In London recently, we went to the Tower of London to see the poppies. If you haven’t yet seen them, you haven’t got long – they will only be there until November 11th 2014. The poppies are ceramic, and the concept is a piece of installation art by ceramic artist Paul Cummins and theatre designer Tom Piper. The idea is to mark the centenary of the First World War with a sea of poppies, filling the moat of the Tower; there will be 888,246 poppies, one for each fallen soldier. Poppies are, of course, the symbol of remembrance for the war dead; before the war, they represented peaceful sleep after death, as you can see in many Victorian paintings (including Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix), but this symbolism was layered with remembrance of those who died in the poppy fields of Flanders, and the wearing of a poppy on November 11th now commemorates the dead of other wars, too.
The metaphor of the poppies is clear, then: each one representing a military death, it gives a sense of scale as well as individuality to each, perhaps forgotten, soldier. The effect of the installation at the Tower is remarkable; most visitors are awestruck by the sheer number of small flowers filling the moat, and the fact that each of these represents a death is sobering. But there are further visual impressions created by it; the Tower, as a symbol of Britain, seems to be literally weeping blood: the poppies cascade down the ramparts and fill the moat with seemingly endless ‘seas of red’. The installation is evolving, too: poppies are added to it so that it grows, gradually, and each day at sunset the names of some of the Commonwealth war dead are read aloud as the Tower bleeds its poppies. There is certainly something very theatrical about it, unsurprisingly given Piper’s involvement, but it is dignified, appropriate, and startling. I like that it is such a public commemoration, too; we went on a Monday lunchtime and it was surrounded by quiet tourists, taking photographs and talking about it. It seems a fitting way to remember, without – in my view – being particularly sentimental or emotional about it.
The title of the exhibit is taken from a poem of the same name by an unknown soldier:
The blood swept lands and seas of red,
Where angels dare to tread.
As God cried a tear of pain as the angels fell,
Again and again.
As the tears of mine fell to the ground
To sleep with the flowers of red
As any be dead
My children see and work through fields of my
Own with corn and wheat,
Blessed by love so far from pain of my resting
Fields so far from my love.
It be time to put my hand up and end this pain
Of living hell. to see the people around me
Fall someone angel as the mist falls around
And the rain so thick with black thunder I hear
Over the clouds, to sleep forever and kiss
The flower of my people gone before time
To sleep and cry no more
I put my hand up and see the land of red,
This is my time to go over,
I may not come back
So sleep, kiss the boys for me
One for each fallen British soldier. Imagine what a powerful work of reconciliation a flower for each fallen soldier would have been!
Good grief…. 888,246 dead lads. And that doesn’t even include those men who returned home alive, but without their legs, eyes, kidneys or sanity. The Tower is indeed “bleeding” its poppies, just as WW1 haemorrhaged its youth.