Tuesday, 17 April 2012

'Poppies' by Jane Weir

This poem discusses the effects of war upon those who are left behind, and as such is an interesting comparison to 'The Falling Leaves', also written by a woman. It was written by Jane Weir at the request of Carol Ann Duffy, the poet Laureate, to commemmorate those lost in war, and came out of her reading in the writing of women from the First and Second World Wars. As she says in an interview where she discusses the genesis of the poem., the language in the poem reflects her work as a textile designer, and in many ways this poem is one which deliberately creates a gulf between the 'domestic' world of the woman speaker and her son.

the title, 'Poppies' immediately summons up one of the most potent symbols of warfare in the twentieth century--the poppies worn on remembrance day as a symbol of the fallen. As a brutal fact, poppies grow most readily on freshly turned earth (thus they grow in wheatfields, where the earth is ploughed each year) and they grew profusely on the graves of men who died in Flanders and were buried near the battlefields there in World War 1.

In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker describes saying farewell to her son three days before 'Armistice Sunday'. She places a poppy on his lapel before he leaves, implicitly to go to war, though this may simply be an extended metaphor as he is wearing a blazer, more normally associated with school uniform than army uniform. This initial confusing image is part of a confusion sustained throughout the poem--is the speaker mourning the death of her child, or simply her fears for him? Has he gone to war, or is he simply leaving home for the first time? There is little explicit indication of which reading is correct--the focus is on the mother's sadness at parting, and her hopes and fears for her child.

Behind this poem lie many others with a similar theme, most particularly the poem 'In Flanders fields' by John McCrae, which is credited with first associating the idea of poppies with the fallen, and ultimately for starting the Royal British Legion Campaign, through the work of Moina Belle Michael.. The poem is precisely placed 'Three days befroe Armistice Sunday'. Armistice Sunday is actually something of a misnomer, conflating 'rememberance sunday' and 'artmstice day'.  The Armistice was the formal ending of World War 1, on the 'eleventth day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour', and in 1919 the date of November 11th was declared an official day of commemmoration as a result. As time went on, this was replacd, for practical purposes, with the use of the Sunday nearest to November 11th, which became known as 'Rememberance Sunday'.

The omission of the word 'rememberance' and its replacement with the more formal term calls up the omitted word to the reader's mind, in a form of litotes, the rhetorical figure where you describe something through its opposite or its omission (as in 'he's not all bad'). This also makes the placing of the poem in time more uncertain; three days before armistice day would be the 8th November; three days before Rememberance Sunday could be within several days of this.

In the second section of the poem, the detail of the farewell is lovingly dwelt upon. The speaker recouns how she took bits of cat hair off her son's jacket by rolling sellotape round her hand to create a sticky surface to which they would adhere--a very trivial domestic gesture designed to summon up the everyday (and the modern). She neatens his shirt collar, a maternal gesture, and resists her face softening' (presumably because she wants to be 'brave' and not show strong emotion). There is a sense that she feels this might embarrass her son--she wants to make a tender gesture, something from childhood, but rubbing her nose across his in an 'eskimo kiss' is 'resisted' just as she resists the desire to run her fingers through his hair. That the hair is described as 'gelled blackthorns' both suggests that he is a teenager, and implies that he is prickly and would not welcome the gesture. It might also suggest that he is not  yet in the army, as the army has strict regulations about hair, and gelled spikes would be frowned upon. The mother feels that there are words that she would like to say, but they are 'flattened, rolled, turned into felt'. Here there is a pun between the feelings which are felt and the name of the compressed material that she describes, 'felt'. Her feelings have been turned into the past tense, they have been 'felt', they cannot be present-tense feelings as she has to suppress them. Here the enjambement goes between sections, 'slowly melting' on the next line looking almost as though it has dripped down from the line above. The idea of 'melting' is associated with frozen emotions--her feelings are so warm that she finds it difficult to keep up her brave face, though the first line of the next section assrts boldly 'I was brave'.

How To Gel Spiky Hair
Blackthorns are a lot smaller than these

The image in the third section of the poem--the world as a 'treasure chest', 'overflowing' suggests the possibilities that theworld offers to the child--the reasons why he wants to leave home. The world appears rich and full to him, and he is 'intoxicated', or drunk, att he thought of the possibilities. The use of the word 'intoxicated' may also suggest that the speaker feels that he is not quite responsible for his own actions--his desire to leave and his excitement is so strong that he may not have considered all the reprecussions of what he is doing, perhaps.

