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In the Poppy Field -- James Stephens

(Poem #1134) In the Poppy Field
 Mad Patsy said, he said to me,
 That every morning he could see
 An angel walking on the sky;
 Across the sunny skies of morn
 He threw great handfuls far and nigh
 Of poppy seed among the corn;
 And then, he said, the angels run
 To see the poppies in the sun.

 A poppy is a devil weed,
 I said to him - he disagreed;
 He said the devil had no hand
 In spreading flowers tall and fair
 Through corn and rye and meadow land,
 by garth and barrow everywhere:
 The devil has not any flower,
 But only money in his power.

 And then he stretched out in the sun
 And rolled upon his back for fun:
 He kicked his legs and roared for joy
 Because the sun was shining down:
 He said he was a little boy
 And would not work for any clown:
 He ran and laughed behind a bee,
 And danced for very ecstasy.
-- James Stephens
While browsing through the favourite poems collection at
[broken link], I was surprised to
see this unknown and rather trivial-seeming poem rubbing shoulders with the
likes of Tennyson's Eagle and Coleridge's Kubla Khan. The anthologist's
prepended note explained the poem's inclusion, saying that it was the
*happiest* poem he knew - and while I was initially unconvinced, by the time
I had finished reading the poem, sure enough, I couldn't resist a smile.

It's hard to say just what makes this such a cheerful poem. It's not just
the air of breezy exuberance - there's a charmingly innocent tone to it that
reminds me of St. Exupery's "The Little Prince", an unaffected and altogether
unselfconscious delight in life's pleasures that is a joy to read. It's also
a very Irish poem, although it's hard to say exactly what I mean by that.


p.s. And don't miss the interesting (aabcbcdd) rhyme scheme


  Biography of Stephens:`

  See also
    [broken link]

  A collection of links (from

  We've run some of Stephens's translations before:
    Poem #171
    Poem #185 (see also [broken link]

70 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Ian Baillieu said...

Indeed a memorable and delightful poem, particularly the
first two verses. What apt and striking words ‘garth’ and
‘barrow’; and what a powerful couplet ‘The devil has not any
flower/But only money in his power.’

It does however run out of steam towards the end. The
third verse is cheerful but adds little of substance. The
imagery becomes incoherent. How can Mad Patsy, who
stretches out, rolls on his back, kicks his legs and roars,
also run and laugh ‘behind a bee’?! That lack of clarity
prompted me to notice the ambiguity in the poem’s 5th line.
The subject of ‘He threw’ should surely be the angel, in
which case ‘He’ would have been better written as ‘Who’.

Knowing nothing of Stephens’ poetry, and puzzled as to why
any author of the finer parts of this poem could rest
content with its blemishes, I looked him up on the Internet.
There’s a collection of his prose and poems (but not this
one) at
IMO he is at his best in prose. ‘The Crock of Gold’ is a
hilarious outpouring of crazy Celtic magic realism. By
contrast, his poems often have little to say, or the
vocabulary is banal, or the rhythm is awry, or all of that.
His willingness to publish so many that are mediocre shows
that self-editing was not his strong point. I conclude
that we are lucky to get from him a poem as good as ‘In the
Poppy Field’, and should just enjoy it and be grateful.

Anyone to whom it appeals would probably like also the work
of the Australian naive poet John Shaw Neilson (1872-1942),
an uneducated farm laborer who produced some lovely lyrics.
His widely anthologised ‘The Orange Tree’ (available at
[broken link]
htm) has something of the same Celtic mysticism as ‘In the
Poppy Field’. Neilson’s work has been out of copyright for
a decade, but not much of it is published yet on the
Internet. Publication of all of it ‘soon’ is promised at
[broken link] .

Ian Baillieu said...

sorry, that website address for 'The Orange Tree' is
incomplete. It needs to end with a dot followed by htm.

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