The poppy is an uncomplicated creature. It has one color. It is not parasitic or solitary. It grows simply, and in groups, like schoolchildren.
But its symbolism is rich, with a magnitude that has spanned many countries, and many centuries. For such a little flower it carries meanings that are vast and weary; that are eternal and quiet in the earth.
In Greece and Rome the poppy meant sleep and death – worlds beneath the cold eyelid. Opium was extruded from its seeds and sleepy breaths colored ancient dens and palaces. Poppies decorated the tombstones of their dead, welcoming the lengthy sleep. In Persian literature, the poppy is called the eternal flower – for emotions unrelenting and without end; for loyalty without limit.
The poppy fields in The Wizard of Oz were billowing and fearsome, promising an everlasting sleep. In Egypt opium was daubed on the neck and wrists like a hypnotic perfume.
It wasn't until 1915 that the significance of the little red flower passed into Europe as well, when the ground was already red. Towards the end of the year a poem was published – a trifle sentimental, a little maudlin, as most affairs of the heart are – and its beginning is familiar:
"In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row…
The fragrant drops of blood growing amongst the white purity must have been a shocking sight to the soldier; in a poem it might be less awful but no less meaningful. The poppy had become a part of their spoiled landscape.
"That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below
1915 was a terrible year. Gallipoli – Ypres – Nueve Chapelle – Loos – The Battles of the Isonzo…the poppies must have shuddered in the stinging breeze.
"We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Fields
When the war was over, and the hardness and the bitternress had set in, the poppy had adopted another symbol – the four blasted years that had called the Edwardians in from their play, that had rubbed the gilt off the lily. Its brave, bloody image was burnt on the dying soldier's eyes.
On Veteran's Dan/Remembrance Day the popppy is worn, sewn into wreaths, displayed in houses (Aubrey does this): it is still held high.
"Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields"