by Cora MacGregor
Each November fresh controversies arise regarding the Remembrance poppy. These ostensibly emerge out of individual cases or concerns particular to the present day: the expectation for public figures to wear a poppy, how to reconcile this with the demands for neutrality, and fears over the potential for slimy politicians to exploit the poppy’s social influence. Yet the recurrence of these issues, year on year, points towards a common underlying anxiety: what does it actually mean to sport a crimson paper flower on your lapel in the days preceding the eleventh of the eleventh?
The poppy campaign was inspired by a poem written by John McCrae, which is famous mostly for its first two lines: ‘In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row’. This initial image is strikingly apt for what we might today want the poppies to mean. The bucolic setting described in the first line, the fields, the flowers and the breeze, becomes in the second a seemingly endless graveyard; something pure and natural in its beauty sits alongside the evidence of the destruction humans inflict upon themselves. Just so, on Remembrance Day we both recall the harsh realities and tragedies of war and celebrate the bravery and sacrifice of those involved in it – even if we don’t necessarily endorse what they sacrificed themselves for. But the tone of the poem becomes increasingly tendentious, progressing from a reflection on the tragic fatalities of war to a call to arms. In the final stanza, ‘the Dead’ instruct the reader, ‘Take up our quarrel with the foe’; it is undeniably militaristic, in a way that is arguably incongruous with the form our modern-day reflections on the First World War take.
But the poppy has a rich cultural and literary symbolic value which dates back to millennia before McCrae’s 1915 poem. The association of poppies with death, conflict and memory is omnipresent. A symbol of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and the harvest in Greek mythology, it is thought that poppies were sown at the time of crop rotation and therefore would have been associated with abundance and regeneration. This sense of hopefulness persists in the use of poppy-based drugs in the Eleusinian Mysteries, the rites of which sought to access the afterlife and return again, as Persephone does following her abduction by Hades, the king of the Underworld. In an abstract sense the use of the poppy is connected to the idea of looking beyond death, of not allowing it to be the final destruction. The poppies grow on the graves of the war dead in Flanders; the tradition of poppy-wearing means that over a century after the start of the First World War we are still compelled to reflect on those losses.
Forming a striking parallel with imagery used in war poetry of the 20th century, Book 9 of Virgil’s Aeneid directly likens the fallen warrior Euryalus to a poppy: ‘his neck grew limp and the head drooped on his shoulders, like a scarlet flower languishing and dying when its stem has been cut by the plough, or like poppies bowing their heads when the rain burdens them and their necks grow weary.’ We are conscious here of the untimely destruction of youth – Euryalus, Virgil tells us, is little more than an adolescent; similarly, we remember each year the shockingly young ages of some of those who fell at Ypres, Passchendaele, and many other places throughout the course of the war.
Later Western literary traditions see the poppy assume more sinister connotations, and its use in many ways inverts the meaning we might attach to it today. As the narcotic properties of the poppy became a tool of conflict in the Opium Wars of the 19th century, and preeminent Romantic figures also became associated with the drug, we see a new focus on its soporific qualities. Keats’ ode ‘To Sleep’ implores the poppy, which is representative of the slumber he craves, to ‘Save [him] from curious Conscience’; the poppy offers oblivion, an escape from awareness and reality, rather than being, as it might be today, a reminder of them. But, through its connection with slumber, the poppy is also shown to be preservative and peaceful, attributes which can inform the meaning bestowed on the Remembrance poppy: the memory of the dead, who are finally at peace and away from the horrors of war, is preserved.
So while criticism of the of the Poppy Appeal and the events surrounding it might be valid, the poppy itself should remain an enduring and poignant symbol. It is not, as some might cast it, the emblem of jingoistic belligerency. Rather, it connects the act of remembering on the part of the living with the restfulness of the dead; it provides a means of acknowledging what has been lost, but also of seeing what lies beyond that, what lives on.