Plath wrote this poem after going through an appendectomy at the hospital. The poem was originally named ‘Sickroom Tulips in Hospital’ but she later shortened it. Within this piece, she taps into themes that are common in her work: death, and the pureness of death, confinement, and illness/sickness.
The speaker, who is most certainly Sylvia Plath, goes back and forth between a tone of peace and concern. She comments on the best moments of her time in the hospital and how they were ruined by the arrival of the tulips. Now, she is more frantic and much more bothered than she wanted to be. The poet is reminded of life, her own heart, and the fact that she hasn’t quite escaped either yet.
Summary of Tulips
The poem begins with the speaker noting the arrival of red tulips in her hospital room. While for some these would be welcome, for Plath they are a shocking and brutal reminder of a world she’d like to forget. That is, the world of life. She had grown used to the white purity of the space she resided it. It took her as close to death as she’d ever gotten. The nurses, also in white, allowed her to slip beneath the sea on a wave of anesthetic while she got her procedure. This is a state she longs her, one that allows her to let go of her baggage and be free.
But, now that the tulips are there, that’s all over. They remind her of her wound, from her appendectomy, but also her mental wounds. They’re loud, constantly breathing and reminding her that she’s still alive. As the poem progresses the tulips become more stressful and all-consuming. They are the focus of the room and all that she can see by the end.
The poem concludes with an image of the poet’s heart trying desperately to save her, out of “sheer love” for her. She is reminded of land, far away, that she used to inhabit. It was one of health and life.
Structure of Tulips
‘Tulips’ by Sylvia Plath is a nine-stanza poem that is separated into sets of seven lines. These lines are written in free verse. This means that they do not conform to a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, this does not mean they are entirely without either. It is in the vast majority of poems that a close reader can find important examples of half-rhyme, as well as other poetic techniques, that create the feeling of both rhyme and rhythm.
Half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, “quietly” and “these” in lines three and four of the first stanza. In the fourth line of that same stanza, there is another example with “light,” “lies,” and “white”.
Later on in the poem, a reader finds more examples, such as “empty” and “free” in lines two and three of stanza five as well as “me” and “breathe” in stanza six, lines one and two.
Poetic Techniques in Tulips
Plath makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Tulips’. These include, but are not limited to, simile, metaphor, imagery, enjambment, and personification. The latter is one of the most obvious techniques at work in ‘Tulips’. It can be seen in the first line of the first stanza as well as on several occasions throughout the rest of the poem.
It occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. She speaks of the tulips in the first line as being “too excitable”. This is a comment on their colour in relation to everything else around her. Another important example comes from stanza six. The lines read: “they hurt me. / Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe / Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby”.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. There are several examples in this poem. These include “white walls” in line four of the first stanza and “fuss” and “filled” in lines one and two of the eighth stanza.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For instance, the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza and one and two of the third.
Similes and metaphors are an important part of this piece. Both of these techniques are examples of figurative language. They allow the poet to express something beyond the explicit. She can explore less obvious emotions and how she connects bits of the world together. For example, at the beginning of the third stanza, Plath uses a metaphor.
A metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. It can be seen when she says “My body is a pebble to them”. The “them” she’s referring to are the nurses who tend to her.
In the following lines, she adds in a simile. A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. In this case, she says the nurses “they tend [her body] as water / Tends to the pebbles it must run over, smoothing them gently”.
Imagery refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. There are numerous examples one could cite in ‘Tulips’ to show the impact that well-crafted imagery can have on the narrative and on the reader. One of these examples comes from the fourth stanza where Plath uses the image of a cargo boat and the sea to describe slipping into the numbness of anesthetic.
Analysis of Tulips
The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.(…)I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nursesAnd my history to the anesthetist and my body to surgeons.
In the first stanza of ‘Tulips’ Plath makes a clear and intriguing statement. She uses personification to describe the tulips in her hospital room as “too excitable”. They shouldn’t be that way, it’s the wrong time of year for it. As if trying to make her point to the flowers, she points out how “white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in”. She is confined in this whiteness, that of the hospital room but also that of the outside world. The red tulips are bright, bold, and juxtaposed against the atmosphere of the room, as well as that of her mind.
Where she rests in the room is peaceful to her, she explains. She was learning, while confined to the room after surgery, how to find peacefulness. The word “quiet” is used again in the third line, as is “white” in the fourth. These are the two main images that make up this first stanza.
She glances around her, taking in the walls, the bed, her hands. Everything is quiet and still. There is an example of alliteration in lines three and four with “learning” and “light lies” as well as “white walls”. She asserts in the next lines that in these moments of peace she is “nobody”. She is not involved in anything dramatic, powerful, or world-altering. Plath does simple things while others take care of her and manipulate her body.
They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuffLike an eye between two white lids that will not shut.(…)Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,So it is impossible to tell how many there are.
In the second stanza, Plath goes through the mundanity of her life, the care the nurses take or don’t take, with her and what she notes about her surroundings. She uses a simile to describe her position on the bed in lines one and two of this stanza. Her head is like “an eye between two white lids that will not shut”. Plath, like the “stupid pupil…has to take everything in”. The word “pupil” is an example of a pun. It refers to the eye, but also to a student. In this case, one who can’t learn.
This is a comment on her own ability to be and feel peaceful in these moments. It also alludes to some of the larger complications in Plath’s life, those that led to her eventual suicide.
