4 Min read
3 Poems by John McCrae, a Poet Warrior
Poetry for Emergencies
The “MURPH Challenge” or Workout of the Day
Click links above to listen to the poems
This Memorial Day I read other poems written by the Canadian poet, soldier, and physician John McCrae, who is best known for In Flanders Fields, memorializing a friend and the poppy, which grew after Ypres in World War I. The blood-red flower burst forth from the battleground where many had died. It thrived in the scorched earth, ideal conditions from the dispersion of seeds, fertilized by the nitrogen from the explosives and the lime from the rubble.
Here are two of McCrae’s lesser-known poems, but no less worthy of the day–Memorial Day–as Americans reflect on those who gave their lives for freedom.
The first poem has echoes of In Flanders Fields with the bitter fear of those who died not knowing the outcome of the fight. McCrae soothes against such angst with the oath of those who have sworn to keep the faith with them till we win or fall and that they may at last, find silence deep and turn to sleep.
The Anxious Dead
by John McCrae
O guns, fall silent till the dead men hear
Above their heads the legions pressing on:
(These fought their fight in time of bitter fear,
And died not knowing how the day had gone.)
O flashing muzzles, pause, and let them see
The coming dawn that streaks the sky afar;
Then let your mighty chorus witness be
To them, and Caesar, that we still make war.
Tell them, O guns, that we have heard their call,
That we have sworn, and will not turn aside,
That we will onward till we win or fall,
That we will keep the faith for which they died.
Bid them be patient, and some day, anon,
They shall feel earth enwrapt in silence deep;
Shall greet, in wonderment, the quiet dawn,
And in content may turn them to their sleep.
This second poem is especially comforting and soothing for all of those who toil amid the shadows and against the angry skies. The rooks–a gregarious Eurasian crow with black plumage and a bare face, nesting in colonies in treetops– homeward fly at the eventide, or end of day, perhaps finding peace after the strife and the calm after even the stormiest life.
Read both poems aloud. In Eventide, listen to the rhythm, the soft S sounds, the lulling of the long I, the peacefulness in the words.
To all those who gave so much, who continue to give and sacrifice, may there be peace and calm. May they look west to the setting sun, toward the light.
by John McCrae
The day is past and the toilers cease;
The land grows dim ‘mid the shadows grey,
And hearts are glad, for the dark brings peace
At the close of day.
Each weary toiler, with lingering pace,
As he homeward turns, with the long day done,
Looks out to the west, with the light on his face
Of the setting sun.
Yet some see not (with their sin-dimmed eyes)
The promise of rest in the fading light;
But the clouds loom dark in the angry skies
At the fall of night.
And some see only a golden sky
Where the elms their welcoming arms stretch wide
To the calling rooks, as they homeward fly
At the eventide.
It speaks of peace that comes after strife,
Of the rest He sends to the hearts He tried,
Of the calm that follows the stormiest life —
* Poet Warrior – a soldier who is a poet, a warrior who is a scholar, the soldier-scholar. Some will refer to them as Warrior Poets and you can learn more at this link. “They are members of a rare fraternity of warriors who fight with intellect, conviction, and great skill. Motivated by a love for others, Warrior Poets become students of the art of war so that they may triumph when the enemy calls.”
*Murphy Challenge WOD (CrossFit Workout of the Day). My son sent a text to ask if the family would join him in doing the “Murph” in honor of Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy who died in Afghanistan in 2005 and was posthumously given the Medal of honor.
On August 17, 2005, the founder of CrossFit Greg Glassman posted the workout to his website as the Workout of the Day (WOD) with the note:
In memory of Navy Lieutenant Michael Murphy, 29, of Patchogue, N.Y., who was killed in Afghanistan June 28th, 2005. This workout was one of Mike’s favorites and he’d named it “Body Armor.” From here on it will be referred to as “MURPH” in honor of the focused warrior and great American who wanted nothing more in life than to serve this great country and the beautiful people who make it what it is. . . . If you’ve got a 20-pound vest or body armor, wear it.
The workout consists of:
- 1 mile run
- 100 pull-ups
- 200 push-ups
- 300 air squats
- 1 mile run
- In a 20 pound vest or body armor
His father said Murphy, a former U.S. Navy SEAL typically did this in 32 to 35 minutes.
Citation for Medal of Honor:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life and above and beyond the call of duty as the leader of a special reconnaissance element with Naval Special Warfare task unit Afghanistan on 27 and 28 June 2005.
While leading a mission to locate a high-level anti-coalition militia leader, Lieutenant Murphy demonstrated extraordinary heroism in the face of grave danger in the vicinity of Asadabad, Kunar Province, Afghanistan. On 28 June 2005, operating in an extremely rugged enemy-controlled area, Lieutenant Murphy’s team was discovered by anti-coalition militia sympathizers, who revealed their position to Taliban fighters. As a result, between 30 and 40 enemy fighters besieged his four member team. Demonstrating exceptional resolve, Lieutenant Murphy valiantly led his men in engaging the large enemy force. The ensuing fierce firefight resulted in numerous enemy casualties, as well as the wounding of all four members of the team. Ignoring his own wounds and demonstrating exceptional composure, Lieutenant Murphy continued to lead and encourage his men. When the primary communicator fell mortally wounded, Lieutenant Murphy repeatedly attempted to call for assistance for his beleaguered teammates. Realizing the impossibility of communicating in the extreme terrain, and in the face of almost certain death, he fought his way into open terrain to gain a better position to transmit a call. This deliberate, heroic act deprived him of cover, exposing him to direct enemy fire. Finally achieving contact with his headquarters, Lieutenant Murphy maintained his exposed position while he provided his location and requested immediate support for his team. In his final act of bravery, he continued to engage the enemy until he was mortally wounded, gallantly giving his life for his country and for the cause of freedom. By his selfless leadership, Lieutenant Murphy reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
*In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae
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.
Wow! As an Academy grad (USNA 1990) like you, I am moved by ‘uncommon acts of valor’ achieved by those we know or with whom we have served. It is common to hear/see these stories because these men and women believe that fighting to preserve and protect American values is something worth dying for.
I appreciate your literary talent. Your gift to many of us delivered like a poet warrior.
Jim, Thank you for taking the time to write. Thank you also for your service. Patton said, “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.” His statement has me rethinking my perspective on sacrifice. And I will continue to churn it over in my mind, as I will McCrae’s poem, Eventide. My God, that such men lived! That I may enjoy relative peace at home. MyLinh