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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Be Glad Your Nose Is On Your Face by Jack Prelutsky

Be glad your nose is on your face,
not pasted on some other place,
for if it were where it is not,
you might dislike your nose a lot.

Imagine if your precious nose
were sandwiched in between your toes,
that clearly would not be a treat,
for you’d be forced to smell your feet.

Your nose would be a source of dread
were it attached atop your head,
it soon would drive you to despair,
forever tickled by your hair.

Within your ear, your nose would be
an absolute catastrophe,
for when you were obliged to sneeze,
your brain would rattle from the breeze.

Your nose, instead, through thick and thin,
remains between your eyes and chin,
not pasted on some other place–
be glad your nose is on your face!

Prelutsky’s humorous ‘Be Glad Your Nose is on Your Face’, being aimed at children, follows the simplistic ABAB rhyme scheme, and using a simplistic lexis to follow suit. The message of the poem itself is also rather elementary; be grateful for what you have, and be aware that changing these things could bring about disastrous consequences. Through using the nose as a metaphor for something that we have in our lives,Prelutsky is able to illustrate that if our noses were in any other place it would not benefit us at all. He describes our noses as being ‘precious’ and important, and humorously places it in the most peculiar places around the body; the feet, the head and the ear.Prelutsky’s placing of the nose as being ‘sandwiched in between your toes’ evokes both an image of comedy and also discomfort at the thought of being ‘forced to smell your feet.’ This constant state of discomfort ultimately points out to the young reader – in a covert fashion of course – that changing the position of something so important could hold very irreversible consequences, so we should be grateful for the things we have got, and not seek out to change things that are perfectly good as they are.Prelutsky’s poem shows the reader that it is sometimes easy to overlook some of the positive things in our lives, and it is also very easy to concentrate on the negative facets of these things. The desire to change things can often be overwhelming, butPrelutsky goes on to give further examples of the consequences of change. He claims that if our noses were on our heads then it ‘would drive [us] to despair, / forever tickled by [our] hair’, a parallel to the discomfort of positioning a nose between toes on the foot. This is continued again in the third stanza, in which the nose has been placed within the ear and this is described as being ‘an absolute catastrophe’, and that the ‘brain would rattle’ whenever we sneezed.Prelutsky comes to, in the final stanza, the very same conclusion that was stated at the beginning of the poem; that you should ‘be glad your nose is on your face!’, it can be dangerous to attempt to change something that was perfectly fine to begin with.

Jack Prelutsky (1940-)

Jack Prelutsky (1940-)

 

 

Spinster by Sylvia Plath

Now this particular girl
During a ceremonious April walk
With her latest suitor
Found herself, of a sudden, intolerably struck
By the birds irregular babel
And the leaves’ litter.

By this tumult afflicted, she
Observed her lover’s gestures unbalance the air,
Her gait stray uneven
Through a rank wilderness of fern and flower.
She judged petals in disarray,
The whole season, sloven.

How she longed for winter then! –
Scrupulously austere in its order
Of white and black
Ice and rock, each sentiment in border,
And heart’s frosty discipline
Exact as a snowflake.

But here – a burgeoning
Unruly enough to pitch her five queenly wits
Into vulgar motley –
A treason not to be borne. Let idiots
Reel giddy in bedlam spring:
She withdrew neatly.

And round her house she set
Such a barricade of barb and check
Against mutinous weather
As no mere insurgent man could hope to break
With curse, fist, threat
Or love, either.

 

Plath’s 1956 poem ‘Spinster’ serves to juxtapose the order and disarray of the natural world with the anxiety to maintain control. The persona in ‘Spinster’ – as is evident by the name – exists in a state in which men are not to be depended on, furthering the interpretation that ‘this particular girl’ wants to have autonomous control over her own life; without being dictated to by a man. The use of the word ‘ceremonious’ in the first stanza implicates heavy connotations of both the prospect of marriage and also structure and uniform, the ‘suitor’ that walks with her is clearly somebody that this girl is expected to marry. But the presence of disorder in their environment clamps the girl’s attentions, with the ‘birds’ irregular babel / and the leaves litter’; the word ‘litter’ erasing the usual connotations of nature’s beauty, portraying it as a mess and not at is should be.

The persona’s sterile detachment from the ‘suitor’ she walks with is truly confirmed in the second stanza. She ‘observed her lover’s gestures’, the verb ‘observed’ reminiscent of a scientist looking on at some lab-rat experiment, even Plath’s description of him as a ‘suitor’ depersonalizes his character. He poses no significance to the persona, she has no emotional ties to him; he is her ‘latest suitor’, implying that there have been many others before him. The persona also continues to have a dissatisfaction of nature’s movements, in ‘a rank wilderness of fern and flower; / she judged the petals in disarray.’ The only facet of nature that seems to please the persona is the season of winter, which she describes as being ‘scrupulously austere in its order / of white and black’; t’s monochromatic characteristics implies a sense of uniform with the reduced components –  ‘ice and rock.’

The third stanza concludes by referring to ‘heart’s frosty discipline / exact as a snowflake’, finally bringing together the two elements of nature and the heart of the persona. The rest of the poem shows the persona’s rationalization of remaining in spinsterhood, and rejecting all men. In the final stanza Plath implements the metaphorical  ‘barricade[s] of barb and check’ that the persona set around her heart – which Plath refers to as her ‘house’ – which ‘no mere insurgent man could hope to break / with curse, fist, threat / or love, either.’ The persona is utterly adamant. She will remain a spinster, and be the master of her own life.

A young Plath on holiday in 1953, three years before meeting her husband Ted Hughes.

A young Plath on holiday in 1953, three years before meeting her husband Ted Hughes.