In the following lines, she compares the movements of the nurses as they pass her to “gulls” that “pass inland their white caps”. They have the same whiteness as the walls, the bed, the pillows, and everything else around her. They merge, one into the next, not one of them has a distinguishing feature that helps her count how many there might be.
My body is a pebble to them, they tend it as waterTends to the pebbles it must run over, smoothing them gently.(…)My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.
In the third stanza, Plath begins with a metaphor. She says that to the nurses her body is a “pebble”. They tend to her as “water / Tends to the pebbles it must run over”. It smooths the stones out, just as the nurses smooth her into numbness with their needles. This is part of the peace that she is finding. They “bring [her] sleep”.
The “baggage” that Plath refers to in the next lines is her emotional baggage, as well as her physical. Her “husband and child” are the most important of these references. They are attached to her skin as “little smiling hooks”. This is a complex and disturbing image of familial relationships. They’re pulling at her painfully. This might represent her obligation, her guilt, or any other part of the relationship that feels unresolved or that she feels she hasn’t been successful at.
I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boatstubbornly hanging on to my name and address.(…)Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head.I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.
The fourth stanza uses another powerful metaphor to depict the poet as a “cargo boat”. She is thirty, but she has been stubborn in that which she’s held onto. This refers to her “name and address” which are likely posted on her bed. These things identify her and are all that’s left when she is “swabbed” clear of her “loving associations”.
As a cargo boat, and while continuing the image of water and its powers, Plath describes sinking into the anesthetic while watching her life move away from her. She is thinking about simple things, like her books and teaset. They “sink out of sight” and the water consumes her. She is “pure” in a way she never has been before. The purity is in the cleanliness of her mind. All the bits she might normally think about are washed away. She compares this state to be a nun.
I didn’t want any flowers, I only wantedTo lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.(…)It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine themShutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet.
The fifth stanza brings the poem back around to the tulips that were mentioned briefly in the first stanza. These lines reference death, specifically the purity and peacefulness of it. She didn’t want to these loud, bright flowers, or the shock they brought her. She wanted to remain in the quiet whiteness of the room and what it represented to her.
There is freedom in death, being “utterly empty” is appealing to her. A reader should note the change in the third line of this stanza. She acknowledges “you,” the reader.
One element that appeals to her about it is that it “asks nothing”. In the last lines she speaks about the dead, religion, and what it is like to finally have their peace. She uses the image of the dead “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(…)
Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color,A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.
The tulips, she reemphasizes, are “too red in the first place”. She sues personification again to describe how they “hurt her”. They are then compared to breathing babies that make noise through their gift paper. This “white swaddling” resembles that in which one would wrap a child.
The poet makes a connection between the brutal redness of the flowers and that of her wound. It is this that she’s trying to escape. It is on the other side of the equation, juxtaposed against the white of the room and the numbness the nurses give her to ease the pain. The red tulips remind her of reality, life, and all that “weigh[s her] down”. The red color of the flowers is then compared to “tongues” and “red lead sinkers”. These take the reader back to the water imagery and her description of herself as a cargo boat.
She is being drowned, and not in the way she’d like, by the sinkers. This should remind one of the smiling hooks she used to describe her husband and child.
Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me(…)And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.
The tulips become very foreboding and lifelike in this stanza. They watch her as no one has watched her before. They “turn to [her]”. This allows her the opportunity to describe herself physically and mentally, as she sees herself in the window. The light, which thins and widens one a day casts her as “flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow”. She is thin, without substance, and caught between two sides. She is on one side pinned up against the “eye of the sun” and on the other “the eyes of the tulips”.
The tulips and the sun both represent life and the world beyond the witness of the room and the numbness she is seeking. She wants to “efface” herself and remove herself from that world but it’s not that easy.
Before they came the air was calm enough,Coming and going, breath by breath, without any fuss.(…)They concentrate my attention, that was happyPlaying and resting without committing itself.
At the beginning of the eighth stanza, the speaker reminds the reader of the way that the tulips transformed the atmosphere of the room when they “came”. It was peaceful and breathing was easy. There was no fuss. But, the “tulips filled it up like a loud noise”. Now, she has to contend with it all the time. The “air snags and eddies round them”. She is constantly drawn to them, so much so it feels as if everything in the room is as well. This is another example of water as an important symbol of life and death in ‘Tulips’.
Her attention, which was once drifting peacefully and freely, is now focused. They supply her with a focal point that she didn’t want.
The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;(…)The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,And comes from a country far away as health.
The ninth stanza of the poem is also focused on the tulips. They, very much personified at this point, are “warming themselves”. They are “dangerous animals” trapped behind bars. One knows that eventually they are going to get free and someone is going to get hurt. The similes are continued when the poet describes them as “opening like the mouth” of a large cat. Her imagination is powerful, even more so now that they are the main focus of the room and her peace is behind her.
The image of the tulips, and how she sees them opening and closing, remind her of her heart. It “opens and closes” trying to hang onto a life that her mind no longer wants. It tries to save her, “out of sheer love for [her]”.
The final line of the poem takes the reader once more back to the water. It is still around her, metaphorically, and she can taste it. It’s receding and as it moves past her mouth it makes her think of the sea and another world she used to belong to—one of life and health.