A poem which reflects an aspect of human behaviour is ‘Tulips’ by Sylvia Plath. The aspect of human behaviour that this poem reveals is depression and it does so through illness. This essay will discuss how Sylvia Plath’s use of techniques such as; similes, word choice, imagery and tone, help the reader understand depression.
‘Tulips’ by Sylvia Plath is a poem about a depressed woman in hospital. She receives some tulips as a get well gift and rejects them, just as she rejects life. The poem walks us through her varying emotions to bring about a greater appreciation for depression in the readers.
Throughout the poem, Plath links colours to objects to convey how the narrator is feeling. The aggressive red tulips interrupt her calm stay in the hospital.
“It is winter here.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.
I am learning peacefulness”
This shows the hospital to be a quite peaceful place where she can relax. However, she has “two white lids that will not shut”. This implies that she is pale skinned and is ill or dying. When we think about white, “as the light lies on these white walls” we think of blank, emptiness. She feels empty, like nobody cares about her. She wants to “be utterly empty” as she believes it will bring her freedom, peacefulness and tranquillity. These symbolic uses of colour help explore the narrator’s desire to be free. This shows how depression, as an aspect of human nature, is affecting her.
Sylvia Plath then goes on to talk about how the red the tulips don’t belong with her.
“The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me”
The connotations of red are evil, anger and depression but are also warmth and love. She sees the tulips as a warm, happy bunch of flowers. This makes her feel angry as she is depressed and wants to be left alone. The tulips make her feel worse than usual as they are red like the heart and blood – full of life – unlike herself. Sylvia uses the words “too red” to imply that the narrator is jealous of the tulips. They are allowed to be happy while she merely slips away. The redness of the tulips is a contradiction to her white state of emptiness. The red is the danger of life, and the white is the safeness of death. This deepens my understanding of depression because the simple gesture of a gift of flowers can have such horrible or scary repercussions. Living with depression must be really hard if every little thing can make you fell scared, ill, frightened, angry and upset.
There is an extended metaphor running through many verses of the poem. She mentions that the “gulls pass inland” which is the sea gulls flying back to the nests on shore.
In this extended metaphor the poet uses the line:
“My body is a pebble”
This shows how the narrator is getting worn away. Just as stones on the beach get smoothed, weathered and worn away by the water flowing so she is getting worn down. She also mentions her possessions sinking; “I watched my teaset... sink out of sight and the water went over my head”. The sea is vast, endless and calm. These are the things she believes death can offer her, not the brash, bold redness of the tulips. She is using the sea to oppose the tulips. It is peaceful. It’s a calm part of her mind where everything is just the way nature intended it to be.
All through the poem there are words or phrases that make you see just how depressed she really is. The most powerful way is through the personification of the tulips.
“The tulips are too excitable... their redness talks to my wound”
This shows that the narrator must be feeling miserable as an inanimate object is happier than she is. This shows the pain she feels looking at life, a life than she can’t have, a fun-filled enjoyable life.
“The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.”
The oxygen in the room is the only part of life she has to hold onto. The tulips steal her oxygen, therefore suffocating her and taking away all remaining life from her. She mentions that she can “hear them breathe”, this further personifies the tulips and emphasises how she feels as though they are taking the life from her lungs.
Her anger starts to rise for the tulips and this shows her depression reaching its climax.
“The tulips should be behind bars, like dangerous animals”
The tulips are portrayed as a frightening creature – a monster that she cannot escape from. The narrator is scared of the tulips. They have invaded her space and won’t leave her alone. She didn’t want flowers. She wanted to be empty and alone and to slip away without any fuss. The flowers jump at her, full of life, the opposite of what she is. They flaunt life in her face, knowing it is something she will never have again.
In conclusion, I believe the poem ‘Tulips’ by Sylvia Plath effectively deals with depression. It makes the reader feel sympathetic towards the narrator. It must be horrible to barely live life, to be holding on at the finest edges, scraping through a pain-filled, worthless life. Death, to this narrator would feel like the answer. It is her peaceful escape.
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Poetry Analysis/ Discussion
With regard to the person extolling Wordsworth's mental health vs. Plath's illness (mental/physical), I would refer him to this book: Stephen Gill's William Wordsworth: A Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989 which talks of Wordsworth's "unnatural desire" for his own sister. Wordsworth's "Lucy" poems, according to his friend Coleridge, were a purging of his sexual attraction & romantic desire for his sister. Of course, only the poet knew what his true feelings were. However, it's best not to stand back from hundreds of years & pronounce one poet brilliant & sane, then condemn a modern poet for being "raving."
Plath, indeed, suffered melancholic & manic illnesses. She had very poor physical health, strep throat repeatedly, high fevers, exhuastion & so forth. When Hughes left her, she was caring alone for 2 very young children during London's worst blizzard in decades. It is no wonder she killed herself in a fit of depression. She did, however, think to save her beloved children by sealed off their room to protect them from the gas, and putting milk & bread in their rooms. "Tulips" is to me a plea from all ill persons to be left alone, to be allowed quiet for healing. Whether from a physical illness or mental, hospitals are too often noisy, with people who feel they ought to visit coming unwillingly, leaving token gifts like bright red tulips, which tell of feigned empathy. No one who is depression-free can possibly understand what Plath was going through. It is offensive to read words condemning her as "raving" rather than a gifted poet who suffered a difficult life.
