen lines are broken up into three unequal stanzas, it uses only two rhymes in an irregular sequence, and the first three words are repeated as a refrain at the end of the second and third stanzas. Several of the “reply” poems inspired by its popularity tried to echo this structure only to end up mangling it.
In the posthumous collection of McCrae’s work that came out shortly after the Armistice, Sir Andrew Macphail, a long-time friend of the poet and editor of The University Magazine, presumed that he had introduced some new variation on the sonnet. In fact, it was quite the opposite: McCrae had used a centuries-old French form, the rondeau, that had been supplanted later by the sonnet.
How was it that a poem written by a colonial doctor in the trenches of the Western Front took the form of medieval verse? One answer can be found in a 2004 doctoral dissertation by Amanda French, who brought to light a brief Victorian trend of reviving medieval French forms, including the rondeau. The mode had largely faded again by the dawn of the twentieth century, but it continued, French argued, in the somewhat backward colonies. McCrae started writing poetry when he was a medical student in Toronto in the 1890s, so the timing works, and he wrote other rondeaux before his most famous attempt at the genre.
French noted that the few who recognized “In Flanders Fields” as a rondeau found the choice discordant for such a serious topic, because the form was mostly used in light verse. Indeed, according to Western University’s Mario Longtin, its medieval origins lie in music and dance, and it was always considered a playful format. Much of the medieval corpus consists of lighthearted amorous verse and pastorals; Chaucer wrote a rondeau about summer.
Despite its intricacy, Longtin has pointed out, the rondeau was also an easy format. With short octosyllabic lines, only two rhymes, and a refrain to provide structure, examples could be tossed off relatively quickly. This simplicity perhaps helps to explain why McCrae turned to the style when, in the hours after burying a friend and fellow officer in the midst of the Second Battle of Ypres, he scribbled down his lines in or near his first-aid dugout.
And McCrae was hardly the first to choose the rondeau for such a serious subject. The poem’s ease had long made it versatile. At the dawn of the Renaissance, for example, a group of burghers in the provincial city of Rouen founded a contest in praise of the Virgin Mary and introduced a prize for the rondeau. In the hands of these lawyers, doctors, merchants, and others, it became a moral vehicle for religious devotion.
Like those French burghers, McCrae was a somewhat provincial professional who wrote poetry as a sideline. Like them, he was devoutly religious (a Presbyterian), and faith was often present in his verse. Like them, he transfigured the rondeau into a vessel for a serious message. “In Flanders Fields” manages to encompass, in short order, multiple characteristics of the rondeau. It is pastoral and opens with an evocation of nature. It is a poem of love and its loss: the dead “loved and were loved.” It is infused with religious imagery: the dead beyond the grave, the call to not break faith, and the image of the larks singing on high, suggesting the divine drowned out by powerful guns.
It is also an expression of patriotism, with the last stanza calling for renewed war effort. Modern critics have found the sudden change from elegy to exhortation jarring — and have dismissed it when compared with the more sophisticated, explicitly anti-war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. But a “turn” has been a standard feature at the end of short poems for centuries. The contrast it created reflected a conflict within both McCrae and the general population, which may help explain the poem’s success.
In Canada, McCrae moved in imperialist literary circles that included his friend Stephen Leacock, and he had volunteered to fight in the Boer War. But in France, he was faced with horrors that affected him profoundly: poison gas, relentless bombardment, mass casualties, the obliteration of cities, the deaths of friends. The poem reflects the conflicting impulses of horror and patriotism felt by himself and by the English-speaking world that embraced his words.
But the rondeau form, too, perhaps contributed to this popularity. As Longtin has observed, the refrain that’s repeated at the beginning, middle, and end creates, as the designation suggests, a circle. It embraces the reader, who can anticipate and repeat the words. That circularity is at once commemorative and unending — eternal. The rondeau embodied the message McCrae wanted to convey in both his elegy and his exhortation: a call to keep those who died in a distant war in the collective memory as an ever-present part of the living community.