The poem is written from a first-person narrative perspective and in the confessional style for which Plath’s poetry is best-known. Often, as with ‘Poppies in July’ her poems are considered as direct descriptions of her mind. This particular poem explores themes of grief, escape, and alludes to even darker themes of death and suicide.
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Summary of Poppies in July
The poem takes the reader through images that are related to the bright poppy flowers, the numbness Plath is seeking, and her exhaustion with the color of the world. She’s worn out looking at these brightly colored “hell flames”. She’d rather engage with what they can give her, the opium. At the end of the poem, it is suggested that Plath, or at least the speaker she is channeling for this poem, ingests the opium in liquid form and is taken into a state that she finds more pleasing.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of Poppies in July
‘Poppies in July’ by Sylvia Plath is a fifteen line poem that is separated out into seven couplets and a single, concluding one-line stanza. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. They vary in length, ranging from three words up to thirteen. Despite their differences and lack of a consistent rhyme scheme, there are examples of rhyme to be found in the poem. For example “do” and “you” in lines two and three as well as the half-rhyme (one of several) in lines five and six with “me” and “wrinkly”.
Literary Devices in Poppies in July
Plath makes use of several literary devices in ‘Poppies in July’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, caesura, and enjambment. The latter, enjambment, occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines five and six as well as that between lines four and five.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “flicker” and “flames” in lines three and four as well as “mouth” and “marry” in line twelve.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might precede an important turn or transition in the text. There are numerous examples in ‘Poppies in July’. One can be found in the third line which is separated into two distinct sentences. It reads: “You flicker. I cannot touch you.”
Analysis of Poppies in July
Little poppies, little hell flames,
I put my hands among the flames. Nothing burns
In the first lines of ‘Poppies in July,’ the speaker begins by depicting the poppies as “little hell flames”. They are bright red, shining out at her as though they are part of hell itself. She’s in a dark place, seeing the world through this particular point of view. The second line suggests that she’s either looking for or suspecting harm to be done. The rhetorical questions might make one think back to Plath’s personal history of depression, suicide attempts, and eventual success at ending her own life.
The flames are there in front of her but she can’t quite reach them. They’re just as bright as they seem like they should be but when she puts her hands “among the flames” “Nothing burns”. This could suggest that Plath is at a distance from the reality of the world or that she has been numbed somehow to the pain she might normally experience. She isn’t feeling something that she expects to.
And it exhausts me to watch you
Little bloody skirts!
The darkness and vividness of Plath’s mental state come through in the next lines of ‘Poppies in July’. She expresses her exhaustion at watching the poppies. They don’t appear beautiful to her nor do they act as the “little…hell flames” they appear to be. Their brightness is draining her and she uses a simile to compare them to “the skin of a mouth”. This is followed up by the mention of “blood,” something that is far from unusual in Plath’s poems.
Often, this poem is connected to Plath’s marriage to Ted Hughes and its painful ending, and the miscarriages that Plath suffered. A reader can draw their own conclusions about the “bloodied” mouth and the “bloody skirts”
There are fumes I cannot touch.
Where are your opiates, your nauseous capsules?
The inability to connect or “touch” comes back in the ninth line of ‘Poppies in July’. There are “fumes” she explains, that she “cannot touch”. This is likely a reference to the points found in the opium poppy, as mentioned in the tenth line. She is seeking out a feeling of escape that this drug could give her but t isn’t there for her.
The next two lines are fairly distressing as they could refer directly to Plath’s desire to commit suicide and escape from her life and marriage. She is seeking out “sleep” and the “hurt” that she could “marry” with her mouth. The lines allude to an end or a way of reaching that end.
Or your liquors seep to me, in this glass capsule,
But colorless. Colorless.
The final couplet of ‘Poppies in July,’ describes Plath, or her speaker, drinking opium as a liquid. It is “dulling and stilling” just like she wants it to be. It’s numbing her. The opium and the way it influenced her is “colorless,” the exact opposite of the vibrant poppy she was bothered by at the beginning of the poem. The repetition of the word suggests that it applies to more than just this moment. Her world is “Colorless”.