Longmont , USA
Friday, April 7, 2006
Having been through miscarriage, motherhood...the whole sorted deal I can say honestly that SP's one "true spontaneous" poem (as described by her late husband) truly captures the weight we - as mothers - feel. The blood-red, full-of-life tulips she describes are a deep, disconcerting insult to her inner pain. Here is a woman, bereft of herself...her vision of what she SHOULD feel as a mother. The "hooks" she speeks of tug hard at you. You want to live for your children, for your husband, for your supposed "purpose"...these are what the tulips represent. But despite their lively color, their "noise" you find yourself drifting away, running away from this "African animal".
I find it interesting that while she contemplated her last day, unable to even care for herself, alone in the knowledge that she would end her life...that she took time to prepare a small breakfast for her children, and to safely secure their door with tape so they wouldn't succumb to the gas from the kitchen. This is motherhood in its truest form.
Thursday, November 3 , 2005
Sylvia Plath is known to be a poet who begins by writing descriptive poetry, but soon allows her nihilistic thought processes to take over. Her melancholia influences her to develop a dark fascination for death and liberation. She is caught between a desire to move towards absolute freedom and purity that lies in death symbolised by the hospital with its white walls, white caps, and the living world of colour represented by the vibrant tulips. This poem portrays the vividly described complex imageries that unfold her state of mind - the tug of war between a desire to free herself from the bondage of loved ones, duties and responsibilities as a poet, a wife and mother - from life itself and the desire to accept reality as it is. After reading such poetry one wonders how it is possible for a sick mind to create such wonderful work of art!
Saturday, August 14, 2004
At the time, Plath was dealing with the grand struggle of the modern woman: having a successful career, or being a good wife and mother. She wanted both, and this poem reflects her need to deal with the pressures of society trying to tell her that she could not have both; that she needed to have children and be a mother to fulfil her duties. She calls herself a "thirty-yrear-old cargo boat" and says she has let things slip. She had just had a miscarriage, thus she is saying that she has failed her mission on earth. Indeed, what use is a cargo boat if it has dropped its cargo? This being said, the rest of the poem seems to make a lot of sense. It seems, to me, that this poem is split into two: the white half and the red half. The red half is when the speaker in her empty fantasy, which she is enjoying, as one can tell from her anger at the interruption of the red tulips. Everything in this first half is referred to as white, snow is mentioned, purity is mentioned, and the communion tablet (meaning purity) is mentioned. These images are significant; the speaker is feeling cleansed and absolved of her social duties, and is quite happy, or rather, quite indifferent to not feel society's pressure. This emptyness starts to fade away as she sees her family's photo. The speaker calls the smiles of her husband and child in the picture, "smiling hooks", showing her intense desire to remain uninterrupted. Later, she mentions how she did not want any flowers, only to be uninterrupted. This is when the poem starts to turn red.
The red part of the poem is almost painful to read. Plath's imagery and diction in these stanzas makes the reader feel almost exactly what she is going through. She says the tulips were too red, and we agree. She begins to describe the tulips as animals, and in a twisted metaphorical way she describes as the tulips breathe under gift wrap, (the sound imagery here, although unwritten, is very disturbing, as the crinkling of the paper as they breathe seems ominous, as the breathing noises in modern films do), how they turn towards her, (also quite ominous), how the tulips speak to her, ever-taunting, and eat her oxygen. She claims they should be shut away in a cage like wild, dangerous animals. Tulips? Shut away? The irony at first glance is intense, but fades away as one realizes the bitterness of the speaker towards these flowers is for a good reason. Her prior white emptiness has been ruined by these flowers; the redness of them (blood imagery) have brought her snapping back into memories of her miscarriage. She has failed her duty and is once again reminded of it. Curiously, she mentions how the flowers are "red lead sinkers round my neck". This directional imagery, in this case downwards, shows negativity and her real depression. In this way, the severe red of the tulips, interestingly enough given to her apparently by her own husband, has reminded her of her former self, and the social pressures that are her life.
Tuesday, December 16, 2003
This is the first Sylvia Plath poem that I have ever read but it sems to me that the Tulips represent "hope."
Sunday, November 30, 2003
Tulips is a very intense poem full of images and meanings. Plath had truly written the poem that represents a depressed mind, be it her or not. One thing is troubling me though, I can't seem to find the true and accepted symbol of the tulips. Tulips must be a representation of something more than just a societal gift of good will for patients but must have a deeper meaning in terms of its functions and connotations. The Tulips reflects greatly on Plath's life.
Sunday, October 5, 2003
This poem is the best of Sylvia Plath's I have read so far. It is obvious to the reader that she is depressed and that she hates tulips. she is angry at the tulips for making her happy. she is ready to die but the tulips are waking her up. they are disturbing her peace. all she wants to do is die and rest in peace and wants to put them behind bars. she tries to get rid of the tulips by drowning, but they are still there. It makes me sick to think of tulips after reading this poem, although that's not the point, but she has been through a lot of pain and you would think the least that could be done is leave her alone.
