‘The Poppy‘ by Jane Taylor is a four stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, or quatrains. These quatrains follow a district rhyming pattern that remains consistent throughout the poem’s entirety. The stanza follows the scheme of abab cdcdc efef ghgh. This “sing-song” pattern of verses is characteristic of Taylor’s work and her reputation as a children’s author.
The poem begins with the speaker coming upon a “scarlet poppy” growing with abounding self-confidence in a prime spot on a hillside. The speaker is taken aback by this sight and surprised that such a flower would display itself so prominently. It is not clear at first why she feels this way, regarding what many agree is a beautiful flower. As the poem progresses her reasoning becomes clear.
She states that the poppy would have been much more welcome in this “bed” if it had found somewhere less prominent to “thrust” it’s “staring head.” She suggests a place in the shade, out of her direct view. The speaker continues on to state that it is due to the flower’s lack of smell that she feels so disdainfully about its location and actions. She imbues the flower with the human ability to decide where it wants to grow and how it wants to look. This is a direct reference to how she, as a woman, would like to act and be seen.
The speaker does not want to ever become as vain or “gaudy” as the poppy is and professes her determination to use the lesson of the poppy to maintain her moral strength.
Analysis of The Poppy
High on a bright and sunny bed
A scarlet poppy grew
And up it held its staring head,
And thrust it full in view.
The poem begins with the speaker coming upon a “scarlet poppy” growing “High” on a sunny patch of land. One can assume that the speaker was shocked to see so bright a color amongst the greens of the landscape and had not expected to come across this particular flower in such an exposed place. The poppy is not described as being “red,” but as “scarlet,” it is bold in its placement on the hill and deeply striking in its color choice.
It is clear from the beginning that the speaker is going to treat this flower as if it has the ability to make its own decisions and has made the conscious choice to grow in this prime spot.
The poppy is holding up its “staring head” without shame. There is nothing reserved about the flower and it is unafraid to “thrust” itself into “full…view..” This is an attitude that the narrator is clearly unfamiliar, and uncomfortable with, as will become clear later in the poem.
Yet no attention did it win,
By all these efforts made,
And less unwelcome had it been
In some retired shade.
The actions the poppy has taken, growing in this prime location, and the bold assertion of itself directly into the speaker’s line of sight, did it no favors. She states that “no attention did it win,” by doing this. Although, this is not necessarily the case as she is now taking the time to describe what she is seeing. The poppy did make some impact on her, perhaps one that she would rather ignore.
In the second set of lines in this quatrain, the narrator ruefully states that the flower would have been “less unwelcome” or more welcome, in a spot that was not too obvious. It would have done better for itself to grow in “some retired shade” where it would not stick out so obviously.
Although within its scarlet breast
No sweet perfume was found,
It seemed to think itself the best
Of all the flowers round,
In the third stanza, the speaker describes why she is so put off, almost to the point of taking offense, by how the flower is displaying itself. She admits that it does have a “scarlet breast, “ something that is noteworthy, but that is not enough to make up for what it doesn’t have. When one smells the flower there is no “sweet perfume” to be found. The most important feature of a flower, the smell, is lacking from this one. In her eyes, this makes the poppy unworthy of its own self-confidence and placement directly within her view.
The reader might take a moment to consider why this might be the case and what the flower could be representing for the poet. The speaker is seeking something deeper than surface-level beauty, she wants a flower to have all elements of beauty, interior, and exterior, with none of the weakness of pride.
She continues on to state that even though the flower does not have the pleasant smell that it should, it still thinks that it is the best “Of all the flowers round.” It has a misplaced self-confidence, and she does not understand where it stems from.
From this I may a hint obtain
And take great care indeed,
Lest I appear as pert and vain
As does this gaudy weed.
In the final set of four lines the speaker levels her last insult against the poppy flower. She sees the poppy flower as a reflection of human actions and is taking what she can from it as a life lesson. She wants to make sure, from what she has learned by seeing the vain poppy flower, that she too does not act in that manner. She does not want to become a flower that appears “as pert and vain” as the poppy does.
The speaker knows there are more important things than to show one’s self off, and means to abide by her own moral standards. In the last line, she describes the poppy as a “gaudy weed.” Its beauty does not even save it at this point, it is no longer even a flower.
About Jane Taylor
Jane Taylor was born in September of 1783 and lived most of her life in Colchester, England. Taylor had one sister with whom she was very close and her parents both pursued literary interests. Her father was an engraver and her mother wrote a number of words of religious advice.
Jane would go on to write a number of pieces alongside her sister, Anne. Together they published Original Poems for Infant Minds in 1804 that was filled with behavioral warnings for young children. Taylor is best known for her hymns and children’s stories. In 1806, she, at the age of 23, along with her older sister, wrote the words for Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. This much-beloved children’s song was originally published under the title, “The Star.” This work was included in the collection Rhymes for the Nursery.
Jane Taylor died of breast cancer in April of 1824, she was forty years old. She was interred at Ongar churchyard. Her brother, Isaac, would go on to collect a number of her unpublished works in a collection titled, The Writings of Jane Taylor, In Five Volumes.