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.

 

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.

 

Red by Ted Hughes

Red was your colour.
If not red, then white. But red
Was what you wrapped around you.
Blood-red. Was it blood?
Was it red-ochre, for warming the dead?
Haematite to make immortal
The precious heirloom bones, the family bones.

When you had your way finally
Our room was red. A judgement chamber.
Shut casket for gems. The carpet of blood
Patterned with darkenings, congealments.
The curtains — ruby corduroy blood,
Sheer blood-falls from ceiling to floor.
The cushions the same. The same
Raw carmine along the window-seat.
A throbbing cell. Aztec altar — temple.

Only the bookshelves escaped into whiteness.

And outside the window
Poppies thin and wrinkle-frail
As the skin on blood,
Salvias, that your father named you after,
Like blood lobbing from the gash,
And roses, the heart’s last gouts,
Catastrophic, arterial, doomed.

Your velvet long full skirt, a swathe of blood,
A lavish burgandy.
Your lips a dipped, deep crimson.

You revelled in red.
I felt it raw — like crisp gauze edges
Of a stiffening wound. I could touch
The open vein in it, the crusted gleam.

Everything you painted you painted white
Then splashed it with roses, defeated it,
Leaned over it, dripping roses,
Weeping roses, and more roses,
Then sometimes, among them, a little blue
bird.

Blue was better for you. Blue was wings.
Kingfisher blue silks from San Francisco
Folded your pregnancy
In crucible caresses.
Blue was your kindly spirit — not a ghoul
But electrified, a guardian, thoughtful.

In the pit of red
You hid from the bone-clinic whiteness.

But the jewel you lost was blue.

 

© Ted Hughes. All Rights Reserved.

 

From the very first line; ‘Red was your colour. / If not red then white’, we can infer that the core conflict presented to the reader in this poem revolves around the contrasting facets of its subject which is believed to be his first wife – Sylvia Plath. Hughes’ adoption of colours as being symbolic of emotion is rather Plath-esque in itself, and as the poem’s subject so happens to be Plath herself, the technique seems even more fitting. In Plath’s poetry, the colour red is often versatile in its interpretations, ranging from being the pinnacle of vitality and life or alternatively blood as a sign of death in her 1962 poem ‘Cut.’ White (as another focus for Hughes in ‘Red’) also poses a weighty significance to Plath, as it consistently epitomizes death and demise. If we apply the same magnitude to the connotations of these colours in Plath’s work (considering that Hughes’ poem itself it about her), in that Hughes directly accuses the subject of being consumed by these ‘colours’ as emotions, we can determine that ‘Red’ serves as an exploration of Plath’s mental endeavors as she walked the line between life and vitality in red, and death and demise in white. Hughes claims that ‘red / was what you wrapped around you’, thus suggesting that Plath as the subject made the conscious effort to wrap herself in the vigor of life, concentrating of surrounding herself with it through ‘the carpet of blood’ and her ‘skirt, a swathe of blood.’ The intense emphasis that Hughes bears on blood in the poem further enhances his subject obsession with the clout of her existence, forcing herself to recognize life’s many spectacles.

However, no matter what the subject of the poem does, the connotations of white will always follow as her own personal phantom. Hughes describes how ‘everything you painted, you painted white / then splashed it with roses.’ This morbid obsession to cover the world in ‘whiteness’ in death and then to drastically ‘defeat it’ may be a reflection of Plath’s macabre fixation with her dead father which she herself explores consistently across her own work, most notably in her poems ‘Daddy’ and Full Fathom Five’ in which she contemplates with disdain the irrevocable opportunity for a relationship with him and concludes that her only method to reach reconciliation would be to ‘breathe water’ and die. With this in mind, our reading of Ted Hughes’ ‘Red’ is abundantly personalized, we can find empathy with Hughes in his struggle to comprehend the complexities of Plath’s internal suffering.

