Poem of the week: The Unconquered Dead by John McCrae

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Alamy</span>
Photograph: Alamy

The Unconquered Dead

“… defeated, with great loss.”

Not we the conquered! Not to us the blame
Of them that flee, of them that basely yield;
Nor ours the shout of victory, the fame
Of them that vanquish in a stricken field.

That day of battle in the dusty heat
We lay and heard the bullets swish and sing
Like scythes amid the over-ripened wheat,
And we the harvest of their garnering.

Some yielded, No, not we! Not we, we swear
By these our wounds; this trench upon the hill
Where all the shell-strewn earth is seamed and bare,
Was ours to keep; and lo! we have it still.

We might have yielded, even we, but death
Came for our helper; like a sudden flood
The crashing darkness fell; our painful breath
We drew with gasps amid the choking blood.

The roar fell faint and farther off, and soon
Sank to a foolish humming in our ears,
Like crickets in the long, hot afternoon
Among the wheat fields of the olden years.

Before our eyes a boundless wall of red
Shot through by sudden streaks of jagged pain!
Then a slow-gathering darkness overhead
And rest came on us like a quiet rain.

Not we the conquered! Not to us the shame,
Who hold our earthen ramparts, nor shall cease
To hold them ever; victors we, who came
In that fierce moment to our honoured peace.

John McCrae was born in 1872 in Guelph, Ontario, of Scottish parentage. He wrote verse as a youth, but never doubted that his vocation, like his father’s, would be a military one. He joined up, rose through the ranks to become a lieutenant colonel, and meanwhile studied medicine. He had retired from combat when he was appointed medical officer at the beginning of the first world war. In 1915 he wrote the famous rondeau, In Flanders Fields.

It was first published in Punch magazine, and, to burden it with an unpleasant modern metaphor, quickly “went viral”. The website here is evidence that it has received more recent attention as a schools set text. The site usefully tells us that it was written on 3 May, “the day after the funeral and burial of his friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, who had been killed during the second battle of Ypres. It is said that McCrae wrote the poem while sitting on the back of a medical field ambulance, with wild poppies blooming between the makeshift graves all around him.”

By now, you might be wondering why In Flanders Fields is not the current poem of the week! Belonging to the multi-generational mass of ex-schoolchildren whose curriculum emphasised Wilfred Owen as the supreme war poet, I’ve always seen opposition to the war as a prerequisite. Owen and Siegfried Sassoon emphasised horror, pity, and scathing satire: they did not believe in “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”. And so, despite the moving history of its writing, In Flanders Fields still seems to err on the sentimental side, unrealistically mixing lark-song, gunfire, poppies and crosses in the interests of pathos. Considering the depths of McCrae’s battlefield experience, his unwillingness to disturb that lyric surface might be read as denial, or even a tendency toward propaganda. More importantly, I wanted to see what McCrae’s other poems were like.

The poem I’ve chosen, The Unconquered Dead, allows McCrae to do what his ethics and training required: to valorise warfare and the military virtues. But there is no denial of the experience “on the ground” by its speakers, the warriors who now form, as the title perhaps too obviously points out, “the unconquered dead”.

The epigraph suggests the language of the war report. It’s the word “defeat” which I suspect inflames the poem to its argument. “Not we the conquered,” cry the unanimous shades. Repudiating the deserters, “them that basely flee”, they raise their voices ever more defiantly:

“Some yielded, No, not we! Not we, we swear
By these our wounds; this trench upon the hill
Where all the shell-strewn earth is seamed and bare,
Was ours to keep; and lo! we have it still.”

McCrae’s depictions of the battle scene are sparing, but have sensory immediacy: in the second stanza, for example, there’s “the dusty heat” and the sound of the bullets as they “swish and sing like scythes / Amid the over-ripened wheat”. McCrae’s analogy – death as a scythe cutting down the men like wheat at harvest – is not particularly original: it works because of the sound effects.

McCrae evokes the sensations of dying rather than risk any after-death illumination. Stanzas four, five and six again focus sense impressions: the battle noises sinking into “a foolish humming” that becomes a summertime memory of “crickets” (not cricket the game, thank goodness). Particularly striking is the vision of the “boundless wall of red / Shot through by sudden streaks of jagged pain! / Then a slow-gathering darkness overhead” before rest descends on the dying “like a quiet rain”.

As demonstrated by the fluent construction of In Flanders Fields, McCrae has a good “ear” and, while a stickler for the prosodic rules, he makes living verse of metrical regularity in The Unconquered Dead. The very predictability of the iambic pentameter gives the lines the tread of a funeral march. The long “A” vowel-sound recurrent in the overall rhyme-pattern (blame, fame, pain, rain, shame, came) echoes sounds of physical and perhaps emotional anguish. It’s not difficult to imagine that McCrae is once more remembering the death and funeral of his friend.

McCrae, exhausted, died of pneumonia and meningitis in 1918, before he could take up an offered promotion to be consultant physician to the British army. The Canadian Encyclopedia gives more biographical details, and some interesting photographs.

It was after the death and funeral of Prince Philip on 9 April that I reread McCrae. I was impressed that “a life of service” as the prince’s career had repeatedly been described, could have belonged to a character seemingly impish and impious. I found myself wishing I’d known more about his work before reaching conclusions. McCrae’s own sterling qualities do not, of course, make him a great poet. Too reliably perhaps, his “life of service”, military and medical, handed him his poetic material and attitudes, whether he was writing sea shanties or meditations on life, death and – a favourite topic, and the subject of a fine sonnet – social equality. Yet human virtues seem tangibly present in the point of view of The Unconquered Dead. McCrae was clearly a brave soldier and a devoted doctor. When he had the time, he was a minor poet, but a poet of traditions of public honour we have now almost lost.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting