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On "Tulips"

Jeannine Dobbs

In "Tulips" (Ariel), one of Plath's most popular poems, she uses a personal experience as a setting to express the complexities that the idea of childlessness has for her. Ted Hughes says she wrote "Tulips" after being hospitalized for an appendectomy in March of 1961. She had miscarried just a short time before this operation; probably the second hospital confinement triggered associations with death and birth. These tulips are "like an awful baby." There is something wild and dangerous about them. She wants to reject them because she says they "eat my oxygen." She wants to reject the tulips as she wants to reject the trappings of her life and the family she has:

Now I have lost myself, I am sick of baggage--
My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;
Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.

Not tulips but death is the gift she wants, as in "A Birthday Present" (Ariel), but in both cases the irony is that the gift is life. What she finds in her rejection of the gift here is freedom, a kind of perfection:

I didn't want any flowers. I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free--

. . . .
it is what the dead close on, finally. . . .

Her freedom is both wonderful and terrible because the price is so high. The woman must give up her man and her child that hook onto her, as well as her things, her possessions. And the ultimate price--and reward--is death.

From "Viciousness in the Kitchen: Sylvia Plath’s Domestic Poetry." Modern Language Studies 7.2 (1977).

Eileen M. Aird

The world of the hospital ward is a welcome one of snowy whiteness and silence, in which the woman grasps eagerly at the ability to relax completely because nothing is required of her. She has moved beyond normal activity, and relishes the opportunity to relinquish all responsibility, to become a 'body' with no personal identity:

I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the
And my history to the anaesthetist and my body to

The renunciation of individuality also includes the reduction of others to a depersonalised level, so that they make no claims on her and she is aware of making none on them; consequently she sees the nurses hurrying about the ward as being as alike as a flock of gulls flying inland. She sees herself as an inanimate object, a, pebble. . . .

The tulips erupt into the whiteness of the microcosm the patient has created as a painful reminder of the health which she consciously strives to reject. The world of Ariel is a black and white one into which red, which represents blood, the heart and living is always an intrusion. The tulips hurt beacuse they require the emotional response which will rouse her from the numbness of complete mental and physical inactivity; she feels that the flowers have eyes which watch her and increase her sense of her own unreality: ‘And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow/ Between the eye of the sun and the eye of the tulips.' This sense of unreality, of substancelessness, is not similar to the feeling of immersion in self which she has cultivated, it is a sense of inadequacy and alienation also described in "Cut": "I have taken a pill to kill/The thin/Papery feeling.' Eventually the tulips force her attention into focus and she merges from the world of whiteness and silence to a not unpleasurable anticipation:

And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea
And comes from a country far away as health.

Although ‘Tulips’ is written in the present tense it has less of the immediacy of some of the later poems in Ariel because the element of control exhibited in the meditative focus and the fashioning of thought and feeling into logically connected statements operates as a distancing device.

From Sylvia Plath: Her Life and Work. Copyright © 1973 by Eileen M. Aird.

Margaret Dickie

One of the few poems she saved from this period is "Tulips," written in March, 1961, about some flowers she had received when she was in the hospital recovering from her appendectomy. Actually the flowers are only the occasion for a remarkable psychological journey into and out of anaesthesia, the "numbness" the nurse brings her in "bright needles." The poem traces the stages by which the hospital patient sinks reluctantly into an anaesthesized "peacefulness," and equally reluctantly comes out of it, through repeating and reversing the imagery of the first four stanzas in the imagery of the last four so that the poem moves into and out from a central stanza with unusual symmetry.

The "too excitable" tulips and their explosions in the first stanza are what the patient awakes to finally in the last stanza, where she claims that the tulips "should be behind bars like dangerous animals." In the first, she has given her name and day-clothes away; in the last, she reclaims herself: "I am aware of my heart." In the second stanza, as she relinquishes herself to the nurses that "pass and pass," she is propped up "Like an eye between two white lids"; coming back to life in the penultimate stanza, she moves through the same stage where the tulips interrupt the air "Coming and going" and "concentrate" her attention. The nurses' tending in the third stanza is matched by the tulips' watching in the seventh. The sensation that her possessions "Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head" just before she succumbs to the anaesthesia in the fourth stanza is reversed in the sixth, when, awaking, she feels that the tulips "seem to float, though they weigh me down," "A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck." In the middle stanza she attempts, in Emily Dickinson style, to describe the state beyond consciousness: "How free it is, you have no idea how free-- / The peacefulness is so big it dazes you."

