I. In Flanders Fields
“In Flanders Fields”, the piece of verse from which this little book takes its title, first appeared in ‘Punch’ in the issue of December 8th, 1915. At the time I was living in Flanders at a convent in front of Locre, in shelter of Kemmel Hill, which lies seven miles south and slightly west of Ypres. The piece bore no signature, but it was unmistakably from the hand of John McCrae.
From this convent of women which was the headquarters of the 6th Canadian Field Ambulance, I wrote to John McCrae, who was then at Boulogne, accusing him of the authorship, and furnished him with evidence. From memory–since at the front one carries one book only–I quoted to him another piece of his own verse, entitled “The Night Cometh”:
“Cometh the night. The wind falls low,
The trees swing slowly to and fro;
Around the church the headstones grey
Cluster, like children stray’d away,
But found again, and folded so.”
It will be observed at once by reference to the text that in form the two poems are identical. They contain the same number of lines and feet as surely as all sonnets do. Each travels upon two rhymes with the members of a broken couplet in widely separated refrain. To the casual reader this much is obvious, but there are many subtleties in the verse which made the authorship inevitable. It was a form upon which he had worked for years, and made his own. When the moment arrived the medium was ready. No other medium could have so well conveyed the thought.
This familiarity with his verse was not a matter of accident. For many years I was editor of the ‘University Magazine’, and those who are curious about such things may discover that one half of the poems contained in this little book were first published upon its pages. This magazine had its origin in McGill University, Montreal, in the year 1902. Four years later its borders were enlarged to the wider term, and it strove to express an educated opinion upon questions immediately concerning Canada, and to treat freely in a literary way all matters which have to do with politics, industry, philosophy, science, and art.
To this magazine during those years John McCrae contributed all his verse. It was therefore not unseemly that I should have written to him, when “In Flanders Fields” appeared in ‘Punch’. Amongst his papers I find my poor letter, and many others of which something more might be made if one were concerned merely with the literary side of his life rather than with his life itself. Two references will be enough. Early in 1905 he offered “The Pilgrims” for publication. I notified him of the place assigned to it in the magazine, and added a few words of appreciation, and after all these years it has come back to me.
The letter is dated February 9th, 1905, and reads: “I place the poem next to my own buffoonery. It is the real stuff of poetry. How did you make it? What have you to do with medicine? I was charmed with it: the thought high, the image perfect, the expression complete; not too reticent, not too full. Videntes autem stellam gavisi sunt gaudio magno valde. In our own tongue,–‘slainte filidh’.” To his mother he wrote, “the Latin is translatable as, ‘seeing the star they rejoiced with exceeding gladness’.” For the benefit of those whose education has proceeded no further than the Latin, it may be explained that the two last words mean, “Hail to the poet”.
To the inexperienced there is something portentous about an appearance in print and something mysterious about the business of an editor. A legend has already grown up around the publication of “In Flanders Fields” in ‘Punch’. The truth is, “that the poem was offered in the usual way and accepted; that is all.” The usual way of offering a piece to an editor is to put it in an envelope with a postage stamp outside to carry it there, and a stamp inside to carry it back. Nothing else helps.