Provence Poppies

Too early for the fabled lavender fields in Provence last month, we were definitely in time for another dramatic floral display—fields and fields of poppies. Poppies by the roadside, poppies along the edges of farms. Poppies, poppies, poppies. It seemed as if you could stop the car anywhere and gather an armload of red, yellow, blue, and white flowers. Just beautiful.

Our tour guide explained that the poppy profusion is a bit unpredictable. They don’t always grow in such numbers, and they don’t always grow in the same places. They appear where the field hasn’t been cultivated—so this is why the edge of the roadway is a prime location, dotted with brilliant red.

But why wouldn’t one of the lush fields be cultivated?, I wondered. I could think of some reasons: the farmer was letting one of his fields rest for a season; he had retired or died or was visiting his daughter in California. Then I thought of another reason: the desire not to disturb the ground.

This brought back lines from Canadian poet John McCrae’s World War I work, written while he served in Ypres in 1915. “In Flanders Fields” is written as if by soldiers whose graves lie under the wild poppies:
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.

Learning this about poppies added new resonance to the poem as well as the beautiful vistas of red fields–especially meaningful in France where so many lives were lost.

McCrae, of course, was not the only significant young poet who died in The Great War. Britain lost several: Wilfred Owen, Alan Seeger, and Rupert Brooke, for example. Nursing sister Vera Britain  survived the war, but her brother and fiancé were killed in action. She served in Gallipoli and wrote: “Poets praise the soldiers’ might and deeds of war, but few exalt the Sisters and the glory of Women dead beneath a distant star.”

Thanks to McCrae, the poppy has come to symbolize battlefield death. At the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, an installation of ceramic poppies cascaded down the hillside on which the tower of London stands, an overwhelming display with each flower representing one of the 888,246 British service members who died in the war.

poppy poppies Beefeater London

(The photograph up top is not mine; technical difficulties led me to use a photo from Pinterest instead. The photograph at the end of the article is by Shawn Spencer-Smith and carries a creative commons license.)

One thought on “Provence Poppies

  1. Every Memorial Day I attend a veteran’s ceremony at our local Memorial Park and McCrae’s poem, “In Flander’s Field,” was read aloud. Unfortunately, the old vet who used to do the recitation passed away so this was the first year that it wasn’t heard, but in my mind’s ear I still heard the words… I still get tears in my eyes every time I hear those words.

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