Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Poppies in July

Sylvia Plath's poem Poppies in July, written in July 1962, and published posthumously in her famous 1965 collection Ariel.  I have been thinking of the poem a lot this month, as my walks and wanders through the Calder Valley have revealed them, Plath's Little hell flames, burning by the canal-side towpaths, or flickering in the wind among the foxgloves and foliage of parks.  Like the scarlet lamps of clandestine woodland tribes, they glow almost fluorescently, redolent of summers past and of bygone wars, of beating hearts and blood.  For Sylvia Plath, they seem emblematic of something simultaneously breathing with the fires of violence, and the gentle lulling of oblivion.



Do you do no harm?  She asks, curious of fumes that I cannot touch, and asking Where are your opiates, your nauseous capsules?  while conscious of the barrier between the flowers' enticing, drugging power, and her predicament in the corporeal world.

And it exhausts me to watch you
Flickering like that,
wrinkly and clear red, like the skin of a 

A mouth just bloodied.


When most poets write of summer flowers, we write of their beauty, we celebrate their life-affirming colours and cycles, we speak of love and vitality or of meditative peace.  Plath writes of hell and fire, of opiates and of "Little bloody skirts!" with all the shadowy implications such an image conjures.  She employs two exclamation marks - If I could bleed, or sleep! - and yet the poem assumes a sad, slow, almost soporific rhythm, and frames two questions within the poem, and repeats her complaint that I cannot touch the flowers - for all the poem's Trans-Atlantic confessionalism,she is curiously, rather Englishly, detached, from the flames of liberation offered by the burning petals of the lulling poppies, and unable to transcend her sense of isolation.

I put my hands among the fames.
Nothing burns.


Sylvia Plath's poem was composed during the breakup of her marriage, and is a clear break from the immersive, organic perception of earlier works concerned with growth and nature, such as Mushrooms, or the secretive but life-affirming Blue Moles, whose evidence of subterranean argy-bargy nonetheless a striving for survival, or the melancholic Frog Autumn, in which even the imminence of death is set out amid poetry as precise and deftly observed as the best nature writing.  Yet in Poppies in July, this kinship with the wild world is stricken by depletion, newly distanced negative capability, and a longing for escape rather than communion:

If my mouth could marry a hurt like that!

Poets have always been drawn to the poppy.  Like Coleridge or Wordsworth, De Quincey, Shelley, Branwell Bronte, Byron, Sylvia Plath is drawn to the bloody flames of Papaver rhoeas. Unlike those decadent, flawed or tragic figures, she remained at odds with its intoxicating, demonic charms and powers, but left us with an utterly unique meditation on the poppy's presence on our summer landscape, bringing to the fore her own desires and fears. It is one of Sylvia Plath's finest poems, and a memorable, chilling reflection of a mysterious, enticing plant rich in myth and meaning, both Universal and acutely personal.

POPPIES IN JULY, by Sylvia Plath

Little poppies, little hell flames,
Do you do no harm?

You flicker. I cannot touch you.
I put my hands among the flames. Nothing burns.

And it exhausts me to watch you
Flickering like that, wrinkly and clear red, like the skin of a mouth.

A mouth just bloodied.
Little bloody skirts!

There are fumes I cannot touch.
Where are your opiates, your nauseous capsules?

If I could bleed, or sleep!
If my mouth could marry a hurt like that!

Or your liquors seep to me, in this glass capsule,
Dulling and stilling.

But colorless. Colorless.

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