When the son leaves, the mother describes how she 'released a song bird from its cage'. Although this is described as a simple truth, a literal reality: 'I went into your bedroom', the image seems strongly symbolic. LIke the 'dove' that flies to the churchyard, the caged bird seems to represent her son and his desire for freedom.

The dove, of course, is a universal symbol for peace, and the speaker's description of his it makes her feel anxious suggests again how peace and war are intertwined. She seems to have rushed out of the house (as her son did?) unprepared 'without a winter coat', which suggests anxiety or haste, and her visit to the war memorial and its tracing of its letters strongly suggest that she is expecting her son's name to be engraved there. Leaning against it, she imagines that her body against the upright memorial forms the V-shape of a wishbone, promising perhaps a wish if she breaks her pose. The dove becomes something that looks like a fiction, a decoration, as she thinks back to her son's childhood. If you take the reading that this woman has merely sent her son off to school, then of course her desire to 'hear your playground voice catching on the wind' is a real one--she is hoping to hear her son playing happily at school. It seems more likely, though, that she is thinking of the past, and that she is wishing that he were again a small child, and therefore safe from the perils of war.

The form of the poem is fairly loose. Lines are not regular or metrical, but seem to be about ten syllables long, varying from 13 to 7, with the majority 9 or 11. There are often strong caesuras in the middle of lines, emphasising this sense that it is prosaic, and conversational, and also emphasising the enjambement as sentences move between lines. The speaker addresses the reader directly, using 'you', but it is clear that this is an address to her son (as in 'Out of the Blue' where the 'you' becomes 'my love'), and references to him occur throughout the poem to establish the relationship.

There are a series of possessive phrases which knit together the second person possessive pronoun 'your' to particularise it and make it the speaker's son:: 'your lapel', 'your blazer', 'your shirt's', 'your nose', 'your hair', your bedroom', 'your playground voice'. These references also make 'you' into an everyman figure--in some ways this could be anyone's son, something that the poet refers to when she speaks of the warm reception this poem has had from the mothers of fallen soldiers. They are also opposed and matched by a similar number of references to the first person possessive pronoun: 'my hand', 'my nose', 'my fingers', 'my words', 'my stomach', which similarly both particularises the speaker and makes her into a symbol of mothers everywhere.

The semantic field of the poem is interesting, because it is strongly reflective of the writer's interest in textiles. Images throughout focus around clothing, sewing, or material of one kind or another: 'lapel', 'bias binding', 'blazer', bandage', 'shirts', 'felt', 'tucks, darts, pleats', 'stitch'. To start with, these are literal--it might be significant that the speaker notices the bias binding on the blazer, but it is not symbolic in itself--but as the poem progresses, the language transforms into the metaphorical, first as words are described as 'turned into felt', then as the speaker's nervousness is described as 'my stomach busy/ making tucks, darts, pleats' until finally  the dove becomes 'an ornamental stitch' in the final section. Even her action of walking along the edge of the wall is turned into a work associated with clothing: 'skirting'.

 This seems to be part of the central division in the poem, between home and warfare. the idea presented thoughout--that the man who goes to war was once a child, and that the memories of him as a child are still powerful to his mother--is put across by an opposition between the domestic and the warlike, so that opposed to this intensely homely semantic field is one of battle, injury and conflict: 'Armistice Sunday', war graves', 'spasms', 'blockade', 'bandaged', 'rounded up', 'steeled', graze', 'brave', 'reinforcements'.  Often, the writer juxtaposes words from both fields, or describes something domestic with words that we might normally associate with conflict. Thus, 'reinforcements' become only a scarf or gloves to protect against cold weather, and the 'blockade' is simply the edging of a coat.



  1. This is far and away the best analysis of this poem that I have read. Most commentators seem to be totally perplexed by it and avoid analysis of the more enigmatic passages.

    The poem is obviously far too difficult for GCSE students, confusing, as it does, well-educated adult critics.

  2. Thank you so much for this - I am revising for my GCSE poetry exam and this is a really insightful analysis!

  3. A great help, thanks so much!

  4. Great job on this! Takes hours to write these complex essays so thank you for your time and effort.

  5. I was wanting anyone to set a 8 mark question for me on poppies?