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Poppies: Power and Conflict Analysis

Poppies was written by Jane Weir in 2009. It was part of a collection of war poems commissioned by Carol Ann Duffy. When this collection was published, an inquiry into the Iraq war was soon to be published. British soldiers were also still fighting in Afghanistan.

Poppies have been a symbol of peace and death for a long time. The Ancient Greeks and Romans would use the flowers as offerings to the dead. In modern society, poppies are a symbol of wartime remembrance. People wear artificial poppies on Remembrance Day, which is on November 11. Armistice Sunday takes place on the nearest Sunday to this date.

Poem Summary

A mother pins a poppy onto her son’s blazer. Although it isn’t stated explicitly, it is assumed that he is a soldier and is leaving home to join the army. She feels a sense of loss and anxiety about this. However, he is excited about going, so she bravely hides her emotions. She wants to show physical affection like when he was a child, but stops herself. After he leaves, she visits a war memorial. She wishes she could hear his voice from when he was a little boy.

The poem’s key message:

When soldiers go to war, their families can suffer anxiety about their well-being. They may also have to mourn if their child is killed in action.

Language

  • Weir uses figurative language to convey the depth of the mother’s emotions. At the end of the poem, she leans against the war memorial “like a wishbone”. This simile could be interpreted in different ways. A “wishbone” is a bone from a bird that people snap in two as part of a game, so it could show how fragile she feels in this moment. It could also indicate that she wishes that she could be reconnected with her son.
  • The senses are used to show the closeness that the mother wants to have with her son. She desperately wants to “graze” her nose against his and run her hands through his hair. She also hopes to hear his voice from when he was a child, described as a “playground voice catching on the wind”.
  • It could be interpreted from some of the war imagery that the son has died. There is mention of “Armistice Sunday”, and the mother visits a “war memorial” to be reminded of him. Also, the description of the poppy at the beginning, with its “spasms of paper red”, could allude to an injury sustained in battle.

Structure

  • Part of what makes the poem ambiguous (open for interpretation) is the unclear timeframe. We don’t know whether the memory of the son leaving to join the army is from the recent or distant past.
  • The first three stanzas concern the mother’s emotions as she says goodbye to her son.
  • In the final section of the poem, we see her sense of loss. It is ambiguous whether this is because he has left home or died.

Form

  • The poem is written in free verse (no regular rhythm or rhyme). Weir also uses long sentences with enjambment (the sentences run across different lines and stanzas). This perhaps reflects the mother’s disordered thoughts as she tries to deal with her emotions and memories.
  • It is written in the first person, from the mother’s perspective. It is also in the past tense, so we know that she is remembering when her son left (although it is not stated how long ago this happened).

Themes

ThemeAnalysis
Sadness and lossEven though she hides it from her son, the mother is deeply saddened when he leaves. She “steeled the softening of my face”, showing how she forced herself to be brave and not show her emotions. At the moment of saying goodbye, we see her words “slowly melting” as she is briefly too overwhelmed with sadness to speak.

After he goes, she struggles to cope with the loss of her son. She releases “a song bird from its cage”, which could symbolise her trying to come to terms with losing this joy from her life. She wishes he could return to being a child, when they “would play at being Eskimos”. At this age, she could keep him safe from the world and maintain her physical closeness with him.  
Effects of conflictWeir shows that not just soldiers suffer during war, but also their families. The mother is portrayed as being deeply anxious about his well-being. Imagery related to sewing depicts her anxiety, as her stomach is “busy making tucks, darts, pleats”.

She observes a “single dove” flying. Doves are often seen as symbols of peace, so she could be hoping for an end to war and the return of her son. However, doves can also be associated with death, so she may be mourning her son’s death.
IdentityThe son could be shown to have different identities. The mother sees him first and foremost as her son. She wants to remember him as a young child when his role in the family solely defined his identity.

However, as an adult, he is eager to explore the world independently. She sees he is “intoxicated” with excitement about his future adventures. The world for him overflows “like a treasure chest”, showing the potential richness of life that he can experience.

He is also a soldier, as identified by his army uniform. Symbolically, the mother cleans away cat hairs from his army blazer; all evidence of the family home is being removed so that he can serve his duty as a soldier.  

Key Quotes to Learn

QuoteWhy is it important?
“spasms of paper red”On a literal level, this describes the poppy that she puts on his blazer. It also gives the image of an injured body on the battlefield. This could show her worry about what will happen to him.
“the world overflowing/ like a treasure chest”Whereas the mother is consumed by anxiety and sadness, the son is excited about his future. He imagines the treasures of happiness that life will offer him.
“hoping to hear your playground voice”The mother desperately wants to be reunited with her son. She wishes he could be a young child again so that she could keep him safe at home.