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.



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)


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 One: “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—…”

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –
The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –
I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –
With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –
One of Dickinson’s most famous poems, “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—…”, to me, seems to provoke a real examination of both the romanticism and bleakness of death in the moments before it, and balances itself perfectly on the line between the macabre and the utter peaceful completeness that is achieved in its realisation. Dickinson’s focus on the ‘Stillness in the Room’ at the moment before her speaker’s imminent death is starkly highlighted in her capitalisation of this word, personifying ‘Stillness’ as a calming presence, soothing the poem’s speaker in their final moments. This ‘Stillness’ seems to provoke the speaker to pay specific attention to their surroundings and to take advantage of the ability to ‘see’ – Dickinson’s metaphor for ‘living’.
The focal motif of the poem, the fly, in some ways points out the facets of life that we encounter every day but do not stop to appreciate or even notice. As I’ve mentioned already, Dickinson draws specific attention to particular ideas through capitalisation and if we look closely at the words that are capitalised – which includes ‘King’, ‘Window’ – thus possibly highlighting the things that for one reason or another pass us by in our daily lives in our younger years in particular. Of course, Dickinson’s use of capitalisation may be relevant to archaic styles in written expression in the 19th century, but as we are reading her poetry as a contemporary audience this consistent implementation of capitalisation encompasses a whole new meaning for us. The capitalisation of the noun ‘King’ is of particular interest to me, in that – if we infer the usual connotations of ‘King’ in this context as referring to God – it is possible to suggest that if Dickinson is highlighting God as a being that goes unnoticed by us in our daily lives just as we would ignore a ‘Window’ or a ‘Fly’.
When I first read this poem, the ‘Fly’ that Dickinson focuses on seems to represent a much larger idea than we may first realise. It is possible to infer that the ‘Fly’ that ‘interposed’ as the speaker ‘signed away’ their physical possessions – ‘Keepsakes’ – and body, is ultimately a godly figure who comes forth to welcome us into death. It’s appearance may be controversially argued to be an actual embodiment of God himself and that this God is full of imperfection. The ‘stumbling Buzz’ that the fly lets out perhaps highlights that God may not be all that he seems to us as the living and the portrayal of him as an ‘uncertain’ fly tarnishes him with an anthropomorphous exterior.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)