As Remembrance Sunday draws closer and we pin poppies to our coats, we can also see them adorning the jackets of books. This powerful symbol of remembrance features on the covers of many books about the First World War, which tend to be put on display at this time of year.
The inspiration behind the remembrance poppy is John McCrae’s 1915 poem, which begins ‘In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row’. The poppies are linked to the crosses of the graves, as though each poppy marks the place of a fallen soldier. They seem flimsy and delicate, ‘blow’ing in the wind, but in the final verse, ‘blow’ is replaced with the more optimistic ‘grow’. McCrae makes poppies at once a symbol of mourning and of hope, a dual meaning which is also captured in their red colour, suggesting the blood of fallen soldiers transformed into a thing of natural beauty.
Inspired by the poetic roots of our symbol of remembrance, I wondered if there were other literary poppies. I wondered if these flowers were strewn across other covers, stuffed inside other books, which had nothing to do with the First World War.
There is Amitav Ghosh’s mighty novel Sea of Poppies, set:
‘in a year when the poppies were strangely slow to shed their petals: for mile after mile, from Benares onwards, the Ganga seemed to be flowing between twin glaciers, both its banks being blanketed by thick drifts of white-petalled flowers.’
Poppies are at the heart of this enormous saga, which takes place on the eve of the first opium war. The dangers of opium are made explicit both on this large political scale and also on the domestic level of human addiction.
A renowned literary eater of this poppy-derived drug was Thomas de Quincey, who wrote his Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), in which he expanded on this ‘dread agent of unimaginable pleasure and pain!’ He first addresses the pleasures of opium and then the pain, yet, even when describing his latter dreadful experiences of the drug, he seems utterly compelled by it. He writes of his opium-influenced dreams:
‘I seemed every night to descend, not metaphorically, but literally to descend, into chasms and sunless abysses, depths below depths, from which it seemed hopeless that I could ever reascend.’
It is an image not too distant from what is perhaps the most famous opium-inspired literary vision, Coleridge’s poem ‘Kubla Khan’ (written 1797, published 1816). Coleridge’s ‘deep romantic chasm’ and the path of the river Alph, ‘Through caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea’ presages de Quincey’s language. De Quincey also wrote of his opium dreams being strangely architectural, which is borne out in ‘Kubla Khan’ with Coleridge’s precise measurements of ‘twice five miles of fertile ground / With walls and towers were girdled round’.
In Coleridge’s Preface to ‘Kubla Khan’, he describes the circumstances of its inception. He was in ill health and had taken something for the pain which put him:
‘in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort. On awaking he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!’
One thing for sure is that every lover of poetry resents that ‘person from Porlock’! It is unbearable to think of all those glorious lines lost thanks to that untimely interruption. Still, the fragment that remains is substantial and astonishing, born from an opium dream.
My favourite literary poppy is neither the white opium poppy, nor the red poppy of Flanders, but the blue poppy of Penelope Fitzgerald’s wonderful novel about the young German poet Novalis. In an interview, Fitzgerald talked about the inspiration behind The Blue Flower (1921):
‘Before I ever knew Novalis’ story, I was interested in the blue poppy. I wanted to trace its history, and I saw one up in Cumbria. It’s extremely difficult to grow, you know; and even then, after about the third year, it goes to pieces—it changes colour.’
The young Novalis spends much of the novel pondering the meaning of this blue flower, which is the focus of his own unfinished story. The poppy here is transformed into a spiritual symbol of German Romanticism and resists the straightforward translation of its red-coloured counterpart.
At this time of year we see the red poppy everywhere, pinned to suits, cardigans, coats, stuck to taxis, emblazoned on newspaper mastheads. Let’s not forget that alongside this red poppy of John McCrae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’ there is a tremendous wealth of poppy-inspired literature.