"Tulips" is an unusual poem for Plath because it does move inward toward a silent center and out again. The fear, shown in many of Plath's early poems, of losing control or the final reluctant relinquishment to unfathomable powers is absent in this process; where she claims, "I am learning peacefulness," "I only wanted/ To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty." Even more unusual than this acceptance of self-loss is the process of reversal, where the mind gradually takes hold again after the grim recognition that the tulips' "redness talks to my wound, it corresponds." The common strategy of Plath's poems early and late is for the mind to generate hyperboles that torment itself; but in "Tulips" this generative faculty has a positive as well as a negative function. "Tulips" is not a cheerful poem, but it does move from cold to warmth, from numbness to love, from empty whiteness to vivid redness, in a process manipulated by the associative imagination. The speaker herself seems surprised by her own gifts and ends the poem on a tentative note, moving toward the far-away country of health. Because she has so exaggerated her own emptiness and the tulips' violence and vitality, she must then accept in herself the attributes she has cast onto the tulips, which return to her as correspondences.

If the supersensitive mind can turn tulips into explosions, it can also reverse the process and turn dangerous animals into blooming hearts. The control of "Tulips" -- the matching of stanzas, the correspondences developed between the external object and states of consciousness -- marks a new stage in Plath's development. Her earlier efforts to train her vision outward, toward the landscape, and to concentrate on realistic details, as well as her very early apprenticeship in set forms combine with the Yaddo exercises in spontaneous associative creation to prepare her for her final poems, of which "Tulips" was the first example. In "Tulips" she develops a new persona. Though she is neither the public persona of Plath's moor-walker or seaside visitor nor the intensely private and fragmented identity of her surrealistic meditations, this speaker shares qualities of both. She is clearly in a hospital, responding to nurses, needles, flowers; but she is just as clearly engaged in an internal drama, reacting to a wild imaginative activity. The tension between outer and inner images is maintained (as it had not been in the early poems) by a tremendous artistic and psychological control.

In this poem Plath reveals what she meant when she said that the manipulative mind must control its most terrifying experiences. The speaker here, responsive to inner and outer compulsions, is able to handle her situation. As the inner tensions intensified in the last months of her own life, Plath was forced to create a persona much more rigid than the speaker of "Tulips." At this point, however, rigidity is what she scorns.

From Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Copyright © 1979 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Charles Molesworth

In "Tulips," the imagery of forced seeing, of vision itself as the source of the exacerbated sensibility, assaults us everywhere:

They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff
Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut.
Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in.

The comic, almost spitting disgust of the assonance in the phrase "stupid pupil" adds to the allusive parody of Emerson's "'transparent eyeball" from Nature. But this painful, forced seeing is still, one feels, better than the anesthetized drift that constantly threatens to overtake the poet. But whatever the reader might feel, Plath seems consciously desirous of either the drift or the pained fixation, as long as it provides her with an extreme experiential locus.

I watched my teaset, my bureaus of linen, my books
Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head.
I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.

The openness to experience that some regard as one of the hallmarks of American literature becomes, in Plath's poetry, an ironically balanced pointer that can tip toward either salvation or annihilation.

I didn't want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free--
The peacefulness is so big it dazes you,
And it asks nothing, a name tag, a few trinkets.
It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them
Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet.

These alternatives, salvation or annihilation, are here joined in a single image-turned-simile; and the toneless quality of the lines parodies the transcendent religious structure that lies behind them, just as "stupid pupil" parodies Emerson. "So big it dazes you" and "you have no idea how free" both originate in the vocabulary of schoolgirl intensification, and Plath built her language almost exclusively out of various forms of intensification. Condensation, catachresis, metonymy, and the verbal strategies of riddles and allusive jokes: all these and more are devices both to record and to ward off the numbing that results when ordinary consciousness is faced with an overwhelmingly fragmented objective world, a flood of facticity that simply will not submit to tenderness or mercy.

