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.