The Memorial Day Poppy

May 20th, 2013

Do you wear a red poppy on Memorial Day? Two poems helped start the tradition: John McCrae’s famous World War I elegy “In Flanders Field” and Moina Bell Michael’s response “We Shall Keep the Faith.” Read the poems and compare how the two treat the central image of the red poppy.  

John McCrae (1872–1918) was a Canadian physician, poet, and soldier serving with the Allied Powers in Belgium. On May 2, 1915, he was called upon to perform burial rites for a close friend who was killed at the Second Battle of Ypres. The next day, McCrae, deeply moved by the sight of poppies growing around the graves of fallen soldiers, composed “In Flanders Field” while riding in the back of an ambulance. It is written from the perspective of the dead. (McCrae himself died during the war of pneumonia, contracted while commanding a Canadian military hospital that he had set up in Boulogne). 

McCrae’s poem resonated deeply with the public, even in the then-neutral United States. Three years later, when the United States had entered the conflict, Moina Michael (1869–1944), an American educator and volunteer trainer of nurses, wrote “We Shall Keep the Faith,” as a response of the living to the call of the dead in McCrae’s poem. Soon afterwards, she launched the tradition of selling and wearing red poppies to aid and honor wounded war veterans. Michael’s autobiography,The Miracle Flower: The Story of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy, published in 1941, is dedicated to the late Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae.

Compare the mood, tone, and content of Michael’s poem with “In Flanders Fields.” Who is speaking in Michael’s poem, and how is it an answer to the summons from McCrae’s poem? How exactly do “we keep the Faith / with All who died”? The central verse concerns the red poppy. How does Michael reinterpret its meaning? What does it mean to say that “We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought / In Flanders Fields”? What was that lesson, and how can it be taught? If we fail to teach it, will those who fell have died for naught?

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