One of the standard critical cliches at sprang up around confessional poets was that the language itself provided their salvation, that the redeeming word could set right what the intractable world of egos, projects, deceits, and self-destructions had insidiously twisted. This axiom still putatively left room for individual poets to develop personal styles and remain recognizably confessional. Oddly enough, however, when thrown back on a radically personal axis, the poetry often ended up being simultaneously god-haunted and narcotized, as if narcosis and transcendence were mirror images of each other. In the poetry of Plath and Sexton, we find not only the subject matter but also the very structure of their imaginations returning again and again to an irreducible choice: the poet either must become God or cease consciousness altogether. Haunted by the failed myth of a human, or at least an artistic, perfectability, they turned to a courtship of nihilism.

From The Fierce Embrace: A Study of Contemporary American Poetry. Copyright © 1979 by the Curators of the University of Missouri.

Barbara Hardy

In "Tulips," there is a slow, reluctant acceptance of the tulips, which means a slow, reluctant acceptance of a return to life. The poem dramatizes a sick state, making it clear that it is sickness. The flowers are hateful, as emblems of cruel spring, as presents from the healthy world that wants her back, as suspect, like all presents. They are also emblems of irrational fear: science is brilliantly misused (as indeed in feeble and deranged states of many kinds) and phototropism and photosynthesis are used to argue the fear: the flowers really do move toward the light, do open out, do take up oxygen. The tulips are also inhabitants of the bizarre world of private irrational fantasy, even beyond the bridge of distorted science: they contrast with the whiteness of nullity and death, are like a baby, an African cat, are like her wound (a real red physical wound, stitched so as to heal, not to gape like opened tulips) and, finally, like her heart. The end of the poem is transforming, opens up the poem. The poem, like the tulips, has really been opening from the beginning, but all is not plain until the end, as in "Nick." Moreover, in the end the tulips win, and that is the point. It is a painful victory for life. We move from the verge of hallucination, which can hear them as noisy, or see them as dangerous animals, to a proper rationality, which accepts recovery. The poem hinges on this paradox: while most scientific, it is most deranged; while most surreal, it is most healthy:

And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
And comes from a country far away as health.

It is the country she as to return to, reluctant though she is: the identification of the breathing, opened, red, spring-like tulips with her heart makes this plain. She wanted death, certainly, as one may want it in illness or, moving back from the poem to the other poems and to her real death, as she wanted it in life. But the poem enacts the movement from the peace and purity of anaesthesia and feebleness to the calls of life. Once more, the controlled conceits; and the movement from one state to another creates expansion. The poem opens out to our experience of sickness and health, to the overwhelming demands of love, which we sometimes have to meet. The symbolism of present giving and spring flowers makes a bridge from a personal death-longing to common experience . . . .

From The Survival of Poetry. Copyright © 1970 by Barbara Hardy

Richard Grey

A poem like 'Tulips' is a good illustration of Plath’s passion and her craft. Its origins lie in personal experience: a time when the poet was taken into hospital and was sent flowers as a gift. The opening four stanzas recover her feelings of peace and release on entering the hospital ward. 'Look how white everything is', she exclaims:

            how quiet, how snowed-in,
I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands,
I am nobody . . .

The verse is nominally free but has a subtle iambic base; the lines, seven to each stanza, move quietly and mellifluously; and a sense of hidden melody ('learning' / 'lying', 'lying by myself quietly', 'light lies', 'white walls') transforms apparently casual remarks into memorable speech. What is more to the point, the almost sacramental terms in which Plath describes herself turn this experience into a mysterious initiation, a dying away from the world. 'I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses', Plath says, 'And my history to the anaesthetist and my body to the surgeons'. Everything that gives her identity, that imprisons her in existence, has been surrendered; and she sinks into a condition of utter emptiness, openness that is associated at certain times here with immersion in water -- a return to the foetal state and the matrix of being. The only initial resistance to this movement comes from a photograph of her husband and children she has by her bedside: reminding her, evidently, of the hell of other people, who cast 'little smiling hooks' to fish her up out of the sea.

