Saturday, January 07, 2012

Poppies and cornflowers

Here is a poem from 1913 by Gottfried Benn, a physician whose poetry drew heavily on his work:
Before a cornfield he said:
The fabled fidelity of cornflowers
is a fine motif for women painters,
but I prefer the profound opera of the poppy.
It makes you think of blood clots and menstruation.
Of suffering, spitting up, going hungry, kicking the bucket—
in short: of the murky path of man.
And here is "Poppies in October" from Plath's Ariel, a poem she wrote the same day as "Ariel" itself:
Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts.
Nor the woman in the ambulance
Whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly —

A gift, a love gift
Utterly unasked for
By a sky

Palely and flamily
Igniting its carbon monoxides, by eyes
Dulled to a halt under bowlers.

O my God, what am I
That these late mouths should cry open
In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers?
Leaving aside the evident appeal that Benn ("brutal honesty of an unprecedented perception," said Walter Kaufmann of his work) would have for Plath, I am not buying an accidental juxtaposition of poppies and cornflowers in her poem. I'm pretty sure she had at least a reading knowledge of German. And that stunning image of the woman in the ambulance is comparable to some of Benn's early poems about his morgue work.

The preference for poppies over cornflowers is evident in both poems; Benn spells out what they represent, which is less explicit in Plath's poem, where the hue and emotion of the poppies is contrasted with a dullness of both color and soul. To the extent that Benn's poem echoes in Plath's, there's her rejection of being a "mere" woman artist in favor of the male "path" (tho how Benn appropriates menstruation for men is a great mystery indeed).

The temporal juxtaposition to "Ariel" fits into that male/female tension:
And I
Am the arrow,

The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.
As often noted, this passage "rhymes" with the part of The Bell Jar where Buddy's mother says "What a man is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from," and Esther thinks to herself that she wants to be the arrow instead.

(Wikiquote reminds me of another poppy passage, also in The Bell Jar:
When they asked some old Roman philosopher or other how he wanted to die, he said he would open his veins in a warm bath. I thought it would be easy, lying in the tub and seeing the redness flower from my wrists, flush after flush through the clear water, till I sank to sleep under a surface gaudy as poppies.
Plath finished The Bell Jar in August 1961 and wrote "Ariel" and "Poppies in October" in 1962; she reuses lots of images in her poetry and prose in this time, a reminder of how short her active career was.)


  1. Sully has posted, coincidentally, a Sunday poem on poppies by Jennifer Grotz ...

  2. Thanks! Here's the link to the entire poem.

    I will have to think about that one for a while, though given my post, I must note that the poppies immediately put Gratz in mind of God. But where Plath's is an existential exclamation, Gratz's reference is subtly tucked into what her poem turns out to treat as an emotional error.

  3. Why poppies, though? A gazillion beautiful flowers from which to choose, and they all choose that one. Do we read beneath to the idea that harvested poppy can become a powerful drug? When approaching Oz, the field of poppies leads the characters to sleep and sloth, and only the elements and divine intervention save them.

  4. Isn't cornflower a common name in Europe for poppy?

    Poppy and sleep (and death) is an association that goes way back to Greek mythology.

  5. Don't really know my flowers. Or my Frank Baum. They were approaching the Emerald City (and were already in "Oz") ...

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