‘Poppies on Ludlow Castle’ by Willa Cather is a ten stanza poem that is made up of sets of four lines, or quatrains. Each of one these stanzas follow a rhyming pattern of abcb, alternating as the poet saw fit from section to section. A reader should also take note of the fact that Cather has chosen to structure the lines in a similar way, which is a feature of Cather’s poetry.
The lines are all of a comparable length and made up of a similar number of words. This is due to the rhythm inherent to the text. Cather’s lines are all made up of either six or seven syllables. There is only one instance, in the final stanza, where a line stretches to eight. This unifies the entire poem and allows one line to flow steadily into the next.
Summary of Poppies on Ludlow Castle
The poem begins with the speaker describing how the interior of the castle has lost its luster. It used to play host to a variety of powers and pleasures, but it is now “forgotten.” The speaker takes the reader from the floor of the castle up to the top of the central tower. It is from here that one can see the huge number of poppies growing on the exterior of the turrets. These are the only beautiful element left in the landscape.
In the following lines, the speaker mourns the loss of an entire age of poets and the strengths they brought to the world. She sees their loss as being extremely detrimental to the entire world. With their deaths, everyone has lost true power and valor.
In the final lines, the speaker returns to the poppies and describes them as being the sole physical representatives of what the past has given to the future. They allow one to see the love, art, architecture, knowledge, and bravery which exists in the present because of the past.
Analysis of Poppies on Ludlow Castle
Through halls of vanished pleasure,
And hold of vanished power,
And crypt of faith forgotten,
A came to Ludlow tower.
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by vaguely describing the interior of a building. One is able to tell from the first line that this place used to be luxurious but has now fallen into disrepair. The halls through which the speaker is either physically or metaphorically walking are filled with “vanished pleasure.” They speak of a time long past that was more glorious than the present day.
The hallways also used to hold power and faith, but those two things are also forgotten. It was a long time ago that these elements were all combined together within “Ludlow tower.”
This is a reference to a castle in Shropshire, England. It is of medieval in construction, built between 1066 and 1085. Cather was known to have visited this building during her lifetime. The speaker comes upon “Ludlow tower” in the final line. It is this section of the structure on which the next stanzas will focus.
A-top of arch and stairway,
Of crypt and donjan cell,
Of council hall, and chamber,
Of wall, and ditch, and well,
The tower mentioned in the previous stanza is said to sit on top of “arch and stairway” as well as “crypt” and “donjan cell.” This phrase, “donjan cell,” often spelled “donjon,” is a reference to a cell or prison within a central inner tower of a medieval castle
The main tower of Ludlow also sits a top the “council hall, and chamber.” It is elevated above every other element. There is nothing which reaches higher, especially not the “wall, and ditch, and well.”
High over grated turrets
Where clinging ivies run,
A thousand scarlet poppies
Enticed the rising sun,
The speaker continues on to describe what it is like at the top of the tower. On the exterior of the castle, there are “grated turrets” over which “clinging ivies run.” This is the first mention of a natural element in the scene, but not the last. The presence of plant-life in these scenes is extremely important to the speaker.
Within the ivy on the turrets are “A thousand scarlet poppies.” This would be quite a remarkable sight to see. These poppies are covering the sides of the tower, as if obscuring it from view. The beauty of these plants masks the hard lines of the structure and the menacing aspects of the tower.
From their position, they “Entice…the rising run.” Their colours are so remarkable it is as if they are asking the sun to shine on them. They reflect the light back out, increasing the dazzling nature of the scene.
Upon the topmost turret,
With death and damp below,–
Three hundred years of spoilage,–
The crimson poppies grow.
The description of the poppies comes to a conclusion in the fourth stanza in which the speaker comes to the “topmost turret” of the tower. It was from here that one can look down and see “death and damp.” The towers represent the worst period of history in the castle’s life and the poppies, the best. Amongst the “spoilage” and wreckage, the poppies are growing.
It is remarkable that they are able to exist here, making it clear their presence symbolizes something far greater than an appreciation for nature.
This hall it was that bred him,
These hills that knew him brave,
The gentlest English singer
That fills an English grave.
In the fifth stanza, the speaker references a vague “him.” While it is unclear who exactly this person is, one is able to hazard a guess due to the personal experiences of Cather herself. She was known to have visited the castle and discuss the life of a previous resident Sir Philip Sidney. Sidney was an English poet and soldier who is best known for his role in Elizabethan society. He is the author of Astrophel and Stella as well as The Defence of Poesy.
It is likely he is the subject to whom the speaker refers, but there is no clear evidence this is the case. Another line of thought might suggest that the “he” is larger than one person. Perhaps the speaker is mourning the deaths of the age of English poets.
Either way, this mysterious “he” was “bred” in the halls of the castle. He was well acquainted with the “hills” and is described as being “brave.” The man was also clearly a poet, or as Cather refers to him, an “English singer.”
The speaker also makes clear that he has died. Rather than living in the castle, he now “fills an English grave.”
How have they heart to blossom
So cruel and gay and red,
When beauty so hath perished
And valour so hath sped?
In the sixth stanza, the speaker moves past the details of this one person’s life and expands her view onto life in modern times. She is in deep mourning for the passing of an age when men, such as the “he” mentioned previously, “hath perished.”
She does not understand how anyone can be happy when “beauty” has died out and “valour…sped.” No one’s heart should be “gay and red” now.
When knights so fair are rotten,
And captains true asleep,
And singing lips are dust-stopped
Six English earth-feet deep?
‘Poppies on Ludlow Castle’ continues with the speaker listing out a few other reasons why life is no longer as it was. The “knights” of the past are “rotten” in the ground and the “true” captains of humankind, are “asleep.” Those who used to grace the world with their “singing” are now “dust-stopped” and within the English earth.
These depressing lines show how much power the past has over the speaker. She is hoping to inspire an appreciation in her listeners for a time that is not the present. There is something to be valued in the past, and she wants to make sure everyone sees it.
When ages old remind me
How much hath gone for naught,
What wretched ghost remaineth
Of all that flesh hath wrought;
The eighth stanzas is used to convey the speaker’s inner thoughts. She often contemplates the past. It serves to remind her how much has “gone for naught.” Her thoughts are not any happier than the words she spoke previously. She does not see the world as having progressed very far since these types of men died.
The only things which remain from that time are “wretched ghost[s]” of the “flesh” that used to be so powerful. These ghosts are described further in the next lines.
Of love and song and warring,
Of adventure and play,
Of art and comely building,
Of faith and form and fray—
The spectral presences which remain on the grounds of the castle, and in the world at large, are those of “love and song and warring.” They are pleasant, powerful, and deadly at times. There are moments in which one is able to experience the “adventure and play” of the past as well as the “art” and beautiful architectural “building.”
It seems as if, although the past is lost, there is still something to be gained by looking into what is left.
I’ll mind the flowers of pleasure,
Of short-lived youth and sleep,
That drunk the sunny weather
A-top of Ludlow keep.
In the final four lines of the poem the speaker states that she will “mind the flowers of pleasure” which reside on the tower of Ludlow. They are representative of the mark the past has left on the future. The flowers speak of happiness and “short-lived youth and sleep.” They will live, seemingly, forever on top of “Ludlow keep.”