The poem is set in the present day but reaches right back to the beginning of the Poppy Day tradition. Armistice Sunday began as a way of marking the end of the First World War in 1918. It was set up so people could remember the hundreds and thousands of ordinary men who had been killed in the First World War. Today, the event is used to remember soldiers of all wars who have died since then.
When Poppies was written, British soldiers were still dying in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a way of trying to understand the suffering that deaths caused, the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy asked a number of writers to compose poems, including Jane Weir.
form and structure
The poem appears to have a strong, regular sense of form. There are four clear stanzas, the first and last with six lines, the second with 11 and the third 12.
On closer inspection, however, we can see a great deal of movement within this outwardly regular form. 19 lines out of 35 have breaks in the middle of the lines - marked by commas or more strongly by full-stops. These breaks are called caesuras.
This careful variation in form suggests the inner emotion of a narrator who is trying to remain calm and composed but is breaking with sadness inside.
The biggest movement in the poem, however, is in the narrative structure – how the story is told. The time sequence keeps changing along with her emotions. It goes from "Three days before" (line 1) to "Before you left" (line 3) to "After you'd gone" (line 23) to "later" (line 25) and the present in "this is where it has led me" on line 26. It ends with her suspended, on the hill, between the present and the past.
The colour and texture of the poppies is expressed through powerful language in the first stanza. The detailed description of the blazer is emphasised through alliteration on "bias binding… blazer". We feel the closeness between mother and child the moment she kneels to pin the poppy to the lapel. In words such as "spasms", "disrupting" and "blockade" however, she may be also recalling the violence of his death.
This sense of her blocking out the memory of his violent death with a sweeter, purer memory is sustained in the second stanza: "Sellotape bandaged around my hand". This image carries echoes of battlefield injury as well as cleaning the cat hairs off the blazer. The contrast between the death in battle and the domestic happiness (the boy has been cuddling his cat) is powerful.
metaphor and symbolism
In the third stanza, the language becomes metaphorical and symbolic. The door to the house is the door to the world. The song-bird is a metaphor for the mother setting the child free. This then changes into the dove, the symbol of peace – but here the peace the son has found is only the peace of death.
themes and ideas
The poem is about the nature of grief. The mother is speaking directly to her son but a son who shifts in time. There is:
The son leaving home for school on his own for the first time.
The son who has just been killed.
Beneath the surface the son dying violently in a field hospital in Afghanistan.
It is as if all these different versions of her son fixed exist together inside her. When the poem reaches a moment in the present (line 26) she is vulnerable, without protection. The final lines then go back to the past tense "I traced…".
It is as if the present holds too much pain and her memories can only be expressed if distanced in imagery held safely in the past.
comparison to 'Futility'
Futility – Although written from a different point of view, Owen's poem has similarities on a number of levels. Its emotional impact comes from linking the violent world of the battlefield with the idyllic life of home. It also draws on rich natural imagery to contrast with the death being described. Finally, its power comes from the rejection of the beautiful poetic images which cannot compensate for the terrible loss of her son.
comparison to 'The Falling Leaves'
The Falling Leaves – This poem is similar in tone. Its power comes from the contrast between the calm delivery of the words and the violent subject matter. Another connection is that both Poppies and The Falling Leaves are written by women. They therefore offer important female perspectives on a subject that is dominated, and indeed generally waged, by men.