Concerning Flowers and Soldiers

On Memorial Day, it is often the case that poppies are worn in remembrance of the dead.  The tradition originates with John McCrae’s famous WWI poem, In Flanders Field, but the association of poppies and fallen soldiers traces all the way back to Homer (Iliad Book 8, lines 243-251, in Fagles translation):

The archer loosed a fresh shaft from the bowstring
straight for Hector, his spirit longing to hit him–
but he missed and cut Gorgythion down instead,
a well-bred son of Priam, a handsome prince,
and the arrow pierced his chest, Gorgythion,
whom Priam’s bride from Aesyme bore one day,
lovely Castriana lithe as a deathless goddess …
As a garden poppy, burst into red bloom, bends,
drooping its head to one side, weighed down
by its full seeds and a sudden spring shower,
so Gorgythion’s head fell limp over one shoulder,
weighed down by his helmet.

I can never read this sad passage without thinking of the statue of the dying warrior from the pediment of the temple of Aphaea.

The warrior from Aphaea is not young like Gorgythion, as his beard would indicate, nor does he bleed. But his posture of imminent collapse is heart-rending, I think, which the fragmentary nature of the sculpture only serves to emphasize. It would be too cynical to observe that this masterpiece of Greek art is now in a German museum, an all-too-ironic commentary on the state of Europe at the current time.

But no, it is a day dedicated to matters larger then politics.  Better to think that borrowings like these of a literary or artistic nature point to an interaction between cultures beyond the confrontational, even if the casualties of war are their subject.  A worthy successor to the Iliad and Flanders Field, then, in the same tradition of flowers and soldiers, to end this rumination:

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About Uncomely and Broken

I teach Latin and Greek at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Classics, Emblems, Military, Mythology, Statues & Monuments, Trees & Flowers. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Concerning Flowers and Soldiers

  1. Reblogged this on Ramble and commented:
    I’m “reblogging” this thoughtful and moving Memorial Day post from my friend and colleague Chris McDonough. I’ll add that the poppy referred to in the poems of WWI is the European poppy, Papaver rhoeas, a annual plant that specializes on colonizing disturbed soils. It therefore bloomed all over the bombed-out landscape of Northern Europe during the war. The plant is still a successful “weed” in European grain fields; these days, the “war” is against herbicide-resistant varieties of poppy: progress of a kind, surely.

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