Hyde Park, USA
Sunday, January 12, 2003
This poem is one of my favorites because it talks about feelings with a core of depth that is remarkably apt at stepping away from one perspective yet acknowledging enough bias to be immersed in the unity of a confirmed opinion. Its imagery is never soggy and speaks more crisply than a diary--here refinement reigns. Yet a journal's characteristic frame of doubt is living in this poem. In particular I admire the work's description and how it evokes intensity without an urge to over-tell. Right now I am reading The Unabridged Journals and find it fitting to comment that SP the muse and poet was a philosopher as well. Her thinking fueled intellectual curiosity that merged with a sensitivity-infused soul to mold great poetry.
Milwaukee, WI, USA
Tuesday, December 31, 2002
Tulips was really a great poem. I am in 11 th grade. When i read through it the first time I didnt really understand. But after reading what a lot of people wrote it really helped me understand what the poem was about. It was nice to read peoples different persepctives of what they thought. Thanks
Monday, November 18, 2002
What can be made from the idea of "oxygen"- a substance vital for life. Why does the persona wish to have her own oxygen back when it will only keep her alive (while she desires peaceful death)? It appears that the tulips are taking her life away while at the same time are ironically representing life. Perhaps she is trying to show how she feels about her situation life - forced into it then overcome/beaten by it. I would like to give her a hug
Auckland, New Zealand
Tuesday, November 12, 2002
I'm 17 and currently studying Sylvia Plath in year 12 literature. I have found this sight very helpful; it is always interesting to read other people's interpretations and insights. Below is my interpretation; a short analysis of one of my favourite Plath poems, 'Tulips':
Tulips signifies the commencement of Plaths psychological journey of searching for her true identity and purpose in life. The opening lines of Tulips evoke a sense of calmness through such images as winter, white and snowed-in. Plath sees herself as nobody, having shut herself off to the outside world: I have nothing to do with explosions. The act of surrendering her name, belongings and body implies that she has rejected her identity and effectively erased herself from the world in an effort to find internal peace.
The following stanza sees Plath reduce herself to an object, a stupid pupil, watching, learning and admiring the efficiency and order of the nurses. Her body is a pebble to them as they smooth out her problems and cleanse her as gently as water. They bring her numbness in their bright needles, allowing her to disengage from reality and loose herself. An extended pause is followed by a decrease in the rhythm, as Plath catches sight of mementos of reality. Her overnight case reminds her that this state of numbness is only temporary and that commitments and expectations await her at home, whilst the smiles of the husband and child out of the family photo/catch onto [her] skin and conjure up feelings of guilt for detaching herself from the aforementioned commitments and expectations.
Plath perceives herself as a cargo-boat; battered, loaded up and carrying everything and is completely exhausted from doing so. Fleeing her responsibilities she becomes purified: I am a nun, symbolising her rebirth and allowing her to remove herself from her responsibilities. A change in tone: I didnt want any flowers emphasises Plaths desire to escape normality and routines, whilst the religious connotations of my hands turned up promotes an image of peace and tranquillity. Plath utilises the metaphor of an awful baby to illustrate that the tulips are a constant reminder of the responsibilities that she is hiding from. Their sudden tongues and colour are a reminder of life, which Plath sees as a burden in the heavily accented line: A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.
The tone becomes paranoid as the tulips turn to [Plath] and she sees herself from their point of view: flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow. The tulips embody how Plath believes she is viewed from the apparently conspiratorial outside world; constantly watched and judged, and she has a concurrent fear of being criticised. The rhythm increases as Plath begins to compete with the tulips, who eat her oxygen, to remain anaesthetised. Before they came the air was calm enough insinuates that the arrival of the tulips and the visit from her family has woken her from her numbness and brought her back to the realities of life which she is not prepared to confront yet.
Despite her objections Plath has allowed the beauty, warmth and life of the tulips to touch her soul. In contrast to the first stanza, the white walls are now warming themselves, and she becomes aware of her heart as it opens and closes its bowl of red blooms. It is here that Plath reclaims herself and embarks on her final plunge into self-purification: The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea/ And comes from a country far away as health. She accepts the realisation that the state she is in is only temporary and is content in the knowledge that she will have to eventually return to reality.
Wednesday, October 9, 2002
I've read all the postings on this site, and amazingly, not one posting has criticised this poem.Maybe all the older readers can 'read meaning' into this poem(I'm 16), but I firmly believe that poetry must be simple, easy to understand and from the heart.Sylvia Plath's poem only achieves the last of the three criteria.
I view this poem as the irrational ravings of a sick woman- Plath had a very sad life- and the only excuse that I can imagine for this piece of literature is that it was written when she was actually in hospital, not just from her hospital memories, and she was hence not completely in her senses at the time.Several people have had miscarriages and operations, yet no one has felt threatened by tulips.Further, why should tulips ' be behind bars like dangerous animals'? Irrational metaphors and vague statements are no substitute for poetic gift.
By 'poetic gift', I mean true poets, such as William Wordsworth, or Robert Frost, whose words flow from one to another, even in blank verse.
Contrast The following extract from 'Tulips' with 'Written while Sailing in a Boat at Evening' by Wordsworth.
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.
'Written while sailing in a boat at evening'(Wordsworth):
HOW richly glows the water's breast
Before us, tinged with evening hues,
While, facing thus the crimson west,
The boat her silent course pursues!
And see how dark the backward stream!
A little moment past so smiling!
And still, perhaps, with faithless gleam,
Some other loiterers beguiling.
Does poetry have to be hidden under lines and lines of vague ravings and obscure meanings to be praised?Come on, you know better than that.
