We first explored Netherthorpe on a Sunday in late July 2011. The weather on that day was most torrid and the sky a deep, metallic cyan. Because we were much affected ourselves by the oppressive heat, we became very concerned by the suffering of a heavily furred, tethered guard dog. A bear-like creature that was most unkempt and which had been given no water to drink. It was deeply saddening to listen its fierce yet forlorn barking. We wondered what it had been stationed to defend in this place – and what might be of such high value to merit such torment for the poor animal.
It was here that I first saw the white poppy. No doubt a hybrid or mutant form of the field poppy or corn poppy Papaver rhoeas. Its thin, papery leaves seemingly bleached by the summer sun. A single flag-like bloom so light that it danced along with its coquelicot brethren in a barely perceptible current of cool air that ran across the ground.
Poppies have long been used as a symbol of both sleep, peace and death: sleep because of the opium extracted from them, and death because of the common blood-red color of the red poppy in particular. There is a name for this color: coquelicot – from the French – that has been used in English since 1795; a bright cadmium or perhaps vermilion red with an orange tint. It was perhaps helped into English usage by Claude Monet’s painting Les Coquelicots (1873). In Greek and Roman myths, poppies were used as offerings to the dead and sometimes used as emblems on tombstones, symbolising eternal sleep. This symbolism is evoked in the children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, in which a magical poppy field threatens to make the protagonists sleep forever. A second interpretation of poppies in Classical mythology is that the bright scarlet colour signifies a promise of resurrection after death.
Papaver rhoeas is also the poppy of wartime remembrance. A common weed in Europe that favours disturbed ground, it is found in many locations; including Flanders, the setting of the famous poem In Flanders Fields, created in the form of a French rondeau on 3rd May 1915 by the Canadian surgeon and soldier John MacCrae:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row, / That mark our place; and in the sky / The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below. / 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. / 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.
Critic Paul Fussel claimed to find sharp distinctions between the pastoral, sacrificial tone of the poem’s first nine lines and the ‘recruiting-poster rhetoric’ of the poem’s third stanza. Fussell said the poem would have, at that time of its appearance, served to denigrate any negotiated peace which would end the war. In this context, Fussel called these lines ‘a propaganda argument,’ saying ‘words like vicious and stupid would not seem to go too far.’
In Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, artificial poppies are worn to commemorate those who died in war. This form of commemoration is associated with Remembrance Day, which falls on November 11. The white poppy is an artificial flower used as a symbol of peace and worn as an alternative, or complement to, the red.
In 1986 Margaret Thatcher expressed her ‘deep distaste’ for the symbol.
Paul Evans, 13 December 2011