Nathan Denette for National Post
In the tradition of Western poetry, flowers and flower imagery are inevitably associated with mortality. “Man is in love, and loves what vanishes,” is Yeats’ terse summary of our human condition. Nothing captures the bittersweet brevity, the “vanishingness” or our estate, better than the heart-stopping beauty and simultaneous fleetingness of flowers in bloom.
The gathering of flowers is itself a most enduring symbol of human mortality — we are “gathered” by accident, illness, war or, finally, time. Milton made the comparison explicit when he wrote of how fair “Proserpine, gathering flowers/ Herself a fairer flower, by gloomy Dis was gathered.”
Flowers also are the abiding symbols of regret and remorse — a truth true as much outside poetry as within it. We mark funerals with great floral tributes — to signal affection and honour for the dead; to signal as well, by the beauty of the flowers, the joy that while alive those now gone once brought to the world. Scripture is thick with such imagery — the ultimate and most vivid passage being that of Isaiah:
And he said, “What shall I cry?”
“All flesh is grass,
And all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades …”
The kernel maxim strikes innumerable echoes in English verse, the whole passage being (I think) most successfully recapitulated by Williams Cowper in the 18th century:
All flesh is grass, and all its glory fades,
Like a fair flower dishevelled in the wind
All great English elegies concerned with memory and regret are — as it were — strewn with flowers. The very greatest of them all, Milton’s Lycidas has one of the most remarkable floral passages in verse history. Milton drew upon a great tradition that the world of Nature herself mourns when a good person dies, and Nature speaks or manifests her sympathy through the flowers.
He calls for Nature to bring “every flower that sad embroidery wears” to strew his friend’s hearse. Milton writes most eloquently of all of the hyacinth, as “that sanguine flower inscribed with woe” alluding to the myth of Hyacinth accidentally killed by Apollo, and Hyacith’s blood staining the lily purple.
“Inscribed with woe” might do as a compressed description of all floral mementos of departed loved ones, or for any flowers devoted to the commemoration of those who lost their lives early, either by accident or in the great upheavals of disaster or war.
Certainly when most people think of Nov. 11, on the nation’s great commemoration — our remembering — of the horror and magnitude of the sacrifices of our soldiers and their loved ones in all wars since the First World War, their thoughts are primarily “inscribed with woe,” a compound of regret, remorse and gratitude.
Those remembering think on the sorrow and pain of loss and death, not triumphalism; certainly not something as callow and cheap as “nostalgia and romanticizing” of war — whatever that eerie, glib phrase is really supposed to mean. Those words come from the Ottawa White Poppy Coalition, whose activists currently are promoting a “white poppy” campaign symbolizing, in their own Dr. Phil formulation, “non-violent conflict resolution.”
Activists have no manners. They are heedless of the sensibilities of veterans and their families who have made the poppy campaign a cardinal national rite since its institution in 1918. Nor can they launch their own little publicity rocket without parasitically leaching off a far more honourable and far more venerable tradition. They have to have a “poppy,” too. Such originality.
Well, the poppy, the poem that made it famous and the ceremony that is now a genuine part of our civic liturgy will more than survive these efforts to degrade or misread them. When he wrote the great war poem, In Flanders Field, John McCrae — both in his call for future generations not to forget, and in his depiction of the field and its “blowing” poppies — was linking his verse to one of the great patterns of human art and human memory, the intersection of Nature and man’s mortality.
No white poppy will disturb that.
Rex Murphy offers commentary weekly on CBC TV’s The National, and is host of CBC Radio’s Cross Country Checkup.
Poppies show our regret at war’s horrors, not our love for itIn Canada on November 7, 2010 at 12:42