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Poppies (Part 1)

The corn poppy re-christened Flanders poppy and immortalised by John McCrae, has a weight of symbolism which seems too heavy for such a fragile dainty flower to bear. Anyone who has tried to make a poppy lady will attest to its delicacy. But as with its cousin, the opium poppy, they are both flowers of war the tradition of the soothing soporific quality of the opium poppy seems to have melded with the idea of a remembrance poppy. It has been with us from neolithic times and is a very successful weed, happiest to grow on churned-up land. It has been excavated at lake Bracciano as well as in many older sites, living with us and being cultivated for its soporific and painkilling properties. EIGHTY million poppies are sold worldwide every year to remember and honour the dead. Such a weight on such fragility! Assyria, ancient Egypt, Minoa, the opium poppy was important to the Greeks and later to the Romans and is to be found flowering on the banks of Lethe.

Poppies, transfigured, took a great leap forward in the 19th century leaving behind their archeological and mythical connotations. Now it was war! The freshly churned-up ground at the battle of Waterloo was thick with poppies and the tradition arose that these were stained scarlet with the blood of the slain. Empires went to war over the opium poppy and the enormous profits to be made from them. Janus Bi-front or poppy Bi.front, for on the one hand poppy profits helped finance the industrialisation of war whilst on the other, it alleviated suffering. In the 1820’s the miraculous properties of morphine (from Morpheus the god of sleep) as a pain killer was spread over all Europe. Britain created, was in fact a drug cartel and by causing the Opium wars against China made vast sums of money. The wealth accrued by the Empire would be spent to finance the 1914/1918 war. The British “Romantic poets” included many opium eaters and the whole Romantic movement tended to glorify the literary properties of a drop or two of laudanum.

the Poppy Field near Argenteuil,1873 by Claude Monet

The American Civil war tested in its extreme conditions (it was one of the most brutal, tragic wars ever, with a huge percentage of men lost) the efficacy of the opiates :”maimed and shattered survivors from a hundred battlefields, diseased and disabled soldiers……anguished and hopeless wives and mothers, made so by the slaughter of those who were dearest to them have found……temporary relief from their suffering in opium”. (“The Opium habit”, Horace Day, 1868) but with painters and poets came a kind of conflation of the two types of poppy “All silk and flame”(Ruskin) but Keats waxed lyrical “drowsed with the fume of poppies”. Here the two are finally one.

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