Let us recall a Saturday afternoon in New York City early in the twentieth century: a young woman named Moina Michael, having been moved by a poem she had read that morning in the Ladies’ Home Journal, finds a supply of red silk poppies on sale in Wanamaker’s Department Store at the corner of 8th Street and Broadway; she has been searching for them all day through the shops and department stores along the stretch of Broadway known as the Ladies Mile. This event will determine the course of her life.
Wanamaker’s was a vast emporium established by the Philadelphia Wanamakers in 1896 on the site of an even earlier department store—possibly the first in North America—named for a man called Taylor, whose corpse, during the fire that destroyed Wanamaker’s in 1956, would be stolen from its grave at the end of the block and held for ransom. In Moina Michael’s time, Wanamaker’s was a Manhattan landmark advertised in newspapers as "easily accessible from all parts"; it had already given the world Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and among its marvels was an auditorium of three thousand seats, in which public lectures given by a man known as Doctor Dixon, Director of Wanamaker’s Education Bureau, included lantern slides depicting a series of "Expeditions to the American Indian" intended to preserve the memory of a so-called vanishing race. In 1912 Wanamaker’s achieved ascendancy among department stores when the legend emerged that the Marconi wireless set on Wanamaker’s top floor had been the first to receive intelligence, in Morse code, of the sinking of the Titanic. In a story fabricated by David Sarnoff (who became head of RCA and founder of NBC) and reproduced in Volume 2 of the Encyclopedia Americana, Wanamaker’s wireless operator (Sarnoff himself) had been "the nation’s only link with the scene of the heart rending disaster."
But now it was a Saturday in November, and the year was 1918; in two days the nightmare of the Great War (from which the world has yet to awaken) would pause for an armistice that would last for twenty years. Later that evening, Moina Michael distributed her newly found silk poppies among a gathering of friends to whom she also gave copies of the poem that had inspired her search: a sonnet of thirteen lines that opened with an image of poppies blowing, or growing, as we try to recall the lines now, between crosses row on row, and then something down below. The title of the poem, which is remembered today in fragments by generations of schoolchildren and former schoolchildren, was "In Flanders Fields," and its author’s name, less well remembered, was John McCrae.
Such was the genesis, and "the consummation" (as Moina Michael would later express it), of what she called "the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy," the artifical flower that many of us wear fastened to our coats during the first weeks of November. By giving material form to an image in a poem, Moina Michael had given the world a way of marking and of masking the incomprehensible destruction of human life set in motion in Europe in 1914. Such a simple act required a complex transformation: the poppy, traditional symbol of forgetfulness and dreaming, had to be subsumed into the iconography of chivalry and made to represent its own contradiction: now the blood red blossom would bespeak the promise never broken, duty never neglected, remembrance never dimmed: it had been transformed into a pledge of fidelity. It is a mark of her naïveté and her strength of mind that Moina Michael was to succeed in her project, and thereby, perhaps unwittingly, add another link to a literary tradition first described by Jorge Luis Borges in a Buenos Aires newspaper in 1945.
At the end of the eighteenth century, Samuel Coleridge posed the fanciful question that Borges reminds us of 200 years later: "If a man could pass through Paradise and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his soul had really been there, and if he found that flower in his hand when he awoke—Ay!—and what then?" H. G. Wells quoted Coleridge in the epigraph to his novel The Time Machine in the year that Wanamaker’s was building its New York store, and Wells gave his time traveller, far in the future, precisely the flower postulated by Coleridge: he has it still in his hand when he recovers consciousness after crash-landing in the present at the end of the novel.
What would Coleridge’s flower have been? We recall that Coleridge had himself already experienced a dream such as he proposed in his fanciful question, a dream induced by opium, in which "Kubla Khan," his great unfinished poem, was given to him in its entirety: when he awoke, he had the whole work of some three hundred lines in his head, and had merely to write them out. After fifty lines or so (beginning with "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan"), a visitor knocked on his door, and Coleridge made the mistake of getting up to see who it was ("a person from Porlock," he would later say). The remainder of the poem vanished from his memory; only the fragment, with its stately pleasure domes and caverns measureless to man, remains, a glimpse of paradise, perhaps: certainly a palpable token of a dream, possibly a pledge.
