#73 Poppies





An oriental poppy at Charleston, photo by EKS


The forty-two species of poppies in the genus Papaver, family Papaveraceae, all share crucial characteristics: rising on a single bristly stem from a basal rosette, the flowers are usually composed of four translucent “crape-like” petals (Hogan 979) arranged in ““two whorls of two petals each. . .  two clearly inside the other two”  with numerous stamens “forming a striking boss,”  inside of which reside the ovaries, fused into a “fruit capsule” containing numerous small seeds (Lack 29).  While growing, the drooping flower is encased in two sepals which fall off once the flower opens and become erect.  The name, Papavar, comes from the Latin papa, meaning breast milk, a reference to the white latex which oozes from the broken stems and leaves of all poppies.

There are three particularly common varieties of poppies: Papaver rhoeas, the 12-16” corn poppy or field poppy is bright red and grows in disturbed ground throughout “Old World temperate zones” (Hogan 981); a good deal larger, reaching up to 24” in height, Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, native to south-eastern Europe and western Asia has white, mauve, or purple flowers with conspicuous seed pods that are the source of opium (Hogan 981); Papaver oriental, a mid-size (12-20”) summer-flowering perennial from western Turkey, is a garden favorite usually with blue-green leaves and doubled flowers in a variety of colors from red and purple through pinks and white, often with dark blotches on the petals.

Both the opium poppy and the field poppy qualify as “archeophytes” -- plants that have accompanied humans since pre-history (Lack 16). According to Andrew Lack’s history of the poppy, opium has been known since 4500 BC (10), and seeds of P. rhoeas dating back to 3500-2500 BC  have been found in Neolithic British sites (15).  The “classic weed of cornfields” (Lack 7), the field poppy probably proliferated during the rise of agriculture as  the seeds are extremely long-lived and can last ten to fifty years until exposed to light and air when the ground is tilled (Lack 72).  These two poppies are often confused in Greek and Roman mythology and subsequent folklore and literary allusions, giving rise, as both Heilmeyer and Lack point out, to the flower being something of a unifier of opposites: abundance and death, beauty and oblivion (Heilmeyer 58; Lack 80). For example, Ceres or Demeter, the goddess of grains, often carries poppies as symbols of fertility, but there is also a legend that she created the poppy with its soporific effect to soothe her suffering over the loss of her daughter Persephone (Folkard 258). The confusion is increased by the fact that the latex secretions of field poppies contain small amounts of rhoeadine, the narcotic component of opium seed pods, and thus have mild sedative properties (Lack 10); Randall says that in eighteenth century England, the wild poppies were “regarded as milder in their effect and better suited for the native constitution than the opium poppy” (51).

From the time of Homer, poppies have also been associated with the death of warriors.  In Book VIII of The Illiad, when Gorgythion is killed by an arrow, Homer describes his head, drooping like a poppy weighed down by his helmet. Lack quotes Alexander Pope’s translation:

As full-blown poppies, overcharged with rain,
Decline the head, and drooping kiss the plain;
So sinks the youth: his beauteous head, depress’d
Beneath his helmet, drops upon his breast. (Lack 126; Pope, Book VIII, 371-4)

Since the marching, trench-digging, and shelling of war have the same effect on dormant seeds of the field poppy as farming, battlefields were often covered in poppies. After the battle of Waterloo, the red poppies which sprang up were linked to the blood of soldiers (Folkard 259; Watts 315), and so there was historical precedent for John McCrae’s famous poem, “In Flanders Fields,” first published in 1915, which at the end of the war gave rise to a nearly universal association of poppies with memorial mourning for the war dead. 


By 1920, an American teacher, Miona Michel, had come up with the idea of wearing a red poppy as a sign of remembrance and had convinced the American Legion to take it up as a symbol (Lack 98, 101). The next year, Field Marshall Haig, founder of the British Legion, also adopted the poppy and “launched the first Poppy Day appeal” (Lack 101).  Saunders enumerates the scale of memorial commodification which followed: the very first Poppy Day, on 11 November 1921, called for some nine million poppies to be distributed (107); the Disabeled Society’s poppy factory opened in Richmond the next year (110); wreaths began to be lain at London’s Cenotaph by the royal family as early as 1924, and “By 1929, almost half a million poppy wreaths were being made by London’s poppy factory for a public ritual that had become all but universal” (136). 


            A look at the frequent appearance of poppies in British literature shows that, before WWI, the poppy was most frequently cited for its soporific qualities.  Vernon Rendall’s Wild Flowers in Literature has the most comprehensive list, extending from Chaucer’s evocation of a “clarree” made with “nercotikes and opie of Thebes fyn” in The Knight’s Tale (Chaucer, Second Part, l. 1471; Rendall 51) to Marvell’s ecologue Thyrsius and Dorinda, where the nymph proposes that she and her shepherd “pluck poppies till we weep/ so shall we smoothly pass away in sleep,” and Sir Thomas Browne’s fine phrase in Urn Burial “the iniquity of oblivion scattereth her poppy” (Rendall 51-2). Perhaps the two most famous soporific references come from Shakespeare and Keats.  In Othello, as Iago contemplates driving the Moor mad with jealousy, he remarks that his general will never sleep soundly again:

Not poppy nor mandragora

Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,

Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep

Which thou owedst yesterday. (III, iii, lll 340-3)


Referring to the field poppy rather than opium, in the second stanza of “Ode to Autumn” Keats speaks of finding the personified season “on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,/ Drows'd with the fume of poppies,” confirming the usual confusion between species.


