Summary of ‘Poppies’ by Jane Weir

6 June 2016

In the poem, Poppies, the poet is comparing the beauty of nature with the carnage of war. The poem shows how the soldiers sacrificed their life in order to “ransom” the hills of France therefore showing that France’s freedom was paid by the blood of these young men. Poppies are used to symbolise war and sacrifice. The effect of this is to make the reader remember the people who put their life on the line so that we could have our freedom and the use of the word ‘poppies’ gives the poems multiples of meanings and ways to interpretate the structure of the poem. Poppies can also be used to symbolise death or remembrance and eternal sleep, all three of these are used in the poem. The poem expresses the feelings a mother has about the death of her son in a on going war far away.

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The form of the poem is strong and regualar rhythm, this shows that the narrator is trying to hold the emotions that have been stirred up by the sight of the poppies. The structire of the poem however shows that there is a lot of emotion beneath the surface: the lengh of the stanzes and the lines begin to change more strongly. The time goes back and forth between when he was a child, when the son goes to join the army and the present time of when she is telling the story. The poem also uses several layers of language: it uses literal images (poppies , blazers) in order to express the strong detailed memories that have not faded. Similes and metaphors are used to express deep emotions like ‘like a wishbone’ or ‘like a treasure chest’ or ‘released a song bird.’

Finally it uses symbols like the doves and the poppies to show the meanings shared by everyone that also contain deeply personal feelings as well. The poem is set in the present day but goes back to the beginning of the Poppy Day tradition, Armistice Sunday began as a way of marking the end of the First World War in 1918. The sounds of the poem are restrained and the colour and texture of the poppies is expressed through powerful language in the first stanza. The detailed description of the blazer is emphasised through alliteration on “bias binding… blazer”. We feel the closeness between mother and son.

The moment she kneels to pin the poppy to the lapel in words such as “spasms”, “disrupting” and “blockade” however, she may be recalling the violence of his death. This sense of her blocking out the memory of his violent death with a sweeter, purer memory is sustained in the second stanza: “sellotape bandaged around my hand”. This image carries echoes of battlefield injuries as well as cleaning the car hairs off the blazers.

The contrast between the death in battle and the domestic happiness of the boy cuddling his cat is powerful. In the third stanza, the language becomes metaphorical and symbolic. The door to the house is the door to the world. The song-bird is a metaphor for the mother setting her son free. This then changes into the dove, the symbol of peace, represents the peace her son has found is the peace of death. 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. In the second section of the poem, the detail of the farewell is lovingly dwelt upon. The speaker explains 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 very trivial domestic gesture designed to summon up the everyday. 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 enjambment 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 boldly says “I was brave”.

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