Study Guide

Big Poppy Women and Femininity

By Ted Hughes

Women and Femininity

Hot-eyed Mafia Queen! (1)

Right off the bat we have a characterization of poppy as woman. What kind of woman might a "hot-eyed Mafia Queen" be? We're thinking pretty intimidating. Maybe with lots of jewelry, and a penchant for marrying guys who break kneecaps for a living. So, at any rate, this first characterization of women in the poem is very specific – royal and a little scary perhaps. However, let us not forget our knowledge of the Sopranos. Even though the poppy is set up as mafia royalty in this very first line, what we know of mafia wives is that, while they can be incredibly strong characters in and of themselves, they can also fall victim to their even stronger husbands. This kind of semi-helplessness will be played out in the rest of the poem, so here, "Queen" is a loaded word indeed.

Her carnival paper skirts, luminous near-orange,
Embrace him helplessly
(10-11)

And here's the character complication – even though the poem sets up the flower as this incredibly fierce, strong kind of woman right off the bat, by the time the bee gets to her, she's an entirely passive agent. And no wonder – she's a plant. It's not like it could get up and move if it wanted to. But by characterizing the flower as a "she," the poem is necessarily saying something about the nature of femininity here. Something along the lines of women being kind of unaware of their own strength, even resigned to it, maybe.

Every breath imperils her. Her crucible
is falling apart with its own fierceness.
(13-14)

This next quote supports the notion that women in this poem are characterized as nearly paradoxical – on the one hand, even just "breathing" (poppies don't breathe, obviously; we figure that this is an instance of personification that refers to the passing of time) is almost too much for the flower, but on the other, what's "imperiling" the flower is her "own fierceness." So it sets up this wacky contradiction in character traits – you'd think "fierceness" as a trait would prevent one from falling to harm just by breathing, and yet there's the element of self-destruction about it, too. It's almost as if the poppy-as-woman is living so intensely that she doesn't realize her own impending doom. This sounds a little like, in some cases, the way drug addicts live their lives. This is probably not coincidental, given the substances that poppies produce (heroin, morphine, etc.).

Bleeding inwardly
Her maternal nectars into her own
(18-19)

Now we have a different notion of femininity placed onto the poppy – woman-as-mother. The "bleeding" part has a couple layers of meaning, one of which could easily be menstruation (and the other one we'll get to in the "Mortality" section). In this quote, though, the blood isn't actually leaving the body – just like how a woman will stop menstruating when she's pregnant, which is exactly what the flower is at this point. So motherhood is framed as a kind of gory process here, more like internal injury than the creation of anything new and beautiful.

"She wore herself in her hair, in her day,
And we could see nothing but her huge flop of petal,
Her big, lewd, bold eye, in its sooty lashes
(21-24)

We've broken this last chunk of the poem into two distinct quotes because they have such different ways of talking about femininity. (Women may be super-contradictory in this poem, but at least they're consistently so.) In this first bit, the poppy-as-woman is incredibly feminine in a traditional way – big skirts, big hair (both indicated in the "flop of petal"), mascara on the eyelashes, and bold, but in a distinctly female way.

And that stripped, athletic leg, hairy,
In a fling of abandon—"
(25-26)

But what is up with this part? Suddenly we have an unshaven leg that probably plays soccer or something! This sets up a final contradiction that, overall, makes women out to be something nearly unfathomable at the end of the day. First, the poppy is all done up in skirts and makeup, and yet the poem ends by framing the stem of the poppy as a decidedly masculine body part (inasmuch as we think of masculinity when we see the word "athletic" – a dumb stereotype, to be sure, but combined with "hairy," it's tough to avoid). So the woman-poppy in this poem is incredibly complicated, almost past the point of understanding: passive and aggressive, feminine and masculine, maternal and promiscuous. All at once!

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