Sylvia Plath’s Chilling Experience

Although Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath are often linked together, I personally respond to them very differently. I much prefer Sylvia Plath’s poems, perhaps because her experiences seem much closer to my own experiences. If I were to go over the edge, God forbid, I suspect I would go as Plath has gone. Her feelings, or, perhaps, lack of feelings, seem frighteningly similar to experiences I’ve had, though she seems to lack the cold rage I often felt at such moments. Maybe that’s a major reason she is no longer here and I am, because it seems she desperately needs feelings, even a good honest anger, to draw her back to people, back to this plane of existence. Feelings are what seem to most draw us to others, yet they are precisely what Plath seems to try to avoid.

It’s obvious from her poetry that Plath is an introvert, just as I am, and that she has, accidentally or purposely, cut herself off from others, another feeling I have too often experienced. In fact, the very act of writing, and poetry seems like the most difficult kind of writing, can at times isolate the writer by its very demands. It is this sense of isolation, accompanied by a frightening lack of feelings that haunts Ariel.

“Tulips” with it’s contrast between the colorful flowers and white, sterile hospital setting seems representative of many of Plath’s poems. Most people would immediately identify with the tulips, those tokens of friendship or love, rather than with the hospital setting itself, but not Plath:

TULIPS

The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Look how white everything is, 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; I have nothing to do with explosions.
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the anaesthetist and my body to surgeons.

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 nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble,
They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps,
Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,
So it is impossible to tell how many there are.

My body is a pebble to them, they tend it as water
Tends to the pebbles it must run over, smoothing them gently.
They bring me numbness in their bright needles, they bring me
sleep.
Now I have lost myself I am sick of baggage-
My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox,
My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;
Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.

I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boat
Stubbornly hanging on to my name and address.
They have swabbed me clear-of my loving associations
Scared and bare on the green plastic-pillowed trolley
I watched my tea-set, 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.

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.

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.
They are subtle: they seem to float, though they weigh me down,
Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their colour,
A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.

Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.
The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,
And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow
Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,
And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.
The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.

Before they came the air was calm enough,
Coming and going, breath by breath, without any fuss.
Then the tulips filled it up like a loud noise.
Now the air snags and eddies round them the way a river
Snags and eddies round a sunken rust-red engine.
They concentrate my attention that was happy
Playing and resting without committing itself.

The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.
The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;
They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,
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.

As in many of the poems in this volume, Plath seems to identify colorful flowers with passion as she does when she says “tulips are too excitable” contrasted with the “peacefulness” she is learning. Of course, one must wonder if she hasn’t also given up the passion of “two lips,” and the “explosions” of emotion that must inevitably follow.

The second stanza almost suggests that the narrator is in a trance, an eyeball between two eyelids that will not shut, but all she sees are their white caps, never quite distinguishing one from the other as they administer sedatives to her. Frighteningly, the narrator seems to crave these sedatives while resisting the many things that remind her of her family, going so far as to compare the families’ smiles to “smiling hooks” that catch on to her skin. Instead of pulling her back to this world, they seem to drive her further into the unconscious world. The third stanza develops this idea further suggesting that the narrator has been cleansed of her “loving associations.” As a result, she feels like a nun, “pure,” instead of lost and isolated.

The next stanza might almost reminds me of meditation, even a zen-like moment of calm reflection, with “hands turned up” and feeling “utterly empty.” The peacefulness of meditation can be “so big it dazes you.” But this moment of peacefulness is transformed into a very different moment by the phrase “it is what the dead close on.” That’s a little too peaceful for my taste.

The fifth stanza connects these red tulips to the “wound” she has suffered in life, even suggesting that they are related to an “awful baby” in the third line. They are like a “dozen red sinkers round my neck” dragging her down, drowning her. The next two stanzas suggest that they “eat” her oxygen, disturbing her breath, concentrating her attention when she was happier “playing and resting without committing” herself.

Finally, the poem closes with the flat statement that: “The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals.” They are dangerous because they make her aware of her heart, which “opens and closes/It’s bowl of red blooms out of sheer love” of her. This final identification makes it clear that it’s not the tulips but her heart, the seat of passion, Plath is really resisting. I’m reminded of Richard Wilbur’s “Love Calls us to the Things of this Earth.”

Although these themes are repeated in a number of poems, particularly motifs of whiteness, blueness, and coldness, “The Moon and the Yew Tree” is one of my favorites because it seems to add the idea of creativity to the mix:

THE MOON AND THE YEW TREE
This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God,
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility.
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.

The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky
Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection.
At the end, they soberly bong out their names.

The yew tree points up. It has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
How I would like to believe in tenderness
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.

I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars.
Inside the church, the saints will be all blue,
Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews,
Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
And the message of the yew tree is blackness-blackness and silence.

Is this the Tree of Life or the Tree of Death that Plath is describing here? Whichever it is, she sees it through a cold, blue, planetary light. It’s obvious because of the headstones and “spirituous mists” that the narrator is standing in a graveyard looking up at the Yew tree and the moon. Standing there, the narrator “simply cannot see where there is to get to.”

It almost seems that she has lost her inspiration. The moon, the symbol of both inspiration and insanity, is “no door,” it provides no ideas of “where there is to get to.” Instead, it is a source of despair, reminding me of Van Gough’s famous painting of despair and insanity. To make matters worse, even the church bells’ ringing reminder of Christ’s Resurrection cannot help redeem the narrator from this despair. It’s almost as if the poet has given herself to the moon, for “the moon is my mother,” and, because she has done so, she is unable to believe in Mary. “How I would like to believe in tenderness/The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,/Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.”

The poet’s muse, the moon, is unforgiving. “She is bald and wild.” And, seen in this light, the “yew tree is blackness—blackness and silence.” The despair of a life that is uninspired, lifeless, and alone.

6 thoughts on “Sylvia Plath’s Chilling Experience

  1. W.r.t. Tulips: One can completely identify with Sylvia if one is what may I call the ‘throes of escapism’? The austere whiteness then, paradoxically, is at once the disease and the only cure. And one feels acute, excruciating, pain, almost physical in its intensity. One is better left alone and without the company of “explosions”, or anything indicative of life. This includes people, close relationships, flowers, etc…
    Great write, Mr. Loren.

  2. I feel that Plath takes us directly into the psyche of her female protagonist, somewhat confused about her secreative powers which are displayed when she muses, with prognostic vision, to revive the realm of White Goddess by identifying herself with her.

  3. I invite your readers to submit something to Plath Profiles, a journal devoted to Plath. Just Google Plath Profiles and take a look. We publish essays, notes, poetry, art, book reviews, and
    responses to the site—wkb, editor
    Plath Profiles

What do you think?