Study Guide

Big Poppy Themes

By Ted Hughes

  • Transience

    "Big Poppy" hinges on temporality, in a lot of ways. What do we mean by that? Well, a lot of what gets the speaker so riled up about this flower is not only that it's very pretty, but also that it's very temporary – as soon as it flowers, it's already in the process of transforming into something much darker. This theme is very much related to the theme of Mortality. They have kind of a causal relationship – the transformation, in this case from orange flower to dark green/black seed pod, is indicative (it tells us) of the plant's impending death.

    Questions About Transience

    1. How do you think the speaker of the poem feels about the impending transformation of the flower?
    2. How does the poem present transformation as danger?
    3. Do you think that the speaker of the poem would want the poppy in flower to last forever and ever?
    4. How, generally, do we as a species tend to view things in nature that are very short-lived?

    Chew on This

    Much of the force of beauty in "Big Poppy" lies precisely in the temporary nature of the flower itself.

    The flower's impending transformation into a drug for human consumption renders it dangerous and alluring all at the same time.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Even though there are no actual people in this poem, there's one thing that we shouldn't ever forget about any piece of writing, and that's the speaker. Just by virtue of being written down on the page, "Big Poppy" brings human and nature into very close contact. If you head over to the "Speaker" section of this analysis, you can see what we have to say about who this guy might be (and develop your own thoughts on the subject, too). The relationship between human and nature in this poem is one of unabashed and intense wonder followed by a kind of grief that is no less awestruck. It also takes a human to personify as much as this poem personifies, which tells us quite a bit about how the speaker envisions man's relationship to the world around him.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Why is everything in this poem personified? What does that tell us about how we view the natural world?
    2. Is it significant that the poppy is actually in a "trim garden" (2)? If so, how?
    3. How does the poppy transform the speaker's idea of nature?
    4. Have you ever had an awestruck moment in your own backyard? Can you describe it, and relate it to the poem?

    Chew on This

    The poppy's use as an opiate brings man and nature into an especially complex and dangerous relationship in this poem.

    "Big Poppy" brings into relief the fact that even in our attempts to control nature, there is always wildness about us – even in our manicured gardens.

  • Women and Femininity

    The poppy in "Big Poppy" is very clearly a woman. Since the poppy is so intensely personified throughout the piece, there's a lot going on here that deals with the idea of women and sexuality, women and love, women and their appearances and behavior…tons of things. The poppy is given various body parts and clothing, and the way in which they interact and the way in which the speaker reacts to his own creation of these symbols make femininity one of the overarching themes of this piece.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. What kind of effect does setting up the poppy as "Mafia Queen" have on the rest of the poem?
    2. What does this poem say, do you think, about motherhood?
    3. What do you think this poem says about what it means to be feminine?
    4. Why do you think the poppy is female in the poem and the bee is male? Why not the other way around?

    Chew on This

    The femininity of the poppy in "Big Poppy" seems to posit women as blithely unaware of, to the point of being passive about, their own beauty.

    "Big Poppy" plays with the woman-as-flower cliché by inverting some of the gentle stereotypes that go along with that kind of image; instead, the flower is hot, fierce, and wild.

  • Mortality

    Closely related to the idea of transience and temporality that's also a theme in "Big Poppy," death plays a huge part in creating the world in which this poem operates – a world in which mortality is always in your face, as it were. The poppy, from the outset, is on the verge of dying, even as she's in the peak of her blooming. The poem constantly looks forward towards the time when the poppy's flowering will be over, and will be replaced with a sinister seed pod full of a potential drug (poppies are used to make opiates). The poem doesn't necessarily put the two into direct confrontation (you know, good vs. evil or something), but it does privilege the fiery petals over the flower without its orange "clothing."

    Questions About Mortality

    1. How does the juxtaposition of "coffin" and "cradle" work in this poem?
    2. Why do you think the poem treats the falling of the petals as death, even though the flower's not actually dead?
    3. Are there implications of human death in this poem? Can you explain how they work?
    4. How do you think the speaker feels about the life cycle?

    Chew on This

    The poem places birth and death in extremely close proximity, making them co-dependent, but also making birth the destroyer of beauty.

    In "Big Poppy," mortality is almost celebrated, as a kind of necessary means by which we come to appreciate vitality.

  • Sex

    Hello, sensual thematics! Between the flower and the bee in "Big Poppy," we have ourselves a couple. This is kind of a strange thing – after all, a flower and a bee can't mate, and this is no Discovery Channel special. So what's the deal with the whole bee-in-flower business? Well for one, it is biological. Bees climb up into flowers all the time to gather pollen and the like. Also, as far as we know, flowers (even when the male and female parts aren't on the same plant, as is the case with plants such as holly bushes) don't actually get together to reproduce. They do things like release pollen into the air and make us sneeze. The picture we see in "Big Poppy" is far more intimate. This theme is also closely related to the poppy-as-woman theme, as it positions women as intensely sexual beings, wild and almost unaware of the power that they have.

    Questions About Sex

    1. What kind of sexual being is the bee in this poem? Purposeful? Ignorant? Both? How can you tell?
    2. Similarly, what kind of sexual being is the poppy?
    3. How is the poppy's center (i.e., its "eye") made sensual in this poem? What kind of effect does that have?
    4. How are sex and death related in this poem?

    Chew on This

    By focusing heavily on the sexual nature of pollination in this poem, "Big Poppy" highlights the profundity of nature in the summertime.

    The poppy's sexuality in this poem is almost contradictory in nature – the poppy is aggressive in its display, but passive in terms of the actual act of pollination.