On April 22, 1915, Allied soldiers in their trenches in Flanders (a part of Belgium) watched as a mysterious cloud rolled down the hill toward them. It was 150 tons of chlorine gas that would kill nearly everyone in the target area. It was the opening of the Second Battle of Ypres which produced around 114,000 casualties. A Canadian medic, Lt. Col. John D. McCrae, tended to the sick, injured and dying. He noticed the poppies growing in the fields, oblivious to the violence and death all around.
On Dec. 8 of that year, Punch magazine published McCrae's poem "In Flanders Fields." In it he speaks for fallen soldiers who pass the torch to others to carry on the fight. It is the reason that many nations commemorate Nov. 11 each year with poppies.
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.
It is a haunting poem that demands those who follow remember with their actions as well as with their hearts. It is significant this week because it has become so connected to what we now call Veterans' Day. The name change from Armistice Day (or Remembrance Day) occurred in June 1954 to include those who served in World War II and Korea.
There are other poems set to music that grew out of war that have had tremendous influence on our society. Walt Whitman is perhaps the most notable Civil War poet. And there is Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic" that is full of Biblical imagery. Here are the first and, less well-known, third verses.
"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on."
"I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
'As ye deal with my contemners*, so with you my grace shall deal';
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on."
*Those holding her in contempt.
A third poem that we all know is "The Defense of Fort McHenry," written by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812 as the British were attempting to take Baltimore. It would eventually become our national anthem.
"O! say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?"
There are few things in life that spur our imaginations more than conflict and overcoming difficulties. Poetry is especially powerful as a means of communicating violence and victory (or defeat -- see, "Charge of the Light Brigade"). I believe this is true because poetry peels away all unnecessary words while pushing our imagination into places that we do not normally inhabit.
It may seem a strange pivot, but it is worth noting that many of the poems in the Bible were written by a veteran of many wars and battles. When we read the Psalms written by David, we are reading the words of one who knew what it was like to be pursued. He knew what it was like to be unjustly accused and attacked. He knew what it was like to face enemy lines and defeat their heroes. No fewer that eight Psalms give us a specific context.
"To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments. A Maskil of David, when the Ziphites went and told Saul, 'David is in hiding among us.'
Save me, O God, by thy name,
and vindicate me by thy might.
Hear my prayer, O God;
give ear to the words of my mouth.
For insolent men have risen against me,
ruthless men seek my life;
they do not set God before them." (Psalm 54:1-3, RSV).
Poems have life beyond their context. They connect us to our past. They give us courage to live today. They form our character we take into the future. Be thankful for those veterans and the poets who wrote about them who have given us stories worth telling.
Sean Niestrath lives and ministers in Madisonville. You may contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.