In Flanders Fields - Stephen Leacock on John McCrae
The (London) Times published Friday, November 11, 1921
Friday, November 11, 1921
Transcribed by: marc
COL. McCRAE'S VISION OF THE POPPIES
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
(By Stephen Leacock.)
Colonel John McCrae, when he died in the hospital at Boulogne in January of 1918, left as his legacy to the world an immortal poem. It is no exaggeration to say that the verses "In Flanders Fields" are indissolubly linked with the story of the Great War. The vision of the poppies that blow among the crosses symbolizes at once all the sorrow and the pride of the sacrifice that they immortalize.
But to those of us who were privileged to be his friends Jack McCrae left in addition to this an abiding memory that will never be obliterated and that the lapse of time can but intensify. We did not need his written verse and the story of his devotion to tell us the kind of man he was. We had known it long.
The same ideal of patriotism and devotion to duty that inspired him in the war had been the mould in which his life was cast.
I can first remember Jack McCrae when he was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto. Even then he was a soldier of sorts; he belonged to an honourable but neglected body called Company K, the University Company of the Queen's Own Rifles of the Militia of Canada. The times were unpropitious. The atmosphere was one in which military ardour burned dim. Company K was often compelled to form its imaginary fours with only three in line. The evolutions were all too often the butt of the feeble wit of the undergraduate. Indeed the company itself was presently attenuated to the vanishing point and disappeared.
But looking back upon them in retrospect they appear a band of heroes. McCrae's name is only one of an honoured list of Canadian soldiers, dead and living, whose first service to their country was in the drill squad of Company K.
McCrae graduated in Arts, and later in Medicine, at the University of Toronto, and soon after his graduation saw active service in South Africa as an officer in the Canadian artillery. It was after his return from South Africa in 1900 that he came to McGill to fill the post of lecturer in pathology, which he occupied till August of 1914. With this he combined the arduous work of a doctor in general practice. No man of our circle in Montreal worked harder than did John McCrae. Yet he seemed to find time for everything, and contrived some- , how to fill in the spare moments of a busy life with the reveries of a poet. "Flanders Fields" stands out of course from all that he wrote, as a poem in which the occasion and the inspiration are unique and cannot be repeated. But it is by no means his only poem of high merit. Those who know the excellent little memorial volume that Sir Andrew Macphail has written will recall at once "The Oldest Drama" and "The Happy Warrior" as productions not easily surpassed.
But Jack McCrae never adopted the pose of a professional poet. He wore his hair clipped to a military neatness and his clothes were of the ordinary fashion, and his manner free from the least taint of literary affectation. His only standing literary affiliation was with a quaint body called the Pen and Pencil Club of Montreal. It met fortnightly in a studio, kept its sodawater (its principal possession) in a tub of ice at the side of the room, and, with some reluctance, permitted its members to read to it their literary efforts. It was in this little circle that Jack McCrae's poems first came before the world. I believe that he also belonged in a less regular way to a Shakespeare club, but of the high deliberations of that body I am not qualified to speak.
Busy though he always was, McCrae seemed to find time for social life, and was in great demand at Montreal dinner parties. His fund of stories that was never exhausted made him the treasure of his hostess, and even when his hostess had withdrawn Jack's stories did not exactly come to a full stop. Yet with all his social gifts and opportunities he was a man of the greatest moderation in his eating and drinking and his amuse merits, abhorred late hours, and kept himself, mind and body, in the training of an athlete. I should say that the governing idea in his mind was a sense of duty; for all his merry stories, he regarded the world, after the fashion of his Scotch ancestors, as a stern place, as abode of trial and preparation for some thing real beyond.
For McCrea was deeply religious: not in the up-to-date sense of being intensely interested in explaining away all disagreeable forms of belief; but in the older sense of childlike reverence and implicit obedience to the Written Word.
Of his work at McGill University there is no need to speak. The college never had a better teacher. But his mere teaching was the least part of it. It is the example of the manly life that he led, better than all teaching or preaching that will remain with the generation of students that were trained by him
To us in Canada it is a wonderful thought that Jack McCrae's verses and Jack McCrae's memory should have not become a part of the common heritage of the English people. These are links of Empire indeed.