Now we begin to perceive another stage in the evolution of Coleridge’s flower. The author of "In Flanders Fields" studied medicine at McGill University, where he became a member of the Pen and Pencil Club, a group of artists and writers who met in a studio and once a year ate a ceremonial supper, at which (we are told by his editor in a memoir entitled "An Essay in Character") a man named Harris sang a song. John McCrae was the issue of a military family; he had always had war in his future. He went to South Africa as an artillery officer to fight for the Empire against the Boers, and in February of 1900 met Rudyard Kipling, who told McCrae that he talked "like a Winnipegger." From his letters emerges the figure of a man who loved horses, dogs and fox hunting. His poems, some of which appeared in the University Magazine, might be called works of sturdy versification: he was not afraid to compare Quebec to Helen of Troy; his poem on the Battle of Trafalgar contains this line: "rang the cheers of men that conquered, ran the blood of men that died"; and often he speaks for the unfortunate dead, on whose behalf he says (in a poem called "The Unconquered Dead"): "Not to us the blame of them that flee, of them that basely yield."
"In Flanders Fields" was composed in 1915 on a battlefield in Belgium, after the death of a young lieutenant who was blown up by an incoming shell. The lieutenant had been a friend of John McCrae’s, and that evening McCrae performed funeral rites over those of his friend’s body parts that could be recovered and wrapped in a blanket and put in the ground. Next morning McCrae was seen sitting on the back of an ambulance with a notepad in his hand, looking out at the cluster of wooden crosses marking the improvised graveyard where his friend now lay in a broken field of new poppies. Later he showed what he had written to one of the other officers, and then he crumpled up the page, and the officer (a man named Scrimger) had to persuade him not to throw the poem away. Later that year it was published in Punch, and within months had become the best-known poem in England: McCrae learned of its popularity when he heard it being recited by men trudging through the mud on their way to battle.
The poem opens and closes with the image of the poppies that McCrae could see before him while composing it: they blow between the crosses; they are a sign of sleep and forgetting; they promise nothing. But the dead demand a promise, couched by the poet in the jargon of chivalry: "Take up our quarrel with the foe," the dead say to us; "To you from failing hands we throw The torch." Here a pledge is intended and offered, and it is proof of Moina Michael’s genius that she was not moved to search New York for pewter torches on pins. These are the lines of McCrae’s poem that few remember; they culminate in a ghoulish threat against those who "break faith": "we shall not sleep, though poppies grow, etc."—in short, they will remain the Undead.
McCrae wrote his poem during a pause in a great slaughter: he had seen his friend obliterated; he had seen many friends obliterated. But of the slaughter, and of what happened to his friend in the instant of his death, he cannot speak (who could?): it was, as we know, a war without meaning, without purpose: all the poet can do is fashion an elision in place of what he cannot bear to countenance: "We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow," he writes, "and now we lie In Flanders fields." What is not present in this poem, or in the memorials erected all over the country, is the moment of transition between life and death (how did we come to be lying in Flanders fields?): the heart of the poem is an empty place: an invitation to nightmare and a door into hell. The poppy that Moina Michael re-fashioned from a conventional lament of the war is the token that we can hold in our hands as evidence not of paradise, as Coleridge had postulated, but of a phantasmagoria of horror into which we are plunged and through which we stumble as if drugged. The promise is now a terrible one, and the poppy, with its promise of oblivion, is its proper emblem.
When I began to understand what the experience of the Great War might have been for my grandfathers, both of whom survived the trenches, I was nearly thirty years old. One of my grandfathers was already dying and he didn’t know who I was when I went to see him in the hospital. The other was a fierce, bigoted man whom I had never liked and hadn’t seen for many years. I went to see him in Winnipeg one hot, mosquito-filled afternoon. We sat in his rec room, a cool dark place, and drank a bottle of gin; he sent his dog out to the store for groceries. I don’t remember if we talked about the war, but we laughed most of the time. He told me that you can always get eighty drops from an empty vodka bottle: this was something he had proved "scientifically" when he had been an engineering student, in the epoch before the war.
Now I wear a poppy every November, and I think of my grandfathers as I pin it to my coat. This year, in the wake of September 11, there was a heavy resonance in the air and I saw people with tears in their eyes pinning on poppies; certainly there were more poppies evident than had been seen for many years; some people were wearing two.
In 1926 the Education Bureau of Wanamaker’s department store exhibited a collection of paintings and murals called "The Titan City, A Pictorial Prophesy of New York, 1926-2026." It depicted a great metropolis in the sky: ribbons of highway high above the ground, flocks of airships moving among the spires.
Today we peer into this dream of the future, looking for a sign and finding none: we see only a vast city in the air. Perhaps we are not there, in the dream.