Tuesday, July 9, 2002
What a very beautifully written poem! I 100% enjoy TULIPS and any of the Slyvia Plath's poems, they are so thought provoking and as I am doing Literature for my A-LEVEL I totaly and completely find her poems as a key to my success during my exams. I belive that reading her poems and fully understanding them can prepare you to being able to analyze any poems as her poems are intellectually written. But it is not easy to understand Sylvia Plath's poems, if you are a student like me then I advise you to read her poems (in general any others) twice or more before you can state the subject of the poem.
Thursday, December 13, 2001
ALthough this is only the second of the poems that I have read by Sylvia Plath, I have to admit, so far, I have not been disappointed. The rich imagery that she utilises in her poems is as much captivating as it is intruiging. Both the poems that I have read by Plath are filled with layers of meaning that leave the reader thinking and analysing her poetry for hours on end. Tulips especially is, to me, a beautiful poem in which Plath really expresses her self. The contrast between the dull, dreary hospital room against the Tulips which are beautiful and colourful really stands out, making the poem a unique work of art to which no other can compare to.
Thursday, December 13, 2001
Even though Plath had a miscarriage just before writing this poem, be careful not to fall into the trap that I myself first fell into, not every poem writen relates to a part of her life. Tulips may well be writen to broadcast her feeling of emptiness after losing her baby, but try to eliminate immediate thoughts of a personal link between her words and her life. My thoughts on this poem are that she is resenting how full of life the tulips are in comparison to herself, maybe it is winter making her feel low, I know it makes me feel bad at times. If we read too much into what the poem is about we may find ourselves missing out on the true beauty of her poetry.Maybe I'm right, maybe Im not, all I know is that Plath is an amazing writer who had a sad adult life, but let this not be the underlying base for all her poems.
Wednesday, November 14, 2001
I have to admit that I never liked Plath's poetry when I studied it in high school, but now at university I have grown to like it because I know understand it. Tulips is so beautiful and open, it makes my think and my life. Truely one of the best poems ever written.
Friday, November 10, 2000
Plath is not refering to her "awful baby" she is refering to the tulips intrusion on her world. This poem was written after she had a miscarriage, and she is associating the two experiences in hospital to one another. she is seeing the white hospital as somewhere she can go unnoticed, where everything is inanimate, and free of life. The tulips are colourful and they "breathe", invading the white hospital and bringing life to it.
Sunday, October 29, 2000
I personally think that Sylvia Plath was the greastest woman of all time, she was both talented and brave. I admire all of her works and I am currently studying her life and works for my A levels and it has been the most interesting aspect of my course and Ive loved every minute of it. And I think this thoughts and comments box is an excellent idea for people to express their thoughts of such an excellent woman.!!!!!!
Thursday, September 14, 2000
Sylvia Plaths poem 'Tulips' is a hazy, inner observation of the expectations thrown upon the speaker as a mother and a wife. In hospital, shortly after Frieda's birth during her appendectomy - this poem could be described as an imagined dialogue between woman and tulip. Throughout this poem there is a constant image of water; "gulls", " they tend it as water", "cargo boat" "sink out of sight", the majority being positive. Particularly because water is a relatively peaceful image. The poem is a reflection of the poets life, spoken through the speaker - oxymorons such as "bright needles" that bring her peaceful state is disrupted by these tulips. When drugged the speaker reached a tranquil, idyllic state - post operative. A burden was thrown of the poet when her "teaset, my bureaus of linen, my books/Sink out of sight," as if the loss of her possessions was a positive as if in losing those things she was free. Being left with a "few trinkets" everything was uncomplicated. Her tranquil state was one that she imaged death, is physically peaceful imagining the final physical state of a human being "shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet" with the last rights.
What drags her back from this state is the photograph of her new family "that snag onto me like little smiling hooks", the tulips are vibrant and "too excitable". It is a symbol of life and in her introverted state she resent it, it brings her back to her "awful baby" and the water image begins to become a negative image with "A dozen red sinkers round my neck". THe woman is overwhealmed by her responsibility. The second last stanza pulls back the speakers attention t6o the tulips "They concentrate my attention, that was happy/ Playing and resting without committing itself." which is exactly what she wants to do. Be uncommitted, free from society's restrictions for women, which is the role of wife and mother. THE only freedom she feels she would know is death to reach that eternal tranquil state.
If you have any feedback on this please feel free to email me
Kilmore, VIC, Australia
Sunday, May 28, 2000
Tulips is one of the most personal of Slyvia Plath's poems as far as I can tell. It is also one that gives the most to the reader at the surface. I have found it harder to understand some poems that she has written, like Mirrors, because they hide much less inner meaning. Tulips, however, does the same in a less secrative manner. I believe that it is my favorite poem just because of the sheer amount of imagery that it produces. My favorite lines are about how the air seems to bunch around the tulips. Its so significant the amount of feeling she puts into what is probably a failed suicide attempt which lands her in the hospital. The tuplis are horrible to her because they represent someething she didn't want to have- life. With their blooms, they are a living reminder at her failure of life and the ablility to control the largests of the gifts God gives to man. Though I have only looked at this poem marginally in my Advanced English 2 class, I believe that it is one of the most memorable poems that I have personally read, and one of my favorites. Sylvia has shown her true mastery of the English language through Tulips.