            A few literary sources do concentrate on the transient or fragile beauty of the poppy.  In “Tam o’ Shanter” Burns notes that “pleasures are like poppies spread/ You sieze the flower, its bloom is shed”(Rendall 52)[1]  In Tennyson’s mock-comic story of the founding of a women’s university, The Princess (1847), the captured and cross-dressed Prince is described as being “more crumpled than a poppy from the sheath” (qtd. by Rendall 53; Tennyson, V, l. 28). Ruskin exhibits perhaps the most extravagant praise of the flower in his Proserpina: Studies of Wayside Flowers (1875), a determinately non-scientific, somewhat whacky and condescending meditation on the eternal values embodied by various blossoms:

We usually think of the poppy as a coarse flower; but it is the most transparent and delicate of all the blossoms of the field. The rest—nearly all of them—depend on the texture of their surfaces for colour. But the poppy is painted glass; it never glows so brightly as when the sun shines through it. Wherever it is seen—against the light or with the light—always, it is a flame, and warms the wind like a blown ruby.  (Vol. 1, Chapter IV, part 15)



 Woolf mentions poppies a total of twenty-four times in her collected prose; many of these references resist emblematic associations with sleep and death as well as prevailing stereotypes of poppies as reminders of the cost of war and instead appear as material features of local landscapes which are remembered in personal scenes of sensory joy verging on mystical transcendence.


On the most ordinary, material level poppies first appear in Woolf’s diaries as local wildflowers, for example, transplanted to Ashaem along with cornflowers by Leonard in September of 1915 (D1 53), still blooming among wallflowers, columbines, and phlox in May of 1918 (D1 151). However, when poppies begin to appear in her fiction and essays, their culturally rather overdetermined meaning is often critiqued. Poppies first make their entrance in Jacob’s Room, as petals “pressed to silk” between the pages of Jacob’s Greek dictionary (JR 38). Considering that Jacob’s last name is Flanders, the flowers serve as a kind of proleptic memento mori, part of a thematic complex that links elitist education in Latin and Greek with the industrial war complex and the untimely sacrificial death of young men,[2] a reminder that Jacob will die “in Flanders fields” where the poppies will grow “between the crosses row on row,” to quote the opening lines of McCrae’s famous poem.  The other mention of poppies in Jacob’s Room is, however, Janus-like in its more fertile associations. Bonamy’s classical and militaristic taste for hard words, for tight sentences “that don’t budge though armies cross them” (JR 147) is contrasted to the romantic profligacy of those who “throw up the windows, and find the poppies spread in the sun, and can’t forebear a shout of joy at the astonishing fertility of English literature” (148).[3] Here poppies are associated with morning rather than mourning, with birth rather than death, and with the fertility of art rather than the futility of death.


This variability continues to reign in subsequent works. In To the Lighthouse, the poppy is enjoined to “seed itself” as part of the chaotic hybridization in “Time Passes,” another possible foreshadowing of the fields of war. In The Waves Louis’s train ride through the English countryside upon leaving school returns us to the domestic vision of “golden bristles” of “flowing corn” in “poppy-red fields” (TW 46). Shadowed by the uncertainty of his future uninitiated into the university heritage of a classical education, Louis instead dwells on the long history of civilization beginning in Egypt “when women carried red pitchers to the Nile,” a possible relocation of the flower to an alternative and more female-centered historical context, beside a river other than Lethe, which was typically lined with poppies (TW 47; Saunders 27).[4] Later Bernard contributes another particularly feminine poppy reference by describing Jennie as “like a crinkled poppy, ferbile, thirsty with the desire to drink dry dust,” who “flashed her fire over the tree…[and] made the willows dance,” presumably stopping them from weeping (TW 187) -- a passage which recalls both Tennyson’s crumpled Prince and Ruskin’s warm, glowing flame.   Poppies in The Years return to the masculinist and military themes of Jacob’s Room. Reading Greek at Oxford, Edward scans his bookcases and the cream-colored panels of his room, and notices “a bunch of poppies in a blue vase” that evoke the flowers that shift in Jacob’s empty room, while toasting his father, wounded in the war, who always said “’You can’t drive a bayonet through a chap’s body in cold blood’,” a horridly vivid pairing of flower and battlefield death (TY 48).

