Jeannine Dobbs: On "Tulips"
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).