Sunday, April 23, 2000
I have always considered "Tulips" one of Sylvia Plath's finest achievements, if for no other reason than to clearly capture the hypersensitivity to all things which made her a great artist. In her journals, there was an entry alluding to the back-stabbing small talk at a college social, and how the remarks of those attending stuck in her like barbs. Plath powerfully transmits feelings which her readers/admirers keenly perceive.
Arlington, TX, USA
Tuesday, January 25, 2000
The Tulips is a poem where the speaker attempts to relinquish identity, yet is acutely exposed and defined within responses to the symbolic visual and emotional disruption of the tulips. Sylvia Plath weaves dense metaphorical eddies in which the speakers temporal carnality is ironically affirmed through a passive and soothing immersion in the imagery of death and release. This deathly imagery is potently juxtaposed with the contrasting pain of living. The third and fourth stanzas are recognisable as a point of enjambment where the metaphorical tones heighten to offer the reader an increasingly vivid and expanded grasp on the speakers position. To appreciate the depth of this shift, the poem must be examined in its entirety. The rich use of metaphor can be primarily explored through the poems polarising representations of colour the contrast of the violent and invasive tulip-red, to the numbing sanctuary of clinical white. Plath extensively employs the further metaphorical devices of religion, water and animals. The puritan guise of religion allows sections of the poems descriptive passages to assume distinctly somber and ritualistic tones, alluding also to the purity of white and the elevation of the spiritual over the personal. Equally, the rhythmic, soothing and eroding properties of ocean or water etches deeper symbolism and tension into Plaths narrative process - enforcing the speakers desire for anonymity within an all-engulfing, cleansing rise of anaesthetising water. This dense - centrifugal use of metaphor is introduced in the first stanza through the use of the imperative verb, look - suggesting a sense of self-consciousness on the part of the speaker. This sentiment has often led to Plaths work being labeled as confessional; this aspect of The Tulips also invites further analysis, yet a clear distinction must remain between the art form and the author.
The poem opens frenetically, major thematic tones are established early, and polarised in extremely emotive tones. Initially the prominent metaphorical device is that of colour. While at first not identified as red, the excitable tulips (merely as a representation of colour) acutely define the opposing white. The tulips equate with the outside world, they embody life, vitality, spring and warmth; they introduce the rousing distraction of colour. Ironically, the vitality of the tulips descriptively inverts to intensely amplify the numbing achromatic white. The peacefulness of white opposes to the noise of colour, deflecting the intruding outside world. The speaker describes the how the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands. Light is not absorbed, it merely lies it is passive white, and not striking colour that obliterates all.
Plath develops this powerful notion of colour, with the introduction of animal imagery. The eye between two white lids personifies gulls with the rhythmic passage of white cap[ped] nurses. Plath furthers the use of personification to a higher degree where the tulips acquire aural and tactile energy - allowing the reader to hear the tulips breathing pierce through the gift paper. Their intense red talks to the speakers wound, it is a stabbing and noisy (like an awful baby) reminder of the suppressed pain of reality. This adaptation of animal or human characteristics is in incrementally drawn into a vivid depiction of the dangerous red tulips, opening like the mouth of some great African cat. A tapestry of active and violent language is juxtaposed with the somber and surrendering tone of the speakers self-descriptive language.
The speakers identity is heightened in the third stanza as the lumbering cargo boat is swabbedclear ofloving associations. A sense of history is inscribed, through the passive relinquishment of the speakers once precious possessions: my teaset, my bureaus of linen, my books - femininity, order and academic attachments are collated, then shunned. These characteristics are seen as emotional surplus, they are relinquished in favour of spirituality. The speaker remains physically inert in the almost tranquil rise of water, subject to its corrosive - yet cleansing properties. Comparatively, Plath equates similar notions of purity and religion to water in her 1963 novel, The Bell Jar: I lay in that tuband felt myself growing pure again. There are further allusions to holy water, baptism, and meditation within the text. This antiseptic, almost religious process furthers the erosion of worldly pain and distances the unbearable din of explosions. This imagery also acts as a prelude to a notable thematic departure (upon the fifth stanza) from the baggage of life and its painful associations, to a tenable spiritual link with a premiss Plath had previously named the art of dying.
The speaker recoils at the cumulative agony of an emotionally cluttered life, yet is comforted (dazed) by the dispassionate vacuum of death. The anaesthatised peacefulness induces a sensory clarity evoking feelings of familiarity and longing at the prospect of death. Death is defined by its emptiness; there is a ritualistic simplicity in death that eschews the unbearable demands of life death asks nothing, whereas the tulips command the stupid pupils attention, they hurt the speaker. The ritual (and perhaps the art) of death takes on religious connotations. Death is vacuous, yet it embodies spiritual sustenance through the religious guise of a Communion tablet. The speaker is aware that it is this finality that the dead close on. While there is a macabre camaraderie with the dead, there is ironically an acute lack of tolerance and veneration for the living and the associated icons of life inherent to the tulips.
