Summary and Analysis

“Poppies in October,” by the American poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), is a brief but puzzling work that is ultimately more effective because of the vivid imagery it employs than because of any clear, unambiguous meaning it communicates. Interpreters have imagined a variety of contradictory scenarios to help explain the poem’s “meaning” or “message,” but the poem itself resists simple explanations. Ultimately the poem seems more effective because of its colors, phrasing, structural surprises, and intriguing ambiguities than for any clear, simple story it tells. It seems best, then, to move through the poem line-by-line, beginning with the title.

As a title, the phrase “Poppies in October” immediately raises questions. Is the speaker referring to literal flowers blooming in mid-autumn? Or is the speaker instead referring to the paper poppies worn and displayed so widely in Britain at the approach of “Remembrance Day”—the day on which the British remember the soldiers who died in World War I? (Plath lived in England when this poem was written, but should a reader be expected to know that historical fact? Is it relevant to the poem?) Such artificial paper poppies are highly visible in the streets of Britain as November 11 (the date on which the First World War ended) comes nearer. Are these, then, the kinds of poppies to which the title refers? Or is the speaker instead thinking of real poppies, either blooming in the ground or cut and displayed? A reader cannot immediately be sure, and so even the very title of the poem is ambiguous.

The poem’s opening line is striking: “Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts” (1). The reference to “sun-clouds” provides a striking visual image, implying clouds illuminated by the sun—clouds that resemble the skirts worn by women. (This latter fact is important since the poem will soon emphasize imagery of both women and men, both females and males.) Presumably the phrase “such skirts” refers to the “skirts” of poppies, an intriguing metaphor since poppies normally face upward into the sky rather than hanging downward toward the ground, as skirts hang. However, making matters even more complicated is the fact that some real poppies point toward the sky while also trailing “skirts” of red below. So after reading the title in conjunction with line 1, we cannot be sure whether the speaker is referring to real poppies growing in a field, to real poppies cut or potted in some urban environment, or to the paper poppies so widely visible in Britain in the lead-up to Remembrance Day.

To make matters even more complicated, lines 2-3 suddenly refer to a somewhat mysterious woman:

in the ambulance
Whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly

What are we to make of these new details? Where, exactly, is the speaker? We might have assumed, from the title and from line 1, that the speaker was in...

(The entire section is 1223 words.)