The approach of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month and the association of poppies with the fallen is an opportunity to comment on that association in the poetry of Stesichorus (c. 630-555 BCE), ‘the first great lyric poet of the West‘. He was born in Calabria in South Italy and died on Sicily.
A papyrus published in 1967 preserves some of the Geryoneis of Stesichorus, a lyric narrative of Heracles’ Tenth Labour: stealing Geryon’s cows. This takes Heracles to the far west of the Greek known world and on his return to the Aventine Hill (in Rome to be).
Column ii lines 14-17 of S15 are pictured below, the point at which Herakles kills the giant Geryon with an arrow poisoned with the blood of the Lernaean Hydra (Greek Ὕδρα is cognate with English ‘otter’, a ‘monster’ on a much smaller scale…).
ἀπέκλινε δ’ ἄρ’ αὐχένα Γ̣α̣ρ̣[υόνας
ἐπικάρσιον, ὡς ὅκα μ[ά]κ̣ω̣[ν
ἅτε καταισχύνοισ’ ἁπ̣α̣λ̣ὸ̣ν̣ [δέμας
αἶψ’ ἀπὸ φύλλα βαλοῖσα̣ν̣[
‘and Geryon dropped his neck
to one side, like a poppy,
which spoiling its tender beauty
suddenly sheds its petals…’.
The eighth book of Homer’s Iliad also contains such a comparison, when Priam’s son, Gorgythion, died from an arrow wound (Iliad VIII 306-308):
μήκων δ’ ὡς ἑτέρωσε κάρη βάλεν, ἥ τ’ ἐνὶ κήπῳ
καρπῷ βριθομένη νοτίῃσί τε εἰαρινῇσιν,
ὣς ἑτέρωσ’ ἤμυσε κάρη πήληκι βαρυνθέν.
And he dropped his head to one side like a poppy that in a garden
is laden with its fruit and the rains of spring;
so bowed he to one side his head, laden with his helmet.
The fields of FlandersThe fields of Flanders, strewn with poppies, might remind epigraphers and dialectologists of the poppy ‘plantations’ of Hellenistic Pharsalus in Thessaly (IG IX, 2 234 / C.D. Buck, The Greek Dialects, no. 36), later the battlefield where Pompey the Great was defeated (09.08.48 BCE).
Similes that have fallen warriors and/or youths in correspondence with poppies continued in Latin literature, whether directly from Homer and/or Stesichorus or not: famously the weary poppy weighed down by rain in Vergil, Aeneid IX 435-437 (drawing also on Catullus 11.21-24, itself thought to have ‘echoes’ of Sappho 105c) and Ovid, Metamorphoses X 190-193.