Poppies in July

by Sylvia Plath

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461

The term “Konfessional” has been applied to the poetry of Sylvia Plath. It refers to a poem in which the poet speaks in her own person, not as the impersonal poet or through a persona. Subjects and themes of confessional poetry are usually intensely personal, often disturbing, experiences and emotions. “Poppies in July” has sources in Plath’s life, and its meaning is strongly implied by its place in a sequence of poems Plath wrote during a three-month period in the summer of 1962: “The Other,” “Words heard, by accident, over the phone,” “Poppies in July,” “Burning the Letters,” and “For a Fatherless Son.” Sylvia Plath committed suicide on February 11, 1963, by inhaling fumes from her gas stove.

In her autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar (1963), published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas just before her death, Plath depicts the schizophrenic episode that preceded her first suicide attempt, when she was twenty. Esther Greenwood, the heroine, imagines that a great bell jar has descended around her, enclosing her in an invisible and colorless barrier between herself and the world. She attempts to kill herself by taking sleeping pills. The bell jar parallels the “glass capsule” of “Poppies in July.”

Although the poem reflects events in Plath’s life, it transcends purely personal experience and stands on its own, communicating its meaning without the need for references to outside sources. The poet speaks not only for herself but for all who have experienced the mental and emotional torment accompanying the infidelity of a partner in marriage.

The speaker of the poem is alienated from life, represented by the blood-red poppies. When she transforms the image of the bloody mouth into the vaginal mouth implied by “bloody skirts,” she expresses an emotion close to revulsion for all of the blood of female experience—menstruation, loss of virginity, giving birth. The image may also suggest rape; Plath hemorrhaged as the result of a date rape when she was a student at Smith College. When the poppies become flames, they represent sexual passion, which the speaker’s husband did not control and which she cannot feel. The alienation expressed through these images causes her to desire the oblivion represented by the opiates that can be derived from the poppy, “dulling” her senses and “stilling” her mind.

Most of the poems collected in Ariel, including a companion poem to “Poppies in July”—“Poppies in October”—were composed after “Poppies in July.” In the companion poem, poppies are a “love gift/ Utterly unasked for,” representing the exhilaration of life. Poetry itself, for Plath, is “the blood jet,” as she expressed it in “Kindness.” “This glass capsule” from “Poppies in July” can also represent the poem, as well as imply the detachment necessary for the poet to create art out of life.

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