Sylvia Plath, a Pulitzer Prize winning American poet, produced some of the most intriguing poetry in literature. Like so many talented artists, Plath struggled emotionally and psychologically most of her life. From a sinking marriage to unfulfilled relationships, she seldom found happiness.
Plath, brilliant in her stylized writing, suffered from depression throughout her adult life. Her first documented suicide attempt was around 20. She took sleeping pills. About a year before her death, she had a car accident that looked as though she had intentionally run into a tree. Finally, in October of 1963, at the age of 30, Plath was found in her kitchen with her head in the oven, dead by carbon monoxide poisoning. A month before her death, Plath described the quality of her despair as "owl's talons clenching my heart."
"Poppies in October," ironically was written on Plath's last birthday before her death. In this strange poem, Plath through vibrant imagery and unusual sentence structure exploits the images of the beautiful poppy in October, which oddly does not normally bloom then. Initially, the reader must ponder which action to follow--the scene in the ambulance or the narrator in her distraction.
The poem begins with a woman who is bleeding so profusely that it can be seen through her coat:
...the woman in the ambulance
Whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly
To the narrator (probably Plath), the woman's wound is like a gift, not asked for but given. The woman's death is prevented by the men wearing hats and driving off (probably) toward the hospital. Remembering that suicide is ever present for Plath, it is no surprise that she cries out to God. She, like the poppy, is out of place in the early frost and the blooming flowers.
Written in free verse, the language is scant and trimmed of any unnecessary words. The narrator sees the scene, briefly reflects on it, and realizes that the woman has been saved. Each word has been carefully chosen and placed strategically to make her point.
In her later writing, Plath used flowers to develop her themes. Although she does not specifically mention the poppy in her poem, she does, however, mention the cornflower. The poppy blooms in many colors, but the most recognized is red. The dark blue pollen of the poppy relates to the cornflower, whose color is blue. Poppies have long been used as a symbol of death and sleep: the opium extracted from the poppy can bring both results. In Greek myths, poppies were used as offerings to the dead. Interestingly, in contrast, the cornflower has healing qualities, often used in hebal medicine. Plath unites the red addictiveness of the poppy to the blue soothing and healing qualities of the cornflower.
The poem offers insight into Plath's emotional state. The flowers represent splashes of vibrancy and life, addressed by the pale and plaintive narrator who cries to God for the gift of death. The petals of the poppy are arranged like the folds of the feminine skirt. The poppy brings sleep and even death. Yet, the cornflower offers healing. Hearing an inhuman call from nature, she is drawn to that call rather than the human call of distress from the woman in the ambulance.
The narrator seems almost paranoid in her reaction to the scene: dull eyes, open mouths, men with unseen faces, crying out to an unseen God. Add this to the actuality of Plath's death from carbon monoxide poisoning, and dramatic irony abounds. The poem "Poppies in October" calls out to be read again and again.