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Analysis of Poem "Tulips" by Sylvia Plath

Updated on April 29, 2017
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath | Source

Sylvia Plath and Tulips

Tulips, written in 1961, is a poem that deals with Sylvia Plath's state of being whilst in hospital for an appendectomy. She initially named it Sickroom Tulips in Hospital but shortened the title later on. Critics think it played an important role as a precursor to Plath's novel The Bell Jar, as both speaker and protagonist seek the pureness of death.

The use of flowers as symbols of exterior life and of the heart is found in several of Plath's poems, notably Nick and the Candlestick and Poppies in October. Tulips focuses in dramatic fashion on the sickroom space where the patient (the speaker, Sylvia Plath) is resting.

There is a subtle tension introduced from the opening line, perhaps reflecting the poet's emotional uncertainty and fear - just weeks earlier she suffered a miscarriage - and this theme is carried on right through to the end.

The speaker is quite happy with the peaceful, white surroundings of the sickroom but is tortured somewhat when the 'excitable' tulips arrive, with their loud noise and mouths like that of some great African cat.

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 anesthetist 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 teaset, 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 color,
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.

Analysis of Tulips

What is unusual about Tulips is the fact that all nine stanzas are separate units, they're all end stopped, something Sylvia Plath must have thought hard about as she often employed enjambment in her poems, between stanzas.

Perhaps the separation reflects the distinct and strict routines the speaker must have experienced in hospital as the nurses go about their business. Enjambment does occur quite frequently within each stanza; this helps to vary the length of line and sub-clause and so brings interest to the reader, and helps break up the monotony of regular rhythm within each stanza.

  • There is no set meter (metre in UK) although a subtle iambic current takes the flow along at times. This poem is therefore in free verse because there is no set rhyme scheme either. The poet has purposefully varied the line length to reflect the exceptional situation the speaker is in. Could this be the body trapped in each stanza yet the mind is free to roam within?

Simile and metaphor occur:

Like an eye (line 90

like a black pillbox (line 19)

like an awful baby (line 38)

like a loud noise (line 52)

like the mouth of (line 59)

My body is a pebble (line 15)

I am a nun now (line 28)

a cut-paper shadow (line 46)

More Analysis

Imagery

Tulips is full of vivid imagery, typical of Sylvia Plath, a master of what might be called the visual line. Each stanza builds up a stage scene, from the initial peaceful, white walls of the hospital room, to the loud, excitable tulips who remind the speaker of open mouthed African cats.

Color (colour in UK) plays an important role in this poem and adds to the deeply emotional feelings the speaker experiences. White is chosen as a symbol of peace, virginity and winter - and eventually death. The red of the tulips represents the life-force, from that of a carnivore to the bodily wound, the surfacing of blood.

Further Analysis

With touches of hyperbole and the inclusion of metaphor and simile the poet skilfully draws the reader in as the character of the speaker develops. The first line sets the scene for the whole poem, the contrast being that of life and death, warm blood and cold atmosphere, red and white, pain and peace, attachment and freedom.

  • Note the first person present tense - the reader is directly involved with this hospital patient from the first stanza, and the 'relationship' deepens as the poem moves on. With a distinct echo of Emily Dickinson the fifth line's 'I am nobody' sums up the speaker's feelings as they lay in bed, having given up all to the hospital staff.

There follows throughout the poem this idea that the speaker feels herself to be inanimate - a nobody, like an eye, or pebble, or cargo boat, or nun and finally a cut-paper shadow. And in contrast, the tulips have arrived to re-animate life and return the speaker to the world of blood, flesh and tears.

Sylvia Plath's poetic life is one long battle between these two forces, the oblivion of death and the responsibility of life.

Tulips, though packed with imagery and symbolism, is a relatively straightforward attempt to understand these opposing energies.

  • Each stanza has critical points of interest for the reader. The second stanza for example introduces the eye. As the speaker is propped up in bed she becomes the stupid pupil, a pun on the word pupil, a part of the eye but also a student who is learning how to accept the peacefulness of her strange situation.

The nurses are dressed in white reminding the speaker of seagulls, an odd association - perhaps it's the way they drift along on the air currents, from the sea inland to another place.

  • In the third stanza the speaker's body becomes a pebble, a tiny thing, washed over again and again by the nursing staff. This induces a feeling of smoothness which is further deepened by the numbness of the needle and the anaesthetic, bringing sleep, loss of consciousness.

Note the word baggage, to be understood in the literal sense and also the figurative, the emotional baggage attached to things and people, in particular the family. How odd that the smiling husband and child are seen as little hooks, suggestive of painful attachment.

  • And the intense imagery continues to invade the reader's sensibility in the fourth stanza. The speaker sees herself as a cargo boat, drowning in the watery care she's receiving, laden down as the anaesthetic begins to take effect. She's still conscious enough to think of the tea-set and linen and books but she's also now fully immersed, submerged, cleansed of all impurities, a nun.

This use of the word nun, associated with sacrifice, virginity and religious duty, suggests that the speaker longs for a return to this state of purity.

More Analysis of Tulips - Fifth Stanza

The fifth stanza is a turning point in the poem as the speaker intensifies the personal experience by declaring that she didn't want the flowers at all, all she wanted was the feeling of absolute peace and with it the profound sense of freedom.

Note the change in language and delivery in line thirty three - the speaker directly involving the reader with the phrase you have no idea how free - and the fascinating scenario put forward in lines thirty four and thirty five, involves the dead swallowing a Communion tablet, rather strange and even a bit morbid, but again focusing on a religious aspect, that of the Catholic relating to Christ.

More Analysis

  • Stanza six is unusual in that each line focuses on the all important and harmful tulips, their redness hurting, their ability to communicate disturbing. The tulips are becoming stronger and taking on a life of their own.

They are likened to an awful baby, they float and yet weigh heavily on the speaker's heart and soul.

The admission that the redness of the flowers actually corresponds to the speaker's wound is a revelation. This could be the wound caused by the surgeons as they fix her appendix, connected to the wounds of Christ, and the wounds of childbirth.

  • Stanza seven continues this theme of the tulips gaining force, becoming life-like. They are now watching the speaker as she loses her own identity, as the light shines in and she is caught between the two opposing worlds. The tulips are with her and against her, even if she wants to get rid of herself. They eat her oxygen and she wants to resist the whole life-affirming process these flowers represent.
  • Stanza eight concentrates on the medium of air thickening into a fluid - water again - disturbing the calm and peaceful atmosphere that the speaker was resting in. It seems the red is too loud and she cannot ignore this vibrant, forceful energy.
  • Stanza nine sees the tulips fully formed, rather, transformed into animals. The flowers become a terrifying and dangerous entity, so hot blooded the walls are heating up. The speaker's imagination goes wild, inventing the mouth of an African cat and at the same time picturing her own heart opening and closing in its attempts to reaffirm life. Note the symbol of the bowl of blooms.

At the end the water isn't covering the head of the speaker any longer, nor is she drowning. She can only taste it, it is salty like the sea and reminds her of somewhere far away, the land of the living, wherein resides health.


© 2017 Andrew Spacey

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