Study Guide

Big Poppy Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By Ted Hughes

Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

Containers

Since the focus of this poem rests largely on the poppy's petals, they get compared to a lot of different stuff – but most often, Hughes frames the flower in terms of its shape, which is distinctly cup-like. The idea of flower-as-cup gives rise to a couple of different container comparisons, all of which add layers of meaning to the poem – enough, in fact, to make the theme become allegorical. We'll go through them here.

  • Lines 4-5: First container, and it's already a multi-layered metaphor. First off, the words "fractured goblet" invoke the shape of the flower itself, perched as it is on top of a thin stem and broken as it is by being made up of several distinct petals. The "drunken" bit conjures up images of intoxication (so does "goblet" for that matter), which is connected to the flower's eventual use as an opiate.
  • Lines 13-14: This container is a crucible. In industry, a crucible is a cup-shaped tool used to heat stuff – everything from chemicals to steel. The important part is that a crucible is used with extremely high temperatures. Otherwise, it's just a cup. So, in addition to the flower being compared to something that holds intoxicating liquid, it's also a container that hold things that are excruciatingly hot. We're building danger here.
  • Lines 18-20: Two containers for the price of one, here, and this time they're not alluding to the shape of the flower. Instead, we have metaphorical reference to the "closed container" that is the flower's eventual seed-pod. Note also that "coffin" and "cradle" are alliterative – bringing into further relief how closely this poem ties birth to death.

Heat

Poppies do tend to be most often flame-colored, and so it's no real surprise that there are a fair number of references to heat in this poem – both as a kind of sexual trope (theme) and as a force of destruction (as in literal fire burning something down). Again, the multiple references to heat-related things in this poem build a multilayered kind of symbolism that complicates and enriches the poppy as the central image of the piece.

  • Line 1: Oh, look – the very first word of the poem is "hot"! In this case, the heat is being applied to the center, or "eye," of the flower, and doesn't actually mean literal heat. Instead, it both personifies the flower as something that can be "hot-eyed" and gives us a sense right off the bat that the flower is going to be way more than a trivial thing.
  • Lines 9-10: Another two-for-the-price of one in these lines here – interestingly, the first heat-related image, "sizzling bleats," is related to the bumblebee, not to the flower. But it does seem to describe the effect that the flower has on the bee (yowza). In the next line, we get the first subtle reference to flames in "luminous near-orange."
  • Lines 13-14: The crucible is doing double-duty – not only is it a container, which is also thematic in the poem, but it's a reference to heat, which by this point is beginning to turn destructive. Indeed, it's nearly hyperbolic – the flower's color and short life span are so intense and brief that it's always at risk of "falling apart."
  • Line 15: This brief line sets up a tiny contrast between the fly ("cool") and the flower, whose petals are called "flame-fringe."

The Bee

Oh, the bumblebee. He's only in the poem for the first half, but he's hugely significant in developing the themes of sexual tension and desire and passivity in this poem. Also, he's kind of a baseball-bat of a symbol – remember the euphemism "the birds and the bees"? Oh yes. Hughes was not playing coy when he chose this particular insect, that's for sure.

  • Lines 4-5: Introduction of the bee. He's not the most graceful thing on the planet, but then again, he is clambering up into something that's described as "drunken." Also, the word "clambers" implies a kind of haste, as if the bee can't wait to get to the flower's center.
  • Lines 8-9: This is where the bee also gets personified for a second – we'd be hard-pressed to say whether or not a bee was enjoying itself, but that's exactly what the poem does. So the goblet of the flower lives up to its "drunken" description as it intoxicates the bee. While his gathering of nectar is work ("difficult"), it's also extremely pleasurable.
  • Lines 10-11: We would have done lines 8-11 in one big chunk, but the focus here shifts from bee-as-subject to bee-as-object. What we mean by that is that the poppy becomes the thing doing the action, even though the action is "helpless" – so we see, in further personification, the poppy as skirt-wearing woman, totally passive, embracing the bee.

Fashion (Clothing, Hair)

The multiple references to a woman's body and garments in this poem develop the poppy-as-person motif, as well as add layers significance to the petals of the flower, which have already been described as various containers, flames, and carpets. Now they'll be skirts and hair as well!

  • Line 10: First reference to petals-as-skirts. The poem is pretty specific about the kind of skirt in question, too – "carnival paper." We're thinking something kind of bright and crinkly – maybe almost like the paper that party streamers are made out of, you know, the kind that you twist and hang at the prom.
  • Line 16: Another skirt reference, but this one's much darker. It's also vaguely sexual (the poppy isn't just undressing, she's flinging her clothes off). But the undressing signifies death in this case. Complicated imagery here! It's almost as if the flower is so intense that she doesn't realize that she's dying.
  • Line 22: Now, suddenly, the petals are compared to a woman's hair. That's on the other end of the body from skirts. What's up with that? Well, in a way it's actually a more accurate metaphor – the petals are at the top of the flower, after all.
  • Lines 24-26: These lines are all about the final personification of the flower as woman – first we have hair, now eyes (again, just like in line 1) and a leg. Granted, it's a sort of grotesque, incomplete image – there's only one eye, and only one leg. Weird. But those body parts are slightly metonymical. What's that, you say? Well, each body part stands in for a larger whole, that is, the whole of a woman's body to which this flower is being compared.