Flower Power: an Essay by Susmita Dutta

Here I was, reading a chapter on “Oral & Parenteral Opioid Analgesics” while all of a sudden I visualized the beautiful poppy flower, its petals as soft as silk and as delicate as a baby’s cheek and my heart soared with the memory of banks and banks of poppies I had seen, all along the roadside in Central Europe, particularly when travelling from Prague to Budapest during our last summer holidays. As my thoughts wandered in between pearls of medical wisdom and poetic imagery, I thought of the various ways the innocent and seemingly harmless poppy had made ingress into medicine, drug abuse, wars, and literature and as a symbol of remembrance.
 Opium use predates recorded history (3000 BC) and use of opioids for pain management has oscillated between indiscriminate use even a short century ago even among the elite  to the severe restrictions of today which has left many a patient suffering from severe pain, unrelieved. Morphine, the opiate obtained from the poppy plant ( Papaver somniferum), we know today, is the gold standard to which all other pain medications are compared.
We all know about the effects of opium on the brain, and how it can both numb pain and produce hallucinations. During the Romantic era in Britain which saw the emergence of the best of literature and poetry, it was also noted that there was an increased use of opium, as it was thought that opium opened creative channels and made imaginations more vivid (Abrams, M. H. [1934]. The Milk of Paradise: The Effect of Opium Visions on the Works of DeQuincey, Crabbe, Francis Thompson, and Coleridge. Cambridge: Harvard University Press). Now this distinctive increase in imaginative writing could only happen to  really talented writers and probably all the romantic poets with probably the exception of Wordsworth indulged in opium either on occasion or on a regular basis.
There were several popular preparations like Godfrey’s Cordial, Dalby’s Carminative, McMunn’s Elixir, Batley’s Sedative Solution, and Mother Bailey’s Quieting Syrup with opium in them which were available off the counter. Another common preparation was laudanum, and we read in literature of doctors prescribing a drop of laudanum (combination of alcohol and opium) to soothe fraying nerves at the drop of a hat. Those were the days when you treated anything and everything from venereal disease to cough with this ubiquitous poppy milk.   
All said and done, the writers of the Romantic era, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas De Quincey, who suffered from addiction to opium, used beautifully imagined themes to create their writings and they accepted the fact that such vividness in their descriptions could come from the soothing yet hallucinogenic effects of opium. Samuel Coleridge wrote to his brother-“Laudanum gave me repose, not sleep; but, you, I believe, know how divine that repose is, what a spot of enchantment, a green spot of fountain and flowers and trees in the very heart of a waste of sands.
Coleridge also attests to this fact in the preface for Kubla Khan; or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment". Written in 1796,  the poem was composed one night after he experienced an opium-influenced dream after reading a work describing Xanadu, the summer palace of the Mongol Kublai Khan.. He kept it for private readings for his friends until 1816 when it was published.
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
            And drunk the milk of Paradise
 Arthur Rimbaud's poem on the other hand described the body’s response when he was giving up opium in "Night in Hell":
 My guts are on fire. The power of the poison twists my arms and legs, cripples me, drives me to the ground. I die of thirst, I suffocate, I cannot cry.
Woman poets in contrast, had other views and concentrated more on the medicinal properties and its domestic uses. Their odes to opium demonstrate its presence in the middle-class British homes, probably lying on their shelves within easy reach and sometimes reflecting the long suffering woman’s longed-for mental escape from domestic drudgery as in Maria Logan's "To Opium," Henrietta O'Neill's "Ode to the Poppy," Anna Seward's "To the Poppy," and Sara Coleridge's "Poppies,". And sometimes they wrote about physical pain:
“Soft hangs the opiate in the brain,
And lulling soothes the edge of pain,
Till harshest sound, far off or near,
Sings floating in its mellow sphere. 
Thus wrote Maria White Lowell, first wife of James Russell Lowell, American romantic poet.  Frail and plagued with ill health, Maria died at the age of 32.
Sara Coleridge wrote for her son, Herbert, a beautiful poem on ‘Poppies’, the juice of which had helped her husband Samuel Taylor Coleridge create the masterpieces.
O how should'st thou with beaming brow
With eye and cheek so bright
Know aught of that blossom's pow'r,
Or sorrows of the night!
 When poor mama long restless lies
She drinks the poppy's juice;
That liquor soon can close her eyes
And slumber soft produce.
 O' then my sweet my happy boy
Will thank the poppy flow'r
Which brings the sleep to dear mama
At midnight's darksome hour.
On further dwelling on the flower power, I thought of the famed memorial day (Remembrance Day) also known as Poppy Day, observed by Commonwealth of Nations member states to remember the soldiers of their armed forces who died in war and is observed on 11th November (11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month) to recall the end of hostilities of World War I on that date in 1918. Made famous by John Mcrae, the poem ‘Flanders Field’ recalls hundreds of war heroes lying in the crimson fields where poppies flowered in abundance making it almost poetic –
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields

 Hostilities formally Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields

From my initial image to Flanders to Afghanistan, where fields of poppies and war go hand in hand my thoughts turned from the innocent flower to the poppy being an epitome of blood, mortality and the famed Opium wars. The two wars beginning in 1839 which speaks of typical English dominance initially starting with issues of unequal trade between the British and China and ending with making China subservient and turning many of its population to addicts and Indian fields into massive areas of poppy cultivation (thus using both the countries to fill their coffers).

The second opium war where Hong Kong exchanged hands with the British started off a more modern Chinese history and as we know it is now reestablishing themselves as one of the greatest world powers.
As my thoughts traversed between the good and bad that poppy did, I cannot but think of the greatest benefit to mankind, in the form of relief of pain, be it cancer or chancre.
As I ponder through my book again I cannot but ruminate that probably by now I am addicted to the poppy flower without actually taking it as I see Michele Obama alight on Indian soil wearing a ‘Poppy dress’ and even the book I am currently reading has a dog called ‘Poppy’. Call the flower a weed, a destroyer, a soother, or simply a vain flower, I cannot but help ending by quoting the following poem.

The Poppy

High on a bright and sunny bed
   A scarlet poppy grew
And up it held its staring head,
   And thrust it full in view.

Yet no attention did it win,
   By all these efforts made,
And less unwelcome had it been
   In some retired shade.

Although within its scarlet breast
   No sweet perfume was found,
It seemed to think itself the best
   Of all the flowers round,

From this I may a hint obtain
   And take great care indeed,
Lest I appear as pert and vain
   As does this gaudy weed.


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