I’m going to do a comparison between John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Field, and Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Aftermath’. Both poems were written in the First World War era and both reflect certain themes from the war.
I’ll talk about the authors first. John McCrae was born in Guelph, Ontario on November 30th, 1872. He is a Canadian poet, physician and author. He wrote ‘In Flanders Field’ while he was still on the battlefront during the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium, during the First World War, on May 3rd, 1915. In Flanders Field became one of the world’s most renowned and beloved of all war and Remembrance Day poems.Order now
Siegfried Sassoon was born and raised in Matfield, Kent, England on September 8th, 1886. He is an English poet, author and soldier. ‘Aftermath’ was published in 1920. He became one of the world’s leading poets of the First World War. He believed the war was pointless. During the war, he returned to England on leave because he was ill from Gastric fever. He noticed that perceptions of war at home were very different to what the war was really like, and this angered him. So he decided to write poems that broke the classical war poem mode. His poems, instead of glorifying war and patriotism, he brought harsh details from the experiences of soldiers in war. This is the difference between these two poems.
Flanders was where war casualties were buried and red poppies used to go there and these poppies eventually became remembrance symbols for the war.
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.
This poem follows a very specific structure, known as French rondeau. Where each line contains 8 syllables, and the rhyming scheme AABBA AABC AABBAC. The following words rhyme: blow row… The rhyme scheme is significant because it creates the rhythm in which the poem is read and also acts as a break between stanzas.
In the first stanza, McCrae describes the battlefield. He says that larks cannot be heard above the gunfire. And before this, he uses symbolism, as poppies symbolize death in WWI, to convey the theme of death that is obviously associated with war. ‘Between the crosses, row on row, that mark our place’ is gloomy diction that means the soldiers know that death awaits them, and their graves, he crosses, have been set and a ‘place’ has been set for them already.
In the seconds stanza, the author reflects on life before the war. He writes about waking up in the morning, ‘dawn’, and watching sunsets ‘sunset glow’, and the human condition of love and being loved. The author writes about this previous life as if it were a distant memory. He says ‘short days ago’ to illustrate how far away that life seems with a time lapse. This is another theme of war, that the previous lives of soldiers seem so far away from them, so long ago, and they are forever changed by the war. McCrae drifts off a little bit, almost daydreaming about his previous life, but then swiftly shuts this daydream down with ‘and now we lie in Flanders Field’ to convey to the reader that yes, the soldiers had lives before, but now, as he says at the beginning of the stanza, they are Dead. Capitalization of the word Dead is perhaps to make it more than just a state the soldiers are in, but more of a formal label. They died for the country; they are the Dead. This is the patriotic sense that the poem gives off.
Patriotism is driven home in the last stanza. McCrae describes a torch being passed down to the next generation of soldiers. He is talking about soldiers wanting the next generation of soldiers to continue fighting the enemy, and to not give up; this is very patriotic. ‘The torch; be yours to hold it high” is a very proud, bold, and patriotic statement. McCrae ends with ‘We shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders Field”, to say that the soldiers will not give up, or rest, in their fight. This is peculiar, almost like a foreshadowing omen that the war will continue, possibly an omen of World War II?
The repetition of ‘In Flanders Field’ is an allusion to the title itself and adds to the theme of death, which is heavily associated with war, and since it is a rhyme scheme on its own, its very definitive and ends each stanza.
Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same–and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz–
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench–
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’
Do you remember that hour of din before the attack–
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads–those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.
This poem is very different to ‘In Flanders Fields’ in that, as I said before, it is not as patriotic, not as reserved. It uses crude, rough, unpleasant diction, such as ‘dark months’, ‘corpses rotting’ and ‘the rats’ to illustrate an extremely unpleasant image or the war, and the trenches. This fulfils his purpose, based on the background work, that he wants the public to know what life and war is actually like on the battlefront.
Sassoon uses many rhetorical questions in his poem, which may be an effort to create reflective quality to the poem, but also to challenge the reader. And induce guilt. It’s as if Sassoon’s purpose is to ensure that people do not ever forget about the horrors of the war and what the soldiers had to go through for their country.
The rhetorical question, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’ ties back to what I was saying with ‘In Flanders Field’ how it foreshadows, creates an omen of World War II, whereas in ‘Aftermath’ is it brought up, but questioned.
The second line of the second stanza, ‘The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?’ creates a rhythm. By using the word and to separate each action, as opposed to a comma, it seems as if the tasks are continuous and repetitive and almost tiring. This is Sassoon’s further description of the battlefront.
The rhyming scheme is a little different and more complicated than that of ‘In Flanders Field’. There’s not a direct pattern that’s carried out throughout the whole poem. Here, there’s a mid line rhyme.
Sassoon ends the poem with an oath where he asks the reader to wear that they will never forget. This is a similarity between both poems in that both author do not want the efforts of the soldiers to be in vain. Sassoon wants the reader to feel an obligation and vow not to forget, as he asks the reader to never forget at the end of the first stanza, and again at the end of the entire poem. This aspect of war, of respect for soldiers, ‘Less We Forget’, is conveyed by McCrae uses the imagery of a torch being passed down to illustrate the fight being continued despite deaths of soldiers.
In conclusion, both poems explore aspects of war, and themes related to war as both were written in the First World War era. These aspects include, death (as illustrated by the imagery of poppies), losing life (illustrated by McCrae’s flashback into life before war), and the horrors of trenches and battlefront life (which Sassoon writes his whole poem about in an effort to let people know what war is really like). The difference is that McRae’s poem is focused more on patriotism and pride of war, while McRae’s views on the pointless war, as he felt, is conveyed through the horrific descriptions of trench warfare and his diction like ‘rotting corpses’ and ‘hopeless rain’. However, both authors seek to remember and commemorate the lives of soldiers who fought for their country.