Memorial Day commemorations ordinarily involve parades, concerts, barbecues, sporting events and a lot of flag-waving. Here's a more introspective way to commemorate the national holiday: Read some poetry about war. It’s a great way for parents and teacherss to help children understand the emotion bebhind war — the glory and the horror.
Memorial Day is a federal holiday to honor all Americans who have died fighting the country’s wars while serving in the U.S. armed forces. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the first official observance was on May 28, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. By the 20th century, the holiday was extended to all soldiers who had fallen in all American wars.
Here are several of the greatest poems about soldiers and war that have ever been written, along with some links to more poems. Some idealize soldiers and hold up their triumphs on the battlefield as glorious; others reveal the ugliness of combat and condemn war as man’s great folly.
by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae (written 1915)
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.
by Wilfred Owen (written 1917-18)
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori .
[The Latin words dulce et decorum est pro patria mor is from Horace and in English roughly means: It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.]
“Adieu to a Soldier”
by Walt Whitman (1872)
ADIEU, O soldier!
You of the rude campaigning, (which we shared,)
The rapid march, the life of the camp,
The hot contention of opposing fronts—the long manoeuver,
Red battles with their slaughter,—the stimulus—the strong, terrific game,
Spell of all brave and manly hearts—the trains of Time through you, and like of you,
With war, and war’s expression.
Adieu, dear comrade!
Your mission is fulfill’d—but I, more warlike,
Myself, and this contentious soul of mine,
Still on our own campaigning bound,
Through untried roads, with ambushes, opponents lined,
Through many a sharp defeat and many a crisis—often baffled,
Here marching, ever marching on, a war fight out—aye here,
To fiercer, weightier battles give expression.
Sara Teasdale (1920)
There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;
Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.
by Laurence Binyon
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.
Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.
But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.
“St. Crispin’s Day speech,” from Henry V (1599)
by William Shakespeare
by Rupert Brooke
“War Is Kind” (1899)
by Stephen Crane
“The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1854)
by Sir Alfred, Lord Tennyson
“The Artilleryman’s Vision” (1871)
by Walt Whitman
By the way, the Wall Street Journal published in 2008 a list of the five greatest works of war poetry as selected by James Anderson Winn, author of “ The Poetry of War.” They were: “The Illiad”; “The Complete Barrack-Room Ballads” by Rudyard Kipling; “John Brown’s Body,” by Stephen Vincent Benét; “The Complete Poems and Fragments,” by Wilfred Owen; and “The Columbia Book of Civil War Poetry,” edited by Richard Marius.
Follow The Answer Sheet every day by bookmarking www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet.