Poppies in October by Sylvia Plath is a poem where the meaning can easily be lost in the description, but at its core, it seems to be about the contrast between life and death. Essentially, this work shows Plath’s lessening interest in life and her continued interest with death, with death getting lasting attention and focus. This creates a sad atmosphere to the poem that the reader can react to since value is forgotten and despair overcomes, as if the reader wishes to have seen these negative things beforehand to prevent Plath from having to endure them. As the reader cannot undo her despair, the sad atmosphere and melancholy message remain. You can read the full poem here.
Poppies in October Analysis
The confusion that will be prevalent throughout this work begins in this first stanza. For one thing, the reader must infer that the “skirts” being addressed are not actual “skirts,” but the petals of the “Poppies” that are the poem’s namesake. Should a reader think about the structure of “Poppies,” this description would almost make sense as the petals do have a rim-like appearance. However, the description is only comparable rather than perfect because these flowers’ petals extend upward toward the “sky,” unlike typical “skirts.” This is an indication that Plath was feeling as if life was upside down at this point in her life, like she could not get her grounding and felt as though things were without proper direction.
This is noted as well in the confusing concept of “the woman in the ambulance” who seems to come out of nowhere, and “[w]hose red heart blooms through her coat” is such an unusual concept that additional thought should be given to it. Clearly, a “heart” cannot “bloom” in this manner, so the meaning must become something less literal. It is possible that the “heart bloom[ing]” indicates blood spilling “through her coat” to become very apparent to an observer. If such is the case, this “woman” has been wounded in some way, and she is bleeding from an undescribed incident.
It is important to note at this point that this poem is said to have been written somewhat near the time that Plath committed suicide. With this in mind, it is possible that she was experiencing an interest in moving beyond this life while she was writing this poem, which would give reason to her sudden shift in addressing what could be a fatal wound to a strange “woman” when she had previously been discussing flowers, as if death was capable of stealing her focus in an instant. This fascination with death is prevalent as well in the choice of flowers for the poem as “Poppies” are connected to ideas of slumber, like an eternal sleep. From these two concepts, the reader can infer that the bizarre approach within the poem is to showcase an interest in passing, which explains why she felt so off-balance as to label petals extended upward as “skirts.”
The interest in the afterlife continues in this stanza as no matter if “sun-clouds” or the wound that caused the blood are being labeled “a love gift,” the label is still quite morbid. After all, “sun-clouds” indicate that “clouds” are blocking the “sun,” and this hints diminishing light. This “love,” in that scenario, would be present in something that was silencing brightness, like the darkness is appealing or even beckoning. Only with a hint of darkness, in this estimation, is “love” at its best state.
If Plath meant the wound that caused the blood was this “love gift,” the situation becomes even stranger. Perhaps this means that the wound was delivered by someone who was said to “love” the person, like an act of familial or marital abuse. Whether or not this notion is true, labeling it “[a] gift” is bizarre since it shows that toeing this line between life and death was an intriguing enough concept to Plath to be seen as a positive “gift.”
This “love gift” aspect can also be a hint that the aforementioned “woman in the ambulance” is actually pregnant. In this scenario, the “love gift” is in the form of a child, and this idea could be connected to notions of her “heart” surfacing through that child. This, too, would explain the “heart bloom[ing]” from the previous stanza, as if the child is an extension of her “love” and “heart,” and she “blooms” as the baby does. This is only a theory, though, and given that little of the rest of the poem might line up with it, the safest method of explanation remains life versus death.
Additionally, this “gift” is “[u]tterly unasked for,” which blends a negative feel with the concept of a positive “gift.” “Utterly,” as it happens, comes with the connotation of consumption, as if a person is drowning in the depths of the scenario. Even the beginning sound of the word reflects this concept, as though the person were actually groaning in disgust over the situation. That this adjective is linked to something as pleasant in concept as “[a] gift” lets the reader know that there are layers of feeling here, that Plath was not fully committed to either concept being better. To live or die, essentially, came with pros and cons to her, and she had yet to decipher which was the path she wanted to take. Still, her choice remained looming over her, like “a sky” she could not escape.
This stanza seems to build on the “sky” concepts in that the earlier noted “sun-clouds” would be aspects that could represent this stanza’s adjectives of “[p]alely and flamily,” with the “clouds” being “[p]ale” and the “sun” being like “flam[e].” This combination is lively enough to “[i]gnit[e]” its elements, but the choice seems to be made to “[d]ull” that brightness with “bowlers.” This reads like a description of a person keeping their “eyes” from the “sun” by utilizing a “bowler” hat, but the deeper meaning of choosing to dim light can be employed to blend with the earlier mentioned theme of toeing the line of life and death. Just as a person can lower their head and allow a “bowler” to block light, Plath was choosing to shift focus from the light of life just enough to dim the brightness that came from it.
It is interesting that this “[i]gniting” is noted as “[d]ull[ing]” things “to a halt,” which indicates a full stop rather than just a dimmer existence. Perhaps this is an indication that the fixation with death was growing stronger for Plath—that it was not just there, but escalating to bring her “to a halt” in regard to any wishes she had to continue living.
Plath returns to the floral concept by referring to the “late mouths” that “cry open,” like flowers whose petals are lively and vibrant. These particular flowers blossom “in a dawn of cornflowers,” and “[i]n a forest of frosts.” What this indicates is that her world had grown cold, and a different flower of fascination had sprung up to catch her interest. This could be another clue that her interest in the division of life and death had begun leaning toward a more pressing interest in death itself, which is supported in the notion of how soon after penning this poem she committed suicide.
The shift into this new mentality is filled with despair, which is noted in her “cry” to “God” in the first line of the stanza that is followed by the question of “what am I.” These are indications that she was losing balance and a sense of value in her life. It made no sense to her that the flowers would blossom in her presence, as though she did not deserve such luxuries. Even the act of this “bloom[ing]” is tainted with the criticism that the blossoming is “late,” as well as the description of the blossoming being that the flowers “cry open.” This, essentially, sounds like a lament for their continued existence, as if it is time for the “cornflowers” to surface to change the setting.
Overall, this poem reflects the mentality of a person who has lost a sense of value with their being—someone who yearns for the “sun” to “set” on their existence to make way for the “dawn” of something different. At its core, then, this poem can be seen as a hint of Plath’s future suicide, given her interest in death and its contrast to life. This is a hushed concept in the poem—reflecting the taboo of the fascination with death—in that though the title indicates that “Poppies in October” are the main subject, neither the flower nor the month are mentioned by name. Essentially, this pull toward death was real for Plath, but it remained internal, and these ideas drive the poem.
About Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath was born in Massachusetts in 1932 and was plagued with depression. In fact, she attempted suicide at the age of 19, and she later ended her life in 1963. Before this end, though, she attended Cambridge University and married Ted Hughes, though the marriage ended in divorce.