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Literature and Ideas

The Soporific

Poppy Field in a Hollow near Giverny (1885) by Claude Monet.
Pick me the wild-born poppy
that grows in the wheatfield's shade.
Let them say that I’ve supped of the liquor
that closes grief-stricken eyes.

I’ve seen too much, and I’m tired
of dreams pursued by that dream.
Why must you keep me, you blood-
red season, away from the roses?

Ah, but what do shut eyelids need?
They need flowers that keep you asleep.
Cueillez-moi ce pavot sauvage 
Qui croît à l’ombre de ces blés : 
On dit qu’il en coule un breuvage 
Qui ferme les yeux accablés. 
J’ai trop veillé ; mon âme est lasse 
De ces rêves qu’un rêve chasse. 
Que me veux-tu, printemps vermeil ? 
Loin de moi ces lis et ces roses ! 
Que faut-il aux paupières closes ? 
La fleur qui garde le sommeil !

Alphonse de Lamartine (lines 11–20 of Les Pavots)

Today marks one hundred years since the armistice was signed and weapons slowly fell silent on what had been the battlefields of the First World War. The poppy signified the loss of life and offered a sanitised way of memorialising the massacres that had ended the lives of the millions (this owed much to the popularity of the poem In Flanders Fields by Canadian solider John McCrae). The poppy has also been associated with the lassitude and the sleepiness generated by its byproduct opium, especially since the time of the Romantic poets, who partook mostly in the form of laudanum, which was sold cheaply in working-class districts. The opioids were used as painkillers (and, in some cases, morale-boosters) in the trenches, a temporary escape from the wounds of war; non-medicinal use was banned in the UK by the DORA of 1916, following fears that soldiers would become too incapacitated to fight.

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