In the next four stanzas, the tulips -- mentioned briefly in the first line and then forgotten -- enter the scene with a vengeance:

The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.

The flowers arc all that is the opposite of the white, silent world of the hospital, carrying associations of noise and pressure, 'sudden tongues and . . . colour'. They draw Plath back to life, the conditioning forces that constitute existence. She feels herself 'watched', identified by 'the eyes of the tulips': their gaze commits her to a particular status or role. What is more, this contrary impulse drawing her back into the world and identification 'corresponds' to something in herself. It comes from within her, just as the earlier impulse towards liberation did. This probably explains why the conflict of the poem remains unresolved: the ninth and final stanza of the poem simply and beautifully juxtaposes images of imprisonment and escape, the blood of life and the salt sea of death. 'And I am aware of my heart', Plath concludes:

                    it opens and closes
ts bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me,
The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
And comes from a country far away as health.

The alternatives here are familiar ones in American writing: either to live in the world and accept the identity it prescribes, or to flee into a state of absolute freedom. What is less familiar is that, here as elsewhere, Plath associates these two alternatives, traditionally figured in the clearing and the wilderness, with the absolute conditions of being and not-being. Fixity, in these terms, is life; flight is immolation; freedom is the immediate metaphor of the hospital and the ultimate metamorphosis of death.

From American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. Copyright © 1990 by the Longman Group UK Limited.

Renée R. Curry

Plath steeps the poem "Tulips" in a whiteness depicted as powerful, peaceful, and obliterating: . . .

The wintry whiteness of the white walls presses in on the speaker, both teaching her about tranquility and enforcing it on her. The pressure results in eradication of herself and obliteration of the volatility of life. Van Dyne links this annihilation to "the speaker's fears of carnal and contaminating flesh" (Revising Life 92). As well, Van Dyne suggests that the speaker enjoys the process of noting the body's drift into "anonymity and irresponsibility" (Revising Life 92). Hayman, too, claims that Plath luxuriates in the abdication of responsibility in this poem (155). Significantly, the body that drifts into erasure in "Tulips" is a white body in a white world, a body confronted with entrapment in or escape from its own powerful signifiers. The speaker in the poem claims to understand the tulips as signifiers of a complicated sexual world intruding on the hallowed and clean white world of the hospital. She suggests that she might elude the seductiveness of the tulips should she become a nun and regain purity.

This reading of the poem works well enough; however, when we read the poem with an eye toward racial signifiers, the poem situates the plight of many white women who ardently desire an escape from culpability in white dominance over others. Dyer argues that white women are partially responsible for white dominance, but that because of their marginal status in relationship to white men, the only way they can maintain their own honor as white women is to do nothing about their role in domination (206). Thereby, the exquisite and languorous passivity that Plath demonstrates in "Tulips" marks white women as the culpable incapables that they are in the face of white dominance. The tulips remind the woman in the poem of other worlds, of other lives, of a colorfulness outside herself, but the woman cannot acknowledge these worlds and maintain her white passivity simultaneously. She would have to sacrifice the peacefulness of whiteness.

The tulips signify, by their glorious and bold colors, glaring Otherness. The frustrated speaker of the poem prescribes an enslavement for them uncannily linked to Africa: "The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals; / They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat. " Annas rightly notes that the speaker experiences an obligation to choose between the two worlds—the white world and the colorful world (A Disturbance 98)—however, I find that the speaker clearly wishes she did not have the choice. She prefers to imprison the dangerous and colorful world, so that she may remain passively white.

Perloff reads the white world of the hospital into which the colorful tulips intrude as a "dead, " "dazed, " and "empty" one. She reads the tulips as the entity that will force the speaker out of her whiteness (119). But I contend that in the final stanza only the image of the imprisoned tulips permits the speaker to associate the red of the flowers with the red of her heart. Figuratively speaking, Otherness may only serve as a catalyst for white inspection once it is safely ensconced behind bars.

from White Women Writing White: H. D., Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, and Whiteness. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by Renče R. Curry

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