A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Tall Poppies

The poppy, as a symbol, has a special resonance in the Canadian psyche, for a few reasons. First, Canada came of age, at least militarily speaking, in the First World War. This nation’s sacrifice and the bravery of its soldiers in that war were second to none. Every year in the days leading up to November 11, Canadians duly wear a small artificial poppy pinned over their hearts (although we are not the only nation to do so). Almost every Canadian school child has for one Remembrance Day or another had to recite “In Flanders Fields”, the 1915 poem written by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, though most of us only remember the first line or two. Although I am loath to admit it, the whole poem is rubbish, from an artistic standpoint:

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,
flyScarce 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.

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.

The poppies that grow in the fields of Flanders are the red-flowered Corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas). Canada is now fighting a different war in Afghanistan, and that land too is filled with fields of poppies, but of another kind, and part of Canada’s job is to exterminate them. These are Opium poppies (Papaver somniferum). Incidentally, in Latin, somniferum means “bringer of sleep”, and they have indeed been the indirect cause of final sleep for many a Canadian soldier there, and the more direct cause for many a drug addict.

Leaving war aside, the poppy has another more proverbial meaning for many Canadians. There is a common conception (or misconception?) that Canada is a fairly egalitarian place. We do not like to see people become too successful. Whereas in America there is no shame in flaunting one’s wealth and success, in Canada this tends to be frowned upon. In Canada, those who get too big for their breeches will be cut down to size. As the saying goes, Canadians like to “lop the heads off the tall poppies”. This tendency is often called the “Tall Poppy Syndrome”.

Whether this is true or not, I don't know. I think it might have been the case once, but my suspicion is that now this aspect of our culture is changing. It’s probably not even strictly a Canadian characteristic. Apparently, it is a common phenomenon in places with a colonial legacy, like Canada. What I am more interested in is the imagery itself. I don’t know who coined the phrase “Tall Poppy Syndrome”, but it is based on a classical story.

The first time I came across the story was while reading Livy (1.54). Tarquin the Proud (Tarquinius Superbus), the last king of Rome received a messenger from his son Sextus, asking what he should do with the people of Gabii now that he had taken the city. Tarquin made no reply to the messenger, but while walking through his garden, he waved his stick across the poppies that were growing there, thereby lopping the tallest of them. The frustrated messenger returned answerless to Gabii and described the incident to Sextus. The son could take a hint, and he had all the prominent citizens of Gabii executed.

I didn’t realize that Livy ― or the source he used ― lifted this story from Greek history until I read Aristotle’s Politics, 1284a3, where the story of Periander is told. The original story is apparently to be found in Herodotus, but not having read Herodotus since I was a teenager, I didn’t remember it. Periander, the 7th century BC tyrant of Corinth received a messenger from Thrasybulus, the tyrant of Miletus, who needed Periander’s advice on the best way to secure his rule. According to the legend, the messenger approached Periander as he was strolling in a wheat field. After hearing the messenger, Periander remained silent but cut the tallest stalks of grain (although we are not told what he cut them with). The messenger related Periander’s behaviour to Thrasybulus, who took it to mean that if he wanted to remain secure in power, he should eliminate the most prominent citizens.

I think I prefer Livy’s version of the story because there is something terrible in using a pretty flower like the poppy for such dark counsel. Incidentally, the story of Tarquin is also related in Ovid’s Fasti (2.701-708), but there it is lilies that he lops.

No comments:

Post a Comment