The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Poppies in July” is a short poem written in free verse. Its fifteen lines are divided into eight stanzas. The first seven stanzas are couplets, and the eighth consists of a single line. The title presents an image of natural life at its most intense—at the height of summer. It evokes a pastoral landscape and suggests happiness, if not joy or passion. The title is ironic, however, because the poem is not a hymn to nature but a hallucinatory projection of the landscape of the speaker’s mind and emotions.

Sylvia Plath begins the poem innocently, even playfully, as the speaker addresses the poppies, calling them “little poppies.” The tone changes immediately, however, as the poppies become “little hell flames,” and the speaker asks if they do no harm. She can see them flickering, but when she puts her hands into the imagined flames, “nothing burns.” She feels exhausted from watching the poppies, but she imagines that their “wrinkly and clear red” petals are like “the skin of a mouth.” This introduces an erotic element into the poem, but it is followed by an image of violence—“A mouth just bloodied.” Immediately, another change occurs, as the poppies become “little bloody skirts.” This shocking image marks the exact center of the poem.

Aside from the obvious implications of bloody skirts, another meaning is suggested by the fact that “skirt” is a slang term for a woman, and in England, where Plath was...

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Poppies in July Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The couplet form traditionally exemplifies order, balance, harmony, and reason. Each line exhibits the same grammatical and metrical structures. Each couplet forms a complete unit of meaning, and often the lines rhyme. Plath draws on this tradition by writing the poem in couplets, but she violates the form by writing free-verse lines. Her couplets represent the speaker’s effort to control her thoughts and feelings, which are expressed in the lines of free verse. The length, rhythm, and grammar of these lines vary with the ebb and flow of the speaker’s emotions. For example, the longest line in the poem evokes the image—“the skin of a mouth”—which precipitates the speaker’s anger in the next couplet, which in turn refers to the bloodied mouth and bloody skirts. This is the shortest couplet in the poem, each line having only five syllables. It concentrates and releases the speaker’s anger, like the blow of a fist.

The free-verse couplets also facilitate the presentation of the images of the poem. These follow one another according to the speaker’s associational process in a logic of emotion, rather than the couplet’s usual logic of reason. The images advance leap by leap, each suggesting the next by a shared characteristic, such as color, shape, or texture, in a series that is increasingly disturbing. Plath transforms the images, one into another, in a manner characteristic of motion pictures, in which one image dissolves as another...

(The entire section is 497 words.)

Poppies in July Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Anderson, Robert. Little Fugue. New York: Ballantine Books, 2005.

Axelrod, Steven Gould. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Bassnett, Susan. Sylvia Plath: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Brain, Tracy. The Other Sylvia Plath. New York: Longman, 2001.

Bundtzen, Lynda. Plath’s Incarnations: Woman and the Creative Process. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. New York: Seabury Press, 1976.

Butscher, Edward, ed. Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1977.

Hall, Caroline King Barnard. Sylvia Plath. New York: Twayne, 1998.

Hughes, Frieda. Foreword to Ariel: The Restored Edition, by Sylvia Plath. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

Hughes, Ted. Birthday Letters. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Kirk, Connie Ann. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Malcolm, Janet. The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Middlebrook, Diane. Her Husband: Hughes and Plath—a Marriage. New York: Viking, 2003.

Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.

Wagner, Erica. Ariel’s Gift. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.