Friday, 6 November 2015

In Flanders field the poppies blow


Approaching Remembrance Sunday….

Last August I was lucky enough to see the installation of the ceramic poppies at the Tower of London conceived by Paul Cummins and designed by Tom Piper, one of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s regular designers. The original artwork was titled Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. I was pleased to hear that a section of the installation was touring to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park so on a crisp day in September I went to see Wave. The installation is staying at the YSP until 10th January 2016.

Complexity of the poppy symbolism

Poppies in the ancient world were associated with sleep and the hallucinogenic properties of morphine, named after Morpheus, the god of dreams. Prior to the First World War, poppy associations were predominantly negative: for example, the Nineteenth Century Opium Wars (China versus Britain, France, India and the USA); and the subversive influence of Thomas de Quincey’s mesmeric Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821) which led to prominent figures like Branwell Brontë becoming addicted to poppy extracts.

Lt Col John McRae’s poem

Shortly after losing a friend in the First World War, the Canadian doctor Lt Col Jon McRae observed how the red poppies were springing up all over the devastated battlefields of the Western front, even pushing through newly-dug graves of fallen soldiers. It is believed that he wrote the poem very quickly in the back of an ambulance and initially threw it away, but his comrades liked it enough to persuade him to offer it for publication and the magazine Punch printed it on 8th December 1915.
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Not blood, not war, not death, not religion, not politics

It is worth reiterating what the poppy is NOT a symbol of. It is NOT a symbol of the all the things above: not blood, not war, not death, not religion and not politics. The poppy is a symbol of remembrance and hope – new life springing from a wasteland. The poppy is only red because that’s the colour of the Flanders poppies in the fields that inspired John McRae. Remembrance. Hope. Fresh Beginning.
The original installation at the Tower of London - Blood Swept Lands and Fields of Red

In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae (1872-1918)

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.
Word cloud created on the Yorkshire Sculpture Park website