The tulips maintain a white-knuckled grip upon all things considered harmful in the outside world. Their redness is a haemal connection that corresponds to the speakers wounds. Plath powerfully imparts the sensory excitement of physical pain in a selection of her other texts. The poem Cut follows this vein, as a wound becomes a thrill; contrasting blood red plush with dead white skin. As with the Tulips, the speaker in Cut is more comfortably defined through a wound rather than the dull white imagery of life. This sensory polarisation occurs again in the Bell Jar as Esther feels nothing, then with a self-inflicted wound feels a deep thrill as a bright seam of red well[s] up at the lip of the sash. Following this sentiment, critic, Janice Markey suggests that the Plath technique relied heavily on the use of colour related symbols, citing the poem Poppies in October, where the womans red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly . This !
thread of imagery can be drawn directly to the Tulips, where the heart opens and closes / Its bowl of red blooms . These comparative critiques can be furthered to include technique and imagery of a corresponding pattern outside Plaths work.
The Austrian-Jewish poet Paul Celan employed similar metaphorical techniques to Plath in his post-holocaust poetic dirges: Psaume, Corona, Nachtlich Geschurzt, and Blume. All of these pieces adopt the imagery of the flower as a representation of life and vibrancy, while this is not an uncommon poetic technique; the connection with Plath arises through the juxtaposition of these images with themes of death and resignation. In particular the poem, Nachtlich Geschurzt [Nocturnally Pouting] introduces imagery reminiscent of Plaths: Nocturnally pouting / the lips of flowers, / criss-crossed and linked. A vivid consciousness of death is ingrained into the later stages of the poem: They stand apart in the world, / each one close up to his night, / each one close up to his death. Reoccurring death imagery in Celans work, as with Plath, has aroused a great deal of psychoanalytical theorising as to the connection between the author and the art form. In this sense Plaths relationship to her work is often critically personalised, and has (in instances) seen her labeled as a confessional poet.
The term, confessional poetry measures a departure from the comparatively formal tones of English poetry preceding Plaths era. It suggests a strong element of recognisable self-disclosure on the part of the poet. Plath biographer, Paul Alexander establishes a link between the Tulips and Plaths experience of hospitalisation immediately prior to her composition of the poem. Alexander proposes that the poems origins arise as a form of therapy upon Plaths recuperation, in which she imagines the outside world (the tulips) as a rival for her health. Indeed, Plaths well-documented battles with emotional and physical health raise glaring similarities to the powerful themes and lucid imagery prevalent within much of her work. This perceptive clarity is particularly apparent amongst the emotional authenticity expressed throughout the Tulips; yet the reader (despite the supposed intentions, or position of the poet) must be mindful of the innate distinction between personal and artistic identity.
Critic, Jacqueline Rose invokes Judith Krolls belief that the speaker does not stand apart from the poem, but rather, discloses her mythic character. Rose adds that (in respect of Plath) there is a link between psychic and aesthetic integrity. Despite the temptation to autobiographically manacle Plath to her work, Krolls notion of a separation between the artistic consciousness, and the personal sphere, suggests a distilled mythical link, (between Plath and her work) rather than the poetic truisms of the artists actual character. Plath clearly illustrated her intentions and methods on this point:
I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experience with an informed and intelligent mind. I believe that personal experience is very important, but certainly it shouldnt be a kind of shut-box and mirror looking, narcissistic experience.
Evidently, Plath was referring to a diffusion of personal experience, designed to embrace worldly or collective experiences within the thematic devices of her poetry.
Adhering to the idea of poetic identity, the Tulips pivots on the speakers desire for effacement, yet in the throes of this quest, Plath manages to intensely amplify the extraordinary depth of an emotionally spent soul. The metaphorical energy imbedded throughout the Tulips resolves upon the shift in tone of the closing stanza: I am aware of my heart. The speaker has exhausted the denial of the personal and consolidates her emotional and sensory identity with a symbolic embrace of sheer love. While this can be seen as a partial resolution for the speaker, it is acknowledged that she still has a long way to go. The danger is gone, the warm, salty sea signals a break in her debilitating winter, yet health is far away. The Tulips holds an extraordinarily intense degree of pathos and energy, through Plaths rich and perceptive use of language and poetic technique. Arguably it is these aspects of the poem and the balance of her writing that encourages such fanaticism and ongoing critical attention.
Monday, October 18, 1999
I believe Plath's poem is full of torment and despair and is a cry for help not for her friends but her family who she wanted to be released from but could not release the final hooks to finally be free.
Wednesday, September 15, 1999
Sylvia feared life as much as she wished to embrace it. These tulips, though the title, simply are a tangent to her desire to be nothing, to live up to no expectations. And, to a degree, she was right. More often than not, the dead are revered over the living. Once dead, a myth may evolve - a myth that can propel the recipient, posthumously, to a realm of respect, awe. This, perhaps, is what Sylvia understood, or possibly felt would be her only way of being noticed. A typical cry for help. She loved life, it seems, yet wanted to end her association with it out of sheer frustration. What better a show of martydom than an ultimate sacrifice to the living of her own life? Fear is prominent, yet this is a way of facing it, of proving one's possible strength, courage. Instead of having the power to face life, why not take on the courage to face death? It's twisted, but these thoughts are not that uncommon. She is a human, a flesh shell, how can she be more extravagant than these vivacious, red tulips? There simplicity so easily overshadows her own intelligence. Sylvia's poetic style has always astounded my literary senses. Simply beautiful.
Monday, August 30, 1999
I believe that her perspective in this piece is from a state of limbo. She is attached neither to the world of the living, nor to the realm of the dead.
