Life and Death in Sylvia Plath’s ‘Tulips’

The theme of life and death is often considered one of the most prevalent ideas explored through the course of the history of literature. Through the more traditional connotations of death, it is often concluded that in order to truly appreciate life, one must inevitably understand death – a task that more often than not proves ultimately impossible. Alternatively, and sometimes simultaneously, death can be presented as a motif rife with mysticism and omnipotence; as a god-like being above humanity, reveling in its noncomprehending facets

One such poet that often follows suit in the stance that humanity must be able to understand death to understand life itself is American poet Sylvia Plath. Plath’s poetry, which is ostensibly viewed at times as the utter ramblings of  a madwoman, really makes aims to unpick death and all its complexities, using it as a motif to understand her place in the world. To Plath, it seems as though death serves as a constant reminder of its antithetical counterpart – the potential to live. This is an extremely prevalent idea in her 1961 poem ‘Tulips’ in which the speaker, while lying in a hospital bed, contemplates her potential for life through the presence of the red tulips which are presumably given to her by a visitor.

An important characteristic of Plath’s poetry – which acts as one of the many keys to understanding it – is her intense concentration on colour-symbolism and its relevance to life and death. Death, to Plath is often associated with the colour ‘white’ – denoted in Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Red’ (follow the link for my own analysis of ‘Red’) which is actually about Plath as ‘the bone-clinic whiteness’. When analyzing Plath’s use of colour in her poetry, Ted Hughes’ ‘Red’ is in fact an extremely useful lens in which to look through, not just for the colour ‘white’, but also and more obviously, the significance of ‘red’. Hughes denotes that ‘in the pit of red / You hid from the bone-clinic whiteness’, which if we assume refers to Plath herself seems to indicate a sense of vitality and life associated with the colour red. But, returning to ‘Tulips’ with this in mind, we can see that life and vitality in the tulips fundamentally holds back the speaker from their romanticized view of death. The speaker claims that ‘the tulips are too excitable…[they] are too red in the first place, they hurt me’, which seems to ultimately suggest a desire for death, but the presence of vitality and ‘red’ at times overturns this wish; but this is ultimately viewed negatively by the speaker. The speaker seems to visualize death as a cathartic release which will bring about a ‘peacefulness’ as she lies there in a ‘snowed-in’ environment filled with death, but the tulips hold her back from submitting to it and draw her focus to life itself. The picture of the speaker’s family serves as the ultimate reminder for life and the potential to live, although this again is viewed pejoratively; ‘their smiles catch onto [her] skin, little smiling hooks’.

Plath's grave surrounded by red Tulips in St.Thomas' Churchyard, Heptonstall, West Yorkshire, England.

Plath’s grave surrounded by red Tulips in St.Thomas’ Churchyard, Heptonstall, West Yorkshire, England.

 

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Thoughts on Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Theme & Tone

Throughout her poetic works, Dickinson adopts the flowing organic written style, – which I discussed in my last post dedicated to analysing her grammar and syntax variations – but this naturalistic style takes root in the themes concentrated on by her in her poems. In selecting and drawing parallels to thought-provoking themes such as death & immortality and the identity of the self. Dickinson further fuels her idiosyncratic written style. Through highlighting issues important to her, she is able to define stark links between her own personal emotions and more broadly understood topics, thus making her poetry more relatable – even to the modern reader.

Emily Dickinson's grave in Wildwood Cemetery on Strong Street in Amherst.

Emily Dickinson’s grave in Wildwood Cemetery on Strong Street in Amherst.

Death is an extremely prolific theme across the works of Dickinson, portrayed both in the physical sense and also in a metaphorical sense. In “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died -“, the very physical nature of death is examined by Dickinson, denoting the speaker’s final moments on their deathbed, as they notice the ‘Stillness’ around them. Perhaps Dickinson in this sense attempts to draw attention to some positive facet of death, in that it enables us to stop our busy lives and really examine our surroundings. On our deathbed, there should be in most respects no more necessity to worry about the future as – bleakly – we no longer truly have one to look forward to. “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died -” also contains one of Dickinson’s more prolific motifs – ‘sight’ and the ability to ‘see’, which seems to be a symbol of the difference between life and death in her poetry. This particular poem ends with the definitive line ‘I could not see to see -‘ which ultimately signifies the death of the speaker, which in turn indicates that – to Dickinson – the ability to ‘see’ is in some ways a synecdoche for the ability to live; and when this ability is taken away – when we cannot ‘see to see’ – we die.

