Leonard Cohen Reads The Great World War I Poem, “In Flanders Fields”

Courtesy of Legion Magazine, you can hear Canada’s iconic singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen reading “In Flanders Fields” by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae. The clip was recently recorded to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the poem.

World War I inspired many poems. But this one, straight from the beginning, became one of the most popular ones. Poets.org recounts the origins of “In Flanders Fields” thusly:

As the first shots of World War I were fired in the summer of 1914, Canada, as a member of the British Empire, became involved in the fight as well. [John] McCrae was appointed brigade-surgeon to the First Brigade of the Canadian Field Artillery.

In April 1915, McCrae was stationed in the trenches near Ypres, Belgium, in an area known as Flanders, during the bloody Second Battle of Ypres. In the midst of the tragic warfare, McCrae’s friend, twenty-two-year-old Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, was killed by artillery fire and buried in a makeshift grave. The following day, McCrae, after seeing the field of makeshift graves blooming with wild poppies, wrote his famous poem “In Flanders Field,” which would be the second to last poem he would ever write. It was published in England’s Punch magazine in December 1915 and was later included in the posthumous collection In Flanders Fields and Other Poems (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1919).

As a sad postscript, McCrae started suffering from asthma attacks and bronchitis in the summer of 1917, then died of pneumonia and meningitis in January of 1918. It’s fitting that Leonard Cohen (an accomplished poet before he became a musician) would recite “In Flanders Fields,” the text of which you can read below. The second reading was recorded live in Los Angeles earlier this year.

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.

Find Cohen’s reading in our collection, 900 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

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