"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Monday, January 16, 2017

Tillman’s Poetry Corner: Flanders Fields



John McCrae’s Flanders Fields is iconic. No more need be said. Unfortunately, its meaning has been distorted by the most popular voice and instrumental accompaniment. This new reading of the poem has transformed Flanders Fields meaning. My guess is that this metamorphosis was unintentional, but one and all should work to recover the original public meaning.

This is Flanders Fields. The key two changes are in bold.

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.

You can find several very fine readings and other renditions on Youtube. My favourites include:

These four readings are stylistically quite different from one another, but they are faithful to McCrae’s original text. How so? They each read “Scarce heard amid the guns below” as the last line of the first stanza.

There is a new rendition, and it has grown quite popular because its score (for voice and instruments) is simple and beautiful—making it all the more pernicious. This is how Flanders Fields is now read:

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 your 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.

See the difference? The new reading places “Scarce heard amid the guns below” at the beginning of the second stanza. You can find the unconstitutional post-modern rendition here (and nearly everywhere else): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WCd3lQY0o8.

So in what way do these changes affect the poems meaning?

In the original text, it is the larks—the natural world—that is “scarce heard” by man “amid the guns below.” The technological terror of modern war and death has separated man from nature, but the natural world continues. Mans separation from the natural world confirms the horror and loneliness of war and death. As to the second stanza, it is the “Dead” who call out to us, the living; they call out to us as if they were actually alive. It is the larks who are distant from us, not our dead, hallowed through sacrifice. Understood this way, Flanders Fields is the Gettysburg Address, although it is in the third stanza where all this is made clear.

The new reading wholly transforms Flanders Fields’ meaning. In the new reading, we the living remain close to the larks. Indeed, it is the larks’ bravery, akin to that of the living and dead who fought [t]here,” which becomes the focus of the first stanza, as opposed to McCrae’s originally intended and deeply disturbing image of man, both living and dead,” cut off from the natural world. 

More importantly, in the new reading, it is now “the Dead” who we the living can “scarce[ly] hear[] amid the guns below.” The Dead’s call to us is now a plaintive one, rather than a compelling one. Indeed, the less we can clearly hear them, the less we believe it is truly they who we are hearing. The effect is to transform the third stanza from a Gettysburg Address-like call to united service in the great cause, to a personal prayer (i.e., the shift from “our quarrel,” which indicates that the living and our fallen remain as one people, to the lesser and more individualistic “your quarrel) or a mere meditation mourning for distant dead, with whom we do not remain in substantial communion. At worst, the new reading transforms a patriotic call for continued resolute devotion” into a claim for useless retribution. “Useless” in the sense that the dead, who would make these demands on the living, can draw no real benefit or succour in consequence of any future defeat or victory within our mortal reach. 

Seth

PS: One professor who teaches poetry in a university in a Commonwealth country (i.e., not in the United States, and not in Ireland) wrote me as follows:

What an interesting article! I had no idea this pernicious re-forming of the poem was taking place. Thank you SO much for sending this to me. In [my home country,] I have certainly seen how selective reading and snipping and quoting of this poem has undermined its ambiguities. This is such a fine observation.

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PPS: Another professor who teaches poetry in a university in a Commonwealth country (i.e., not in the United States, and not in Ireland) wrote me as follows: 

This is fascinating, and creepy. I had to listen to the tendentious musical rendition on YouTube a couple of times to take in the difference, and it really does change the poem’s meaning significantly. The change of emphasis is insidious enough, but the substitution of “Take up your quarrel with the foe” for the original is a bit bizarre. I wonder just how widespread this version has become… 

It just so happens that I’m teaching my WWI poetry class again this semester, so this will come quite handy. 

[end quotation]

I can respond as follows: 

The change from “our” to “your” makes complete sense; it is not bizarre at all; it accords with shifting the end-line from the first stanza to the second stanza. If the dead are dead, and we are not in communion with them, then it is no longer “their” cause so it cannot be “our” cause—it is just “your” cause, as in the living.


I don’t think all these changes were intentional. It is just the concept of devotion and sacrifice to a national cause is nearly incomprehensible to moderns. The revised version is the best sense a modern could make of the poem and was probably how they (mis)heard it because they could not otherwise recognize the original meaning. So their mind played a trick on them and modified the words into something more sensible which they could understand. This sort of thing happens all the time when modern readers read old or pre-modern law. Viz, “the prisoner shall not receive the benefit of clergy” has confused modern readers for 100s of year.

[end quotation] 


Seth Barrett Tillman, This is what balanced news reporting looks like ...., The New Reform Club (Jan. 13, 2017, 9:04 AM). [here



1 comment:

dearieme said...

"I had no idea this pernicious re-forming of the poem was taking place." Nor had I. Keep up the good work, Mr Tillman.