‘Poppies on the Wheat’ by Helen Hunt Jackson is a short, two stanza poem which is separated into one set of seven lines and another set of eight. The poem follows a rhyming pattern of abbaabc baddacaa. Throughout the fifteen lines, the poet makes utilizes the ‘a’ rhyme seven times. This choice was made in an effort to unify the poem from beginning to end. There is a string of rhyme that runs through the piece that a reader will be able to detect and expect as they move from line to line.
Jackson has also made an interesting choice in the way that she formatted the seventh line (the last line of the first stanza) and the eighth line (the first line of the second stanza). They are both short, and the eighth line is indented in far enough to line up with the end of the seventh line. This way Jackson was able to separate the poem into two parts, but make sure it is clear that the same string of thought is continued.
This poem was inspired by Jackson’s own travels in Italy and the times in which she saw such fields as described in the text of the two stanzas.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that she is looking out on a field of wheat. It is a hot day in Ancona, in central Italy, and she can see the heat “shimmering” on the hills. Although it appears to be uncomfortably warm, there are innumerable pleasures the speaker can gain from what she sees.
When she looks out on the wheat field and sees how it is moving like the sea, she is brought joy. She spots the bright red poppy flowers which are growing in the midst of the field. They race from place to place, always sticking close to the seashore.
In the second half of ‘Poppies on the Wheat’, the speaker introduces the farmer of the land. He is walking through his fields, completely unaware that there are glorious flowers all around him. He is unable to even spare a moment for the beauty around him. His thoughts are constrained to the profit he has made this fall.
In the last lines, the speaker says that one day other pleasures in life will fail to please her, those such as bread and wine. When this happens she will return to the memory of Ancona and “smile.”
Analysis of Poppies on the Wheat
Along Ancona’s hills the shimmering heat,
A tropic tide of air with ebb and flow
Bathes all the fields of wheat until they glow
Like flashing seas of green, which toss and beat
Around the vines. The poppies lithe and fleet
Seem running, fiery torchmen, to and fro
To mark the shore.
In the first stanza of ‘Poppies on the Wheat’, the poet’s speaker provides the reader with some information regarding the setting of this short poem. She describes looking out “Along Ancona’s hills.” This is a reference to a seaside town in the Marche region of central Italy. It is approximately 280 kilometers northeast of Rome. The poet has chosen to utilize a number of very visceral images that allow a reader to feel as if they too are viewing a field in Italy. She utilizes one’s senses to enhance the reality of the poem.
Jackson’s speaker is seeing the heat rising off the of “hills” of the city’s surroundings. It appears to be “shimmering” in the sunlight. This is a beautiful and distressing sight. It is clearly the hottest part of the day, but one cannot deny that the warmth, and its physical embodiment, is intriguing.
To allay the impact of the heat, there is a “tropic tide of air” moving across the hills. It “ebb[s] and flow[s].” The speaker describes it as if it has some agency of its own. She personifies the movement of the wind to describe how it moves, “bath[ing} all of the fields of wheat.” The combination of the air and the heat make the fields appear to “glow.”
The wheat is moving as if it is a “tossing sea of green.” It has as much movement as the sea and is only interrupted by the “running, fiery torchmen,” or poppies, which are growing amongst it. They grow closest to the shore and seem to mark it out with their bright red colors.
The farmer does not know
That they are there. He walks with heavy feet,
Counting the bread and wine by autumn’s gain,
But I,—I smile to think that days remain
Perhaps to me in which, though bread be sweet
No more, and red wine warm my blood in vain,
I shall be glad remembering how the fleet,
Lithe poppies ran like torchmen with the wheat.
In the second stanza of ‘Poppies on the Wheat’, the speaker introduces another character, “The farmer.” The man who owns this field, and tall the wheat and poppies within it, is completely oblivious to the beauty of his own property. He walks from place to place without even noticing that the poppies “are there.” This is incredible to the speaker. She does not understand how one could not see and appreciate the bright presence of these flowers.
The man is in his own world. He is walking with “heavy feet.” Perhaps his life is harder than one might expect and he is facing troubles at home. Either way, his life is dragging him down, making it harder and harder for him to move. If he is overwhelmed, it does provide a bit of an excuse for his lack of effort in noticing his surroundings.
The speaker continues on to state that the farmer is busy, “Counting the bread and wine by autumn’s gain.” His mind is transfixed by the profit he has, and will, make off of his most recent harvest. Wine and bread are the two things that matter most to him. He has no time for frivolous natural pleasures.
In the next lines, the speaker addresses her own experience. She smiles to herself because she knows there are days in her future during which the sight of the poppies will warm her as nothing else can.
Eventually, she will be either too old or too jaded, to gain pleasure from eating and drinking, but she will have this memory to refer to. She will see the “fleet” poppies which ran along the seashore whenever she needs cheering.