Scarlet Poppy Fair – a little flower with a big history
2nd June 2015
June and July in England is poppy time and, if the farmer allows it, we often find fields covered in drifts of scarlet flowers. The French Impressionists were fond of meadows and poppies - as seen in this most evocative-of-summer painting by Monet.
Stroll among poppies (Coquelicots, La promenade) by Claude Monet 1873.
Arguably, though, one can discover as much pleasure and inspiration in a single flower than in thousands. I love them most of all when just one surprises and pops up at random in the garden. Each plant can have numerous flowers, but each flower itself only lasts one day.
Poppies are not just scarlet, of course. There is the purple opium poppy, for instance, which has its own medicinal uses, for good or for ill. The consciousness–altering effects of opium (so beloved of the Victorians in the form of laudanum) provide a natural link to the unconscious and to dreams. The scarlet variety (papaver rhoeas) meanwhile is most associated with the traditional celebration of remembrance. We wear a red poppy leading up to Remembrance Day when the armed forces salute the Fallen.
The great poppy-fest at the Tower of London for Remembrance Day 2014.
In Greco-Roman mythology there are lots of poppies to be found in all kinds of symbolic forms. In particular, poppies are associated with the goddess Demeter and the story of the abduction of her daughter Persephone by Hades, God of the underworld.
Demeter and Persephone - an antique sculpture.
Sleep and night
Perhaps the opium derived from poppies was used by the unhappy Demeter for sleep after the loss of her daughter. Persephone was seized whilst gathering flowers, usually said to be narcissi, though in one version of the myth the flowers were poppies. In Victorian art, partly because of these classical connections, poppies became associated with sleep and night as well as remembrance.
Edward Robert Hughes 'Night and her train of Stars' (and a fair scattering of poppies).
The agriculture cycle was celebrated in the secretive Eleusinian Mysteries practised in ancient Greece. These incorporated the symbolism of the harvest and the natural cycles of life and death. The connection of poppies with agriculture is reinforced by the fact that they tend to make their annual appearance in fields of corn or wheat.
The leading Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti was fond of allegories based on themes of transcendence and mortality. In this version of his celebrated painting Beata Beatrix ('Blessed Beatrice'), the model Elizabeth Siddal, is in the process of receiving poppies from a dove. Elizabeth, Rossetti's wife, died from a laudanum overdose in 1862. And this version of the painting was unfinished at the time of Rossetti's own death in 1882.
Beata Beatrix by D.G.Rossetti - one of several versions, this one completed after his death by artist-friend Ford Madox Brown.
PS. The original Demeter/Persephone myth does have a happy ending. Persephone is rescued by the god Hermes and brought back from the underworld just in time for Spring. All the winter gloom is forgotten, and the whole cycle of life and death can begin again.