Written during the excruciating build-up to WWII, Roger Fry, a collaborative biography woven from Fry’s words as much as Woolf’s, contains nearly half of her total poppies (12 out of 28), but, in what seems to be almost a gesture of defiance, none are related to the war. From the moment in October of 1935 that she decided to take on the project, Woolf knew that the book would begin with and be structured around a brief autobiographical fragment concerning a stand of red oriental poppies in the garden of Fry’s childhood home in Highgate: “I think of beginning with that scene. Yes, that book shapes itself” (D4 348). Poppies, in fact, occur at three crucial moments in the narrative structure: first comes Fry’s own description of innocent childhood passion, followed by a fall into shame and guilt; then thematic repetitions occur in the pivotal chapter on the Post-Impressionist Exhibition and at the very end of the book with the final affirmation of the principle of joy in beauty.

            Explicitly Edenic, Fry’s brief autobiographical sketch effects a culminating merger between apple and poppy. The location is for Fry “the imagined background for any garden scene that I read of in books.  The serpent still bends down to Eve from the fork of a particularly withered and soot-begrimed old apple tree which stuck out of the lawn” (RF 15). It is in this garden that he suffers his “first great passion and [his] first great disillusion.” The passion was for “a bushy plant of large red oriental poppies” whose “vivid red” was “always redder than any thing I could imagine when I looked away from them” (RF 15). Entranced, he would bring a stool out to the garden and sit for hours waiting for the “green flower buds with little pieces of scarlet silk showing through” to open. This adoration led to a good deal of ridicule by his elder sister, but even more traumatic was a confusing rebuke from his mother when he picked one of the sacred flowers at what he thought was her request; the picking of the poppy, like Eve’s bite of the apple becomes a formative transgression (RF 16).

The subsequent spiritual impact of the poppies is articulated in the crucial chapter on the Post-Impressionist Exhibition, where Woolf suggests that Fry’s determination to display the works of Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, and Gauguin arose from a “moment of vision,” a kind of spiritual breakthrough aligned with “A red poppy, a mother’s reproof, a Quaker upbringing” (RF 161) and was supported by the “childish lesson that ‘all passions even for red poppies leave one open to ridicule’,” a rather Freudian analysis of pleasure in the poppy as Fry’s Original Sin leading to the knowledge of Good (RF 157).[5] Returning at the end of the book to the passionate intensity of Fry’s attention to the scarlet flower bud bursting its green case to “unfold its immense cup of red” (RF 294), Woolf transforms the poppy into an emblem of Fry’s aesthetic tenacity, his determination to adore beauty whatever the cost (RF 295).


The last volume of Woolf’s diary reveals some implicit traces of a personal opposition between Fry’s poppies and those commemorating the war. In June 1938, several years after having visited Highgate, seeing Roger’s poppy, and deciding to shape the biography around it (D4 348), she and Leonard took a trip to Scotland, during which they stopped to see Sir Walter Scott’s grave. Nearby is the grave of Field Marshall Haig, who as senior commander of British Expeditionary Forces in WWI led “the horrific battle of the Somme, where 600,000 Allied servicemen lost their lives” (Saunders 106). While Woolf picked a white syringa off Scott’s grave “in memory,[6] she noticed that Haig’s grave was “stuck about with dark red poppies” and honored it with no souvenir (D5 152).


As Diane Gillespie points out, eventually writing Roger Fry “became an escape from the horrors of WWII” (RF xix).  Three months after visiting Scott and Haig’s graves, while cheered by the blazing orange of dahlias against the dark of the blackout, Woolf muses on “how I bless Roger, & wish I could tell him so, for giving me himself to think of -- what a help he remains -- in this welter of unreality” (D5 166).  Four days later she repeats the image of Roger’s brightness in the gloom of the war; asking what “private position” is possible in a world “So black I can’t gather together.”  Her answer is “Work I suppose. If it is war, then every country joins in: chaos.  To oppose this with Roger my only private position.  Well that an absurd little match to strike” (D5 170).  The passionate red of Roger’s poppies has become her flaming talisman against the fall of civilization.[7]


Field poppies and memorial poppies in Scotland. Photo by EKS

[1] The image is strikingly similar to Woolf’s lament on peonies in “An Evening Party:” “She’s touched the peony; all the petals fall” (CSF 101).


[2] See Angeliki Spiropoulou for a helpful review of scholarship on Woolf’s ambivalence towards Greece.


[3] This distinction insistently reminds me of T. E. Hulme’s call for a new hard, dry version of classicism in his famous essay of 1911, “Romanticism and Classicism.”  I have no idea if Woolf read the essay, though we are sure her friend T.S. Eliot knew it well.  See Christos Hadjiyiannis for a full account of the essay’s circulation (p. 36).


[4] Saunder’s second chapter traces the use of the opium poppy from ancient Sumeria, through Egyptian and Minoan civilizations before its arrival in Greece.


[5] Ruth Hoberman provides an account of Woolf’s “gulping up” of Freud at this time (180).


[6] Kate Greenaway (and other sources) notes that in the language of flowers syringa means “memory” (29).


[7] In Hoberman’s discussion of Woolf’s biographical method in Roger Fry, she points out how Roger’s poppies echo a passage from Pater’s The Child in the House where a similar moment of aesthetic conversion is triggered by a “red hawthorn’s ‘plumage of tender, crimson fire’” (188), a possible link between Pater and Ruskin.




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Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...