Eileen M. Aird: On "Tulips"
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.