Poppies in Classical Poetry – Homer, Catullus, Virgil, Dante (contributed by Jane Mason and David Bevan)

Homer’s simile describes the death of a minor character, shot by mistake by Teucer when aiming at Hector. Catullus’ poem begins with a bitter and crude invective against his unfaithful mistress, so that the tender description of the flower comes as a sudden contrast.

Virgil combines these two and creates an even more poignantly beautiful image at the culmination of the tragic story of Nisus and Euryalus, which mourns the beauty, courage and promise of youth that is destroyed by the violence of death.

For Dante, the simile comes at a vital moment: convinced he cannot make it, Virgil reveals that he was sent by Beatrice to be his guide. What follows is the poppy simile, but tellingly, its implications are completely reversed. Dante encapsulates the message in Virgil’s image, delves into the natural process, and comes up with a story of redemption.

Jane Mason and David Bevan

 

Homer Iliad VIII. 306-308

μήκων δ᾽ ὡς ἑτέρωσε κάρη βάλεν τ᾽ ἐνὶ κήπῳ
καρπῷ βριθομένη νοτίῃσί τε εἰαρινῇσιν,
ὣς ἑτέρωσ᾽ ἤμυσε κάρη πήληκι βαρυνθέν.

 And he bowed his head to one side like a poppy that in a garden
is laden with its fruit and the rains of spring;
so bowed he to one side his head, laden with his helmet.

Catullus Elegies XI. 19-27

cum suis vivat valeatque moechis,
quos simul complexa tenet trecentos,
nullum amans vere…..
nec meum respectet, ut ante, amorem,
qui illius culpa cecidit velut prati
ultimi flos, praetereunte postquam
tactus aratro est.

May she live and flourish with her lovers,
and may she hold three hundred at once in her embrace,
loving not one in truth……
nor may she look back upon my love as before,
which by her lapse has fallen, just as on the meadow’s edge
a flower has been touched by the passing plough.

Virgil: Aeneid IX. 433-437

volvitur Euryalus leto, pulchrosque per artus
it cruor, inque umeros cervix conlapsa recumbit:
purpureus veluti cum flos succisus aratro
languescit moriens lassove papavera collo
demisere caput pluvia cum forte gravantur.

Euryalus rolls over in death, and over his beautiful limbs
gore flows, and on his shoulders his neck lies limp:
just as when a crimson flower, cut down by the plough
droops as it dies, or poppies with weary neck
lower their heads, when they are weighed down by a chance shower.

Dante: Inferno 2: 127-133

Quali fioretti dal notturno gelo
chinati e chiusi, poi che ‘l sol li ‘mbianca
si drizzan tutti aperti in loro stelo:
tal mi fec’ io di mia virtude stanca
e tanto buono ardire al cor mi corse,
ch’ i’ comniciai come persona franca:

Like flowers bent low and closed
by the night’s frost,
which, shot through with sunlight,
rise up, fully open on their stems:
the same did I with my tired virtue
and so much noble passion rushed to my heart
that I began (to speak) as a confident man
poppies
Translation by Mariangela Labate and Dave Bevan.

Links
For the full text of Dante with Longfellow’s translation go to:
http://www.divinecomedy.org/divine_comedy.html

Teaching Ideas

The use of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance does not seem to have any link to these passages but comes from John McCrae’s poem of 1915 with its famous first two lines, which are said to have been inspired by the sight of poppies growing on a friend’s grave:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row.

However, the story of Nisus and Euryalus mirrors the courage and death in the Great War of so many soldiers ‘in the flower of youth’. If there are any poems from the time that make the connection to Virgil’s simile please let the Anthology know! The fragility of flowers as a symbolism for the beautiful fragility of youth and of life seems to be a universal one, which could be explored using these poems and others.

For the full text and background to McCrae’s poem go to:
http://www.greatwar.co.uk/poems/john-mccrae-in-flanders-fields.htm

For the Poppies at the Tower of London go to:
http://poppies.hrp.org.uk/

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