The tulips chain her, by their very vivasciousness, to life, which she describes as the ocean. In this water metaphor, she struggles to reach the air, death, but is held down in the water, life.
Every thing else i might have said has already been said. Thanks.
Friday, July 30, 1999
(This is excerpted from my Honours thesis and is a more critical analysis of the poem itself, not taking into account of its link into Plath's biography.)
Plath uses a colour metaphor that is centralised in the poem. As the speaker makes note of all things white in the hospital-room, it becomes clear that she has fallen half in love with it it is such an uncomplicated colour, it is so easy to become nobody in it. Whiteness is a state the speaker praises, because it signifies the purity, bland anonymity and numbness that she seeks. The speaker wants to detach herself from associations with the living, from her husband and child with their hurtful smiling hooks. The hospital can sterilise her from them now, she can be pure. She yearns for the hibernation of winter, the deadening of the senses, but such peacefulness is treacherous: this peace means death.
White is juxtaposed to the poems other dominant colour, red. The red tulips, by contrast, are alive, all too vivid in her nun-like room. They arouse emotions and sensations they demand this, and her attention, too. To her, they signify danger, exhilaration, of living on the edge and to the full. In the speakers denial of the tulips presence and importance, she thinks she merely denies the blood and pain: in fact, she also denies life.
The eye imagery in this poem is also notable. These eyes are both her self (Stupid pupil, she puns), and the eyes of others (eye of the sun, and the eyes of the tulips). There are connotations that these eyes watch and pass judgement on the speaker. The speaker imagines her diminution in their eyes. She becomes ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow, a caricature of herself. Again, she longs for the numbness and effacement that lies in their bright needles. The speaker needs this anaesthetic effect so as to forget, to detach herself from hurtful emotions. However, this induced sleep seems too close to being like death for it to be innocuous.
There are allusions to Full Fathom Five in the sea and water imagery that threads its way in this poem: the speaker describes herself as a thirty-year-old cargo boat; she feels herself drowning as the water went over my head; the tulips are lead sinkers that weigh her down. Yet despite the emotional atmosphere that swings from passive indifference to petulant depression, the poem leaves open an optimistic ending for the speaker.
The speaker sees these tulips as a source of danger because they symbolise a life that she has already given up on their presence revives an awareness of herself. Despite her desire for death, her heart now blooms like the once-rejected tulips they correspond. Although health for her seems far away, the mere concept of it gives her an attainable goal.
Hobart, Tasmani, Australia
Friday, June 4, 1999
This post isn't going to be entirely about this poem. It's just a couple things I think about Sylvia that I would like to express.
I think the way Sylvia wrote is confessional. She used her own personal experience, emotions, thoughts, and expressed them in a creative way. She made them understandable to others.
I don't think she conciously put in hidden themes, but perhaps she did. I think she found something to write about, and worked at it. Anyone who writes knows that you don't sit down and say, "ok, where can i hide a theme in here. Perhaps in 30 years, someone will read this poem and find my hidden theme." That's just not how it works.
"A Writer Writes." Something strikes you, you put it down. Sometimes you just jot a few notes, but ultimately you work until you feel it is finished. When someone writes a poem, it is usually intended for themselves, but hidden in the back of the mind is the need to be accepted. So one also attempts to make it understandable to others, in order to be accepted. I am not saying everyone is like this, but it's just the way I feel. What's interesting about poetry is that sometimes, without even trying, you manage to work in some themes. Maybe you don't discover them yourself. Maybe you have a friend read something you wrote, and they point something out you missed entirely, despite being the writer of it. The reader gets what they want from it. It's a process of give and take, in a way. The writer gives, the reader receives, and gives back. It's an exchange.
Here's where I come to the poem, Tulips. If you read in the collected poems, the little note about "Tulips" you will see that she wrote it while in the hospital for an appendectomy. She is obviously writing about her surroundings and about how she felt while she was there. She compared herself to being a cargo boat trapped at sea, and tied in the idea of the nurses as gulls, the salty water, and the pebbles being smoothed, so that the poem would flow. I don't think she truly went any deeper than that. She is a genius of a poet, that is true, but I don't think everything she did with this poem was completely intentional, in regards to the meaning. Everyone is going to get something different from it. She got what she got from writing it, and we all get what we get from reading it. Not everyone will agree with me, I know, but that's exactly how I feel.
Thanks for reading.
Grand Forks, ND, USA
Saturday, April 24, 1999
I really disagree when people lump Sexton and Plath together in the same breath. They wrote at roughly the same time in history, they were both American women, they were both "early" suicides, but beyond that the comparisons end. They lived completely different lives and had completely different experiences. More to the point, Plath has an incredible feeling for language as art; many of her earlier poems are incredibly tight exercises in form. Obviously her later works (Ariel) are severely pared down works, letting a few choice words and turn of phrase render her searing images and emotions. Sexton, on the other hand, was a LOT looser, structurally speaking, and in fact a lot of her work leaned towards prose. She simply didn't use language in the same way Plath did. I agree with the label (as far as I can agree with labels) of "confessional poet" for Sexton but I am not sure you can relegate all of Plath's work under "confessional."