The examination of the self and identity is another big theme for Dickinson and we’re going to look at it through the lens of a poem we’ve looked at before – “I died for beauty but was scarce…” In this poem we really get a true sense of the importance of identity to Dickinson, and how – again harping back to the theme we just looked at – death strips us completely of it. The speakers’ ‘lips’, ability to speak and their ideals and most importantly their ‘names’ are ‘covered up’ by the ‘Moss’ as they lay in their tombs. Dickinson recognises that our identity and the assertion of ourselves is fundamentally what makes us human and that ‘Moss’ covering up those facets inevitably smothers our humanity, making us no more than blank slates.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

 

Thoughts on Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Punctuation & Syntax

Punctuation is an extremely prolific feature used excessively by Dickinson, particularly dashes to section her poems. A less symbolic or poignant explanation for Dickinson’s excessive usage of dashes may be that it was simply a part of her idiosyncratic written style as she used them not only in her poetic works, but also in recipes as pictured below. Regardless of this, to the Late Modern reader, the presence of the dashes can serve to provoke a recognition of a deeper meaning in Dickinson’s poetry; sectioning particular words from one another, drawing emphasis to them. Her adoption of the use of dashes in her writing, even if it is idiosyncratic, does seem to suggest a certain flowing and organic nature to her work; arguably denoting a streaming of consciousness. This in itself gives further weight to the emotion carried in Dickinson’s poetry as it really adds a sense of integrity through the baring of her soul to us in her poems.

Dickinson's handwritten recipe for a “Cocoa Nut” cake.

Dickinson’s handwritten recipe for a “Cocoa Nut” cake.

Dickinson’s use of capitalisation is also a very notable feature that is consistent across her poetic works and – like her use of dashes – can serve to draw attention to specific themes and motifs in her poems. A notable example of Dickinson’s use of capitalisation, that seems out of place to a more modern reader, is in “I died for Beauty — but was scarce” in which she capitalises ‘Truth’ and ‘Beauty’ as to label them as important. This may – like Dickinson’s use of dashes – also be due to the idiosyncratic nature of her work in its 19th century context. Throughout the 17th and 18th century, the capitalisation of nouns was rather commonplace and was often subject to what the author felt important in their text until the grammarians (and yes, that is the official term) of the period decided that this type of usage was unnecessary. The practice began to fall out of use in the late 18th century but it could be argued that – as Dickinson was writing in the mid 19th century – that she still may have been likely to continue this style of writing, even just for the purpose of writing her poetry and drawing attention to the ideas in her poetry that she herself felt were important.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

 

Dickinson Week Day Seven: ‘”Why Do I Love” You, Sir?’

“Why do I love” You, Sir?
Because—
The Wind does not require the Grass
To answer—Wherefore when He pass
She cannot keep Her place.

Because He knows—and
Do not You—
And We know not—
Enough for Us
The Wisdom it be so—

The Lightning—never asked an Eye
Wherefore it shut—when He was by—
Because He knows it cannot speak—
And reasons not contained—
—Of Talk—
There be—preferred by Daintier Folk—

The Sunrise—Sire—compelleth Me—
Because He’s Sunrise—and I see—
Therefore—Then—
I love Thee—

To finish the week I think we’ll go with one of Dickinson’s more sweeter and heartwarming poems, which is – if read with a positive eye – completely devoid of her usual allusions to metaphorical or physical death. Instead Dickinson, in ‘”Why Do I Love” You, Sir?’, examines the relationship between love and reason, and ultimately suggests that there is in fact no connection between them whatsoever.

The speaker immediately addresses the eponymous question: ‘”Why Do I Love” You, Sir?’, responding to it with the somewhat childish answer: ‘Because’. This answer is largely endearing, provoking an image of a young child responding to a parent’s question, believing that simply ‘because’ is an adequate answer when stumped to find another. The allusion to a young child and the likening of this image to the speaker herself really creates a halo of innocence around her; setting an innocuous tone for the rest of the poem.

The speaker goes on, appealing to nature with the aim to, in effect, justify the absence of a justifiable reason as to why she loves the man she addresses in the poem. She gives examples of nature that require no need for an explanation, firstly the Wind’s acceptance that the ‘Grass’ cannot ‘keep Her place’ (notice how the grass is labelled as being feminine…perhaps an allusion to female submission to their male counterparts?) when it blows, as the answer is simple in that it is just so. Dickinson then goes on to use an example of the relationship between living beings and nature, denoting how the ‘Lightning’ never asks an ‘Eye’ why it blinks when it sees a lightning strike, it accepts that it is just nature and that is something not to be challenged.

The final stanza fundamentally combines the absence of reason in nature and the speaker’s love for the one she speaks to. She illustrates that the ‘Sunrise’ wakes her in the morning because of the light that it presents, and that the light wakes her simply because that is the very nature of the components of it – light is light, and it wakes us just ‘because’. This is the only time in the entire poem in which Dickinson does actually apply a very odd kind of logic to the speaker’s love. She says, after alluding to the ‘Sunrise’ and its ability to wake her, that ‘Therefore—Then— /  I love Thee—’; thus applying the same ‘anti-logic’ that was already illustrated in the previous stanza. The speaker loves this man simply because he is who he is, just as the light wakes us because it is light. Her love for this man is justified through it being ultimately unjustifable, it is simply in his nature for her to love him.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

 

Dickinson Week Day Six: “Success is counted sweetest…”

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory

As he defeated–dying–
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

 

The first stanza here, starkly denotes that the person that best knows the measure and value of success is the person who is yet to experience it. Dickinson’s recognition of the drinking of ‘nectar’ as something that only the ‘sorest’ can understand basically indicates that (with ‘nectar’ being recognised in mythology as the drink of the gods that enabled them to revel in immortality) one has to be in the infinite depths of despair to truly appreciate the virtues of positivity – in this case specifically, success. In short, Dickinson primarily outlines that those who succeed never truly appreciate it—it is only those who fail, or who lack something, that can truly appreciate how wonderful it would be if they did succeed.

