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Poppies in October Summary

Sylvia Plath

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Summary and Analysis

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“Poppies in October,” by the American poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), is a brief but puzzling
work that is ultimately more effective because of the vivid imagery it employs than because
of any clear, unambiguous meaning it communicates. Interpreters have imagined a variety of
contradictory scenarios to help explain the poem’s “meaning” or “message,” but the poem
itself resists simple explanations. Ultimately the poem seems more effective because of its
colors, phrasing, structural surprises, and intriguing ambiguities than for any clear, simple
story it tells. It seems best, then, to move through the poem line-by-line, beginning with the
title.

As a title, the phrase “Poppies in October” immediately raises questions. Is the speaker
referring to literal flowers blooming in mid-autumn? Or is the speaker instead referring to the
paper poppies worn and displayed so widely in Britain at the approach of “Remembrance
Day”—the day on which the British remember the soldiers who died in World War I? (Plath
lived in England when this poem was written, but should a reader be expected to know that
historical fact? Is it relevant to the poem?) Such artificial paper poppies are highly visible in
the streets of Britain as November 11 (the date on which the First World War ended) comes
nearer. Are these, then, the kinds of poppies to which the title refers? Or is the speaker
instead thinking of real poppies, either blooming in the ground or cut and displayed? A reader
cannot immediately be sure, and so even the very title of the poem is ambiguous.

The poem’s opening line is striking: “Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such
skirts” (1). The reference to “sun-clouds” provides a striking visual image, implying clouds
illuminated by the sun—clouds that resemble the skirts worn by women. (This latter fact is
important since the poem will soon emphasize imagery of both women and men, both
females and males.) Presumably the phrase “such skirts” refers to the “skirts” of poppies, an
intriguing metaphor since poppies normally face upward into the sky rather than hanging
downward toward the ground, as skirts hang. However, making matters even more
complicated is the fact that some real poppies point toward the sky while also trailing “skirts”
of red below. So after reading the title in conjunction with line 1, we cannot be sure whether
the speaker is referring to real poppies growing in a field, to real poppies cut or potted in
some urban environment, or to the paper poppies so widely visible in Britain in the lead-up to
Remembrance Day.

To make matters even more complicated, lines 2-3 suddenly refer to a somewhat mysterious
woman:

in the ambulance
Whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly

What are we to make of these new details? Where, exactly, is the speaker? We might have
assumed, from the title and from line 1, that the speaker was in...

(The entire section is 1223 words.)

“Poppies in October” has been called “a faultless poem” by famed poetry critic Helen
Vendler. The poem has always been well-received by critics but it is less popular with casual
readers and often overlooked among the late masterpieces that formed her collection Ariel.

The title “Poppies in October” raises the question; is the speaker referring to flowers
blooming in mid-autumn, not the time of year for poppies, or is she referring to the artificial
poppies worn and displayed in Britain at the approach of “Remembrance Day” on November
11th? This initially commemorated the soldiers who died in World War I, but subsequently
honours all soldiers who have died since then. Is Plath identifying with or mourning fallen
soldiers? Note that Plath lived in England when this poem was written.

The other possibility, that the speaker is referring to real poppies, cut and displayed, is highly
unlikely. Poppies are unsuitable for sale as they don’t keep, and are never displayed on
flower stalls. If they are growing in a field then why is the poem so clearly set in a city?
Therefore, this seems to be an imaginary, fantasy scenario. So even the very title of the poem
is ambiguous.
Structure
It is uncharacteristically short for a Sylvia Plath poem, but typically she uses a structure that
suits her terse, concise style; four stanzas of three lines each, with condensed, compressed
short lines.

Language and Imagery


Each line establishes an idea conveyed through imagery that is surprising, unexpected and
complex. Though short, Plath’s poem is no easier to interpret than her longer compositions.
As usual, there are multiple possibilities. So, for example, the woman in the ambulance in
stanza 1 may represent the poet, may be a metaphor for all women who suffer. We don’t
know why this metaphor isn’t extended in the way Plath usually weaves images throughout
her poems. As always, Plath’s work is intriguing and unique.

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