The Botany of Death

Frank Cadogan Cowper, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"

I saw pale kings and princes too,

Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;

They cried – “La Belle Dame sans Merci

Hath thee in thrall!”

Above is a stanza from John Keat’s 1819 ballad “La Belle Dame sans Merci.”  It tells the story of a beautiful but siren-like woman who lures a knight to sleep, and subsequently his death.  The accompanying painting by Frank Cadogan Cowper illustrated the end of the poem.  What drew me to the painting is the fact that it is rife with botanical symbolism – botanical symbolism of death, to be exact.  Yes, yes, I truly apologize, but I’m going to talk about death again.  Flower symbolism has been used in art to depict everything from loyalty, purity, and lust.  My favorite flower in art history, however, is the poppy.  It’s used to stand in for sleep or death, and is especially popular in nineteenth century English painting.  In the case of La Belle Dame sans Merci, it serves both purposes.

John William Waterhouse, "Sleep and His Half-Brother Death"

Another example of poppies symbolizing both sleep and death, hypnos and thanatos if you will, is in Waterhouse’s Sleep and His Half-Brother Death.  This is one of my all time favorite paintings.  It’s fascinating to me because I find it somewhat ambiguous.  At first glance, the figure on the left appears to be sleep, since he is illuminated and his feet are uncovered.  I can never bring myself to be completely sure on this fact, though.  The “sleep” figure is clutching tell-tale poppies, which could very well mean death instead of slumber.  I also love the thin line drawn by the artist between sleep and death.  We all know that humans have an instinctual death drive as well as a life drive, but it’s funny to think about that drive existing even in something as simple as sleep.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "Beata Beatrix"

Other times, poppies mean straight-up death.  Take the Beata Beatrix, for example.  It’s another one of my favorites (OK, so the Pre-Raphaelites in general are my favorites).  The painting is steeped in death on a few different layers.  The subject matter is that of Beatrice, Dante’s famous unrequited love.  The artwork shows the young woman at the time of her death and beatification, or blessedness.  Both the bird and the poppy it is clutching are symbolic of her death.  The painting is also one of Rossetti’s most personal works.  The model for Beatrice was the artist’s late wife Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddal, one of the most famous Pre-Raphaelite faces.  The piece was completed in a phase of grief ten years after her death (and possible suicide) on account of a laudanum overdose.

Edward Burne-Jones, "The Princess Tale"

Edward Burne-Jones’s The Princess Tale also employs poppies to show death.  The painting depicts a part of The Canterbury Tales in which a village boy sings a song the villagers find offensive – an offense for which he is killed.  The Virgin Mary allows the boy to continue his song, but the poppies in the foreground prove that the lad is, in fact, dead.  An interesting thing to me in all of these paintings is that poppies are not only symbolizing death, but the death of a young person.  It’s often a young, blameless person at that.  I’m wondering if they are being used as memento mori in a similar way to the Medieval and Baroque traditions of showing a skull, reaper, or skeleton in tandem with an attractive youth or king to show that no one, not even someone in the prime of life, is safe from death.

One final question that dogs me is if the poppy has always been symbolic of death, why was it so popular in the Pre-Raphaelite era?  The answer is most likely the movement’s focus of nature and mythology.  A botanical symbol would fit both bills.

I promise I’ll write about something happier next week!

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4 Responses to The Botany of Death

  1. Bryn says:

    Oh, I love this! I did a lot of research on the pre-Raphaelites for my book, but I never came across this. I never noticed the bird was holding a poppy in Beata Beatrix. And I never saw that Waterhouse picture before! Lovely.

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