Poppies by the million

Poppy.2

We bought a poppy plant at the garden centre yesterday and it had bloomed already this morning, even under such a glowering sky.

Apart from its fiery beauty, the poppy is blessed or cursed with an extraordinary array of literary, artistic, historical, mythological and medicinal associations, but is most widely recognised in the context of Armistice Day in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth countries.

As for the paintings: leafing through art books once to settle on the one half-remembered picture after passing a school where a flowerbed had been thickly planted with poppies, I realised just how many there were to choose from. John Constable and Mary Fedden, Angelica Garnett and Vincent Van Gogh, Vanessa Bell and Georgia O’Keeffe, Christopher Wood and Ivon Hitchens, real one and paper ones by William Nicholson (in the early years, people wore real poppies on Armistice Day). But I finally decided that I must have been thinking either of Claude Monet:

Poppy_Field_Near_Argenteuil

(Claude Monet, Poppy Field Near Argentuil)

or, yes, of Stanley Spencer, whose irises and poppies stick in the mind just as surely as his resurrections, figures on beds, swans, soldiers and shipbuilding.

Spencer, Stanley, 1891-1959; Poppies

(Stanley Spencer, Poppies, 1938. Newark Town Hall Museum and Art Gallery:
© the estate of Stanley Spencer; all rights reserved 2014, Bridgeman Images)

And literary associations? The poppy’s connection with the First World War often takes off from the Canadian John McCrae’s poem, first published anonymously in Punch in December 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.

ending:

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.[1]

Edmund Blunden wrote, in ‘Vlamertinghe: Passing the Chateau, July, 1917’:

Bold great daisies’ golden lights,
Bubbling roses’ pinks and whites—
Such a gay carpet! poppies by the million;
Such damask! such vermilion!
But if you ask me, mate, the choice of colour
Is scarcely right; this red should have been duller.[2]

Rosenberg, Isaac, 1890-1918; Isaac Rosenberg

(Isaac Rosenberg, Self-Portrait, 1914: National Portrait Gallery, London)

The one that most stays with me, though, is probably Isaac Rosenberg’s ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’, which ends:

Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe—
Just a little white with the dust.[3]

But then I think of a holiday in Greece more than fifteen years ago now, a vivid memory of Mycenae, with everywhere the bright clusters of blood-red poppies.

The poppy’s literary associations begin in classical texts, usually there the ‘sleep-bearing’ or garden poppy, the source of opium. Alethea Hayter notes that, ‘In an Egyptian medical treatise of the sixteenth century B. C., Theban physicians were advised to prescribe opium for crying children just as, three and a half millennia later, Victorian babies were dosed with the opiate Godfrey’s Cordial by their nurses to keep them quiet.’[4]

The ancient Greeks and Romans grew poppies in their gardens and ate the seeds, often mixed with honey.[5] The link between the poppy and sleep is implicit in the last lines of McCrae’s poem. Hypnos, the god of sleep, holds a poppy in the representations of him in Roman and Hellenistic sculpture. He worked in partnership with his brother Thanatos, god of death, to remove fallen warriors from the battlefield.[6]

The most notable association, though, is probably with Demeter who, frantic from the loss of her daughter Persephone, who had been carried off by the god of the underworld, ‘soothed her grief with the narcotic juice of the poppy’. The plant ‘has the reputation of giving life, hence the association of the poppy with Demeter, the earth goddess who bestowed fertility on fields.’[7] Alethea Hayter mentions the legend that tells of Demeter, in her search for Persephone, reaching Sicyon, ‘once called Mecone, the city of poppies’, and gathering their flowers. Slitting the seed-cases, she tasted the juice and ‘forgot her sorrows’. She was sometimes portrayed, then, holding a poppy instead of the more established sheaf of corn: the flower ‘adorned her altars and its drug was perhaps used in her rites at Eleusis, to bring forgetfulness of the sorrow of the dying year and to share, by a short winter sleep of the emotions, in the death and re-birth of the plants’.[8]

In his poem ‘In the Trenches’, Richard Aldington wrote:

But that each rush and crash
Of mortar and shell,
Each cruel bitter shriek of bullet
That tears the wind like a blade,
Each wound on the breast of earth,
Of Demeter, our Mother,
Wound us also[9]

In Homer’s Iliad, Teukros, aiming an arrow straight at Hector, misses him and strikes instead Gorgythion:

He bent drooping his head to one side, as a garden poppy
bends beneath the weight of its yield and the rains of springtime;
so his head bent slack to one side beneath the helm’s weight.[10]

This is how Alice Oswald renders that passage:

And now the arrow flies through GIORGYTHION
Somebody’s darling son

As if it was June
A poppy being hammered by the rain
Sinks its head down
It’s exactly like that
When a man’s neck gives in
And the bronze calyx of his helmet
Sinks his head down[11]

Death as slackening, bending, as sinking into sleep, all consciousness and memory gone. Hypnos and Thanatos, sleep and death, lived in Hades, near Lethe, the river of forgetfulness.

Allen Ginsberg, in ‘A Supermarket in California’, addressed to Walt Whitman, ends:

‘Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?’[12]

Also.Poppy

One more Poppy. . . .

 

References

[1] Robert Giddings, The War Poets (1988; London: Bloomsbury, 2000), 55-57.

[2] Blunden, Undertones of War (1928; London: Penguin Books, 1982), 256.

[3] Isaac Rosenberg (21st-Century Authors), edited by Vivien Noakes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 106.

[4] Alethea Hayter, Opium and the Romantic Imagination (London: Faber and Faber, 1971), 19. Godfrey’s Cordial was a mixture of opium, treacle, water and spices. See also Hayter’s introduction to Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971), 14-15.

[5] See Michael Ferber, A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 160-161. See also: http://classicalanthology.theclassicslibrary.com/2015/02/17/poppies-in-classical-poetry-homer-catullus-virgil-dante-contributed-by-jane-mason-and-david-bevan/

[6] I. Aghion, C. Barbillon, F. Lissarragne, Gods and Heroes of Classical Antiquity (Paris: Flammarion, 1996), 162-163.

[7] Hellmut Baumann, Greek Wild Flowers and plant lore in ancient Greece, translated and augmented by William T. Stearn and Eldwyth Ruth Stearn (London: The Herbert Press, 1993), 69.

[8] Hayter, Opium and the Romantic Imagination, 20.

[9]The Complete Poems of Richard Aldington (London: Allen Wingate, 1948), 62.

[10] Homer, The Iliad of Homer, translated by Richard Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), 190, Bk.V., ll.306-308.

[11] Alice Oswald, Memorial (London: Faber and Faber, 2011), 32.

[12] Ginsberg, Selected Poems 1947-1995 (London: Penguin Books, 2001), 59.

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