What makes this poem ultimately heartbreaking  is the final broken stanza in which Hughes discusses another facet of Plath’s nature in life – the blue that ‘was better for you.’ Now, if we continue to follow suit and refer back to Plath’s own work to decipher the connotations of blue we can find it in such poems as ‘Nick and the Candlestick.’ This poem by Plath draws out its subject very similarly to that of ‘Morning Song’ (of which I have spoken about before). It depicts a mother (which we assume to be Plath) awaking in the night to watch her sleeping child – Plath’s second child Nicholas. Plath opens this poem by setting the scene as being bathed in ‘the light [that] burns blue.’ If we link this back to Red, we can instantly identify that  Hughes has chosen to adopt the colour blue in the same way as Plath. He claims that blue ‘folded your pregnancy’, thus clearly referring to her role as a mother, and that ‘blue was wings’ and her ‘kindly spirit.’ As readers, we get the impression that Plath’s ‘blueness’ was the very thing that enthralled Hughes will love and enabled him to endure her bleak spurts of red and whiteness for a time. Red is written with the virtue of hindsight as a part of The Birthday Letters collection, thus enabling Hughes to portray a full reflection of his time with Plath before their divorce and her suicide and in the final stanza we see the only positive language to offset the negativity that red and white brings. In signing off, Hughes depicts blue as a jewel, precious with the right to be treasured, with disastrous consequences should it be lost. But as we know, and as Hughes reminds us with lament; ‘the jewel [Plath] lost was blue’ and she ultimately allowed herself to be consumed by those demons who are inconspicuously shrouded in the colours red and white.

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were married and had two children between 1956 and 1963.

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were married and had two children between 1956 and 1963.

Morning Song by Sylvia Plath

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

From Ariel published by Harper & Row, 1966. Copyright © 1966 by Ted Hughes. All rights reserved.

I’ve found myself rather at an affinity with the confessional lyric style of Sylvia Plath and Morning Song, as the very first poem of hers I read, is truly one of my favourites. The opening line: ‘love set you going like a fat gold watch’ instantly confirms to us as readers that time is a dominant theme in this particular poem, creating a simile between the birth of the child and the progression of time behind the glass disc of a watch. Plath ultimately recognizes, as the mother of this child, that the infant is the occupant of a completely separate facet of space to herself and it’s own span of time will continue to shrink until the child’s eventual death. The poem in this sense deal with simply that: the value but constrictions of time and the role and station of living things in that finite space. The depiction of the watch as being ‘gold’ really emphasizes the true value of time which – like gold in the sense of monetary wealth – can be both one’s best friend but also their worst enemy. Time can be viewed as a positive, in reference to ‘all the good times’ someone has had in their life in their own nostalgic memory and also on a larger and more objective scale in that time has allowed society to continuously morph and develop over the course of history. But there is also the more morbid face of time in it’s abstract nature. Time is arguably by definition finite, it implies a beginning and an end and this is the kind of time which Plath aims to address in Morning Song.

From my first reading of this poem I have always inferred that although the plosive and begrudging language used to depict the mother’s ‘stumble from bed, cow-heavy’, she is aware that she will grow to miss the disruptions to her daily life inflicted by the infant child. The child’s cry gives the mother the purpose to dote and nurture, but throughout maturity our dependence on the this intensity of our mother’s role in our life tends to fade somewhat. Plath’s poignant awareness of the child’s inevitable independence from her as it grows is further highlighted through the third stanza in which Plath declares ‘I am no more your mother / than the cloud that distills a mirror.’ She expresses an acceptance that the child is not purely an extension of herself as her reflection in a mirror but it’s own being with it’s own – as depicted gorgeously in the final stanza – ‘handful of notes’ with ‘clear vowels [that] rise like balloons’ which creates both a beautifully peaceful but also distressing image of the mother’s child floating away from her with their independence and resources of language acquisition and the like in tow; to begin taking their own direction in life autonomously.

Plath with her two children: Freida and Nicholas.

Plath (1932-1963) with her two children: Freida and Nicholas.