I put my hand among the flames. Nothing burns.
And it exhausts me to watch you
Flickering like that, wrinkly and clear red, like the skin of a mouth.'
Sylvia Plath wrote two mature poems on the theme of poppies, both dating from 1962 and bearing in their title the month of their composition. Both appeared in the posthumously published Ariel although it is not certain that would have been her intention, had she lived to assemble the final manuscript herself. But they surely belong together, disconcerting twins born a few months apart but progeny of the same stock.
Like most of her late poems Poppies in July (quoted above) and Poppies in October are written in free verse. The language is sparse and urgent, pruned of the superfluous words that filled and sometimes flawed her earlier style. They share an imagery too, of skirts, mouths, blood and noxious vapours; the flowers represent splashes of vibrant, pumping life addressed by a protagonist who is pale and listless and passive by comparison.
Poppies are startling flowers, often gaudily sumptuous in a landscape of muted shades. Seeing them scattered red and black among fields of summer wheat and barley it is easy to understand why they were favourites of the impressionist and pointillist painters. The flowers in Claude Monet's Poppies, Near Argenteuil (1873) almost seem to flicker in the way Plath describes them.
Their association with euphoria and painlessness ('your liquors seep to me, in this glass capsule, Dulling and stilling.') and the sinister payback of dependency, decline and death were not lost on Plath either. 'There are fumes that I cannot reach. Where are your opiates, your nauseous capsules?' she asks in July, while the allusion to carbon monoxide in October is, of course, agonisingly prescient.
Sylvia Plath had a genius for taking everyday things, especially things to which we more usually ascribe benign romantic associations - candles, mirrors, the moon, flowers and so on - and injecting them with new significances, subverting them into things charged and edgy and dangerous. I can gasp at poppies, but I can never quite look at them without recalling these poems, Sylvia Plath's 'little hell flames.'