Dickinson extends the metaphor defined in the first stanza and continues it across the rest of the poem. She alludes to the image of a battlefield, denoting that those soldiers ‘who  took the flag’ will not be able to comprehend the true value of their success as their losing counterparts will recognise it. Dickinson then goes on to depict the despair of the losing side in her final stanza, denoting ‘he’ (who is perhaps selected as a synecdoche for the entire losing side of an army in war ) as ‘dying’ as they hear the ‘triumph’ of the winning side. The final stanza is fundamentally heartbreaking, in the sense that it further highlights that success can only ever be appreciated by those who have never experienced it, suggesting that as soon as we experience success we will never again place the same value upon it; it is now no longer the pinnacle of achievement and is ultimately an anti-climax to those who are regular to it.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

 

Dickinson Week Day Five: “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—…”

After great pain, a formal feeling comes —
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs
The stiff Heart questions, was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

The Feet, mechanical, go round —
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought —
A Wooden way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone —

This is the Hour of Lead —
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow —
First — Chill — then Stupor — then the letting go —

 

Dickinson’s poem “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—…” ultimately seems to denote the very facet of human nature that imposes an emotional equilibrium after an intense trauma. It’s a strange thing that us humans have that natural ability to completely numb ourselves to any feeling after grief or heartbreak, and Dickinson really explores this numbness and inwardness in her beautiful poem. Her figurative language is largely reminiscent of a solitary funeral; with the ‘Nerves’ (as the synecdoche for the entire human body) sitting ‘ceremonious, like Tombs’ which is a nice literal link to the motif of a funeral and the marking of a death, perhaps the death of the feeling or trauma that had previously been haunting the speaker. In the second stanza the theme of death is further exhausted by Dickinson through an indirect manipulation of imagery that would only truly profoundly resonate with a Late Modern readership; with the ‘mechanical’ movement of the ‘Feet’ of the person who has suffered the trauma being highly reminiscent of a walking corpse – or more commonly referred to in modern culture as a ‘zombie’. The zombie-like qualities demonstrated here, predominantly through the complete absence of any human nature in their ‘mechanical’ movements, ultimately suggesting death in the metaphorical sense. The final stanza – although seldom interpreted in this way – can arguably be seen to set out a somewhat stark warning to the reader through Dickinson’s implementation of a simile comparing the memory of this numb (or ‘formal’) feeling after emotional pain to the memory of snow of those who freeze to death. It perhaps points out to the reader that we should maybe be in some ways grateful for this kind of numbness, as for those of us who suffer from the former (emotional numbness after pain) have the ability to ‘outlive’ it, as opposed to those who die from a literal numbness in their limbs, as they freeze to death in snow. Alternatively, however, the simile draws emphasis upon the purgatorial state of those who harbor this ‘formal feeling’ of numbness in their ‘Nerves’. The speaker draws the comparison between those who remember their ‘formal feeling’ through ‘outliving’ their emotional numbness and those who ‘let go’ (aka die) from their numbness which in some ways creates an element of confusion, as it begs the question: how can someone remember anything if they are dead? Which seems to ultimately suggest that lingering state of purgatory, with those feeling this numbness wavering somewhere between life and death.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

 

Dickinson Week Day Four: “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish — you know!

How dreary to be somebody!
How public like a frog
To tell one’s name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

Now this famous Dickinson poem, ironically entitled “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”, if we consider how utterly un-famous Emily Dickinson was in her lifetime, really provokes us as readers to appreciate our inconspicuous nature. The poem begins with the speaker’s proclamation that they are ‘Nobody’ (I’ll try my hardest not to harp on about capitalisation again), encouraging the reader to admit that they are nobody too The speaker provokes the reader to consider how ‘dreary’ it would be to be ‘Somebody’, that if a person were Somebody, he would be obliged to be ‘public’ in all that he does. Seclusion was something that Emily Dickinson ultimately strove to achieve in her lifetime, often hibernating in her home and seldom ventured outdoors (fun fact: Emily didn’t even emerge from her room while her father’s funeral took place in 1874). This – arguably excessive – appreciation for seclusion and isolation on the part of Dickinson is starkly denoted in this particular poem, ultimately highlighting that the ability to travel through life under a veil of anonymity is actually a far greater blessing than to forever stand of a stage under a heavy halo of fame.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)