Saturday, March 6, 1999
I disagree with anyone who says that this poem is about Buddism because the religion is not just about peace and religion, this poem is about death, more specifically the desire for death, it practically jumps off the page!! The tulips symbolize life and they disrupt the speaker's peaceful thoughts because they represent life. The speaker is looking for peace in death! Also, this poem is not about bad hospitals or feminism, you have to look deeper!! The type of poetry that deals with death and suicide is so typical of Plath. Death is the theme for Plath....
Tuesday, February 9, 1999
No offence but i think there are some pretty narrow minded statements here which show little or no understanding or knowledge of Plath's works. Sylvia Plath was a confessional poet in the same vain as her predecessor Snodgrass and her contemporary Sexton. Her poetry is souly about her thoughts and feelings and to say that she shows an unusual amount of emotion and openness is quite pompous. She shows huge amounts of emotions in all of her poetry, it's inherrent in the confessionsal style!
Monday, November 16, 1998
Sylvia exhibits a soft rawness in her words with this poem. It is at once spiritual, like a chant or meditation, yet also down to earth and very self-conscious. "Tulips" is the perfect compliment to "The Bell Jar" it shows you the other side of health and hospitals; the other side of wellness, both mental and physical. Sylvia paints a portrait of these flowers as painful reminders of a different experience with hospital rooms. It is expressively beautiful and haunting.
15th September 1998
In this poem the persona has entered into a transcendent state which seems akin to the states of consciousness attained by Buddhist meditation:
- "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."
She has separated her soul from her body to the point where the body is totally unimportant:
- "My body is a pebble."
this has been achieved by a complete renunciation of domesticity and the claims of traditional femininity:
- "They have swabbed me clear of my loving associations......
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."
She has obviously been reborn and seems to have incorporated Robert Graves's notion that the Goddess and the Muse are anti-domestic. The description of herself as a "Nun" also suggests the incarnation of the goddess in her Maiden form.
This renunciation is a positive, rather than a deprived experience:
- "How free it is, you have no idea how free-
The peacefulness is so big it dazes you."
This is a state women can rarely attain and the tulips' intrusion is an unwelcome return of those responsibilities which the poet has renounced. Their comparison to "an awful baby" suggests that in her era children threatened a mother's full existence:
- "The vivid tulips eat my oxygen."
While she is literally brought down to earth by the claims that the tulips represent, her perceptions have been irrevocably altered for these earthly claims are now associated with "a country far away as health."
Hebden Bridge, UK
Tuesday, August 4, 1998
- "Actually, I feel I've been having an amazing holiday! I haven't been free of the baby one day for a whole year, and I must say I have secretly enjoyed having meals in bed, backrubs, and nothing to do but read (I've discovered Agatha Christie -- just the thing for hospital reading. . .), gossip, and look at my table of flowers sent by Ted's parents, Ted, Helga Huws, and Charles Monteith, Ted's editor at Faber's."
Sylvia Plath, Letter to Aurelia Plath, March 1961
From this breezy experience, Plath's hospitalization for an appendix operation, comes "Tulips," a milestone in the poet's development. Written while she was in the midst of composing the autobiographical "Bell Jar" (completed late Spring 1961), the poem is the first to tap so directly and nakedly into what Ted Hughes has called her true subject, or "true matter." The most startling moment in the poem is the abrupt, almost involuntary confession: "I have wanted to efface myself." In his interview for The Paris Review, Hughes states:
- "Maybe all poetry, insofar as it moves us and connects with us, is a revealing of something that the writer doesn't actually want to say, but desperately needs to communicate, to be delivered of. Perhaps it's the need to keep it hidden that makes it poetic - makes it poetry. The writer daren't actually put it into words, so it leaks out obliquely, smuggled through analogies . . . Sylvia went furthest in the sense that her secret was most dangerous to her. She desperately needed to reveal it. You can't overestimate her compulsion to write like that."
"Tulips" is unique in that it seems to be Plath's most unguarded poem. Certainly the line in question is the most revelatory moment in all of her poetry: the poet deliberately chooses to give the "secret" full utterance, experimenting with the taboo-breaking methods of her friend and rival Anne Sexton, but with a simple vulnerability that separates it from the later, brutally ironic, "confessional" elements of "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus."
Hughes, in an essay intended for a proposed one-volume collection of "The Bell Jar" and the "Collected Poems" (published in "Winter Pollen") makes a compelling argument that the composition of "The Bell Jar," the story of her own suicide attempt, freed Plath's creative unconscious in an accelerated manner that led directly to the breakthrough emergence of the "Ariel" poems. Certainly, the unnerving power of "Tulips" stems from its subtextual depiction of Plath's earlier, post-suicide incarceration and return to health, thus linking it to her poem "The Stones," a direct ancestor of "Tulips" in its surreal, ritualistic depiction of Plath's suicide attempt and subsequent "mending" in "the city of spare parts" (cf. "I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses/ And my history to the anesthetist and my body to surgeons"); the ironic last lines of "The Stones" ("My mendings itch./ There is nothing to do./ I shall be good as new.") forms a bookend to the later poem's concluding vision of the speaker's reluctant journey back to "a country far away as health."
"Tulips" is a Rosetta stone of sorts to Plath's mature work. In it, we have the first real appearance of the detached, resigned, almost posthumous voice of the late "Ariel" period. In "Tulips," we have, I believe, the first appearance of the notorious Plathian "hooks" (always a threat, always representing the predatory pull from outside -- to live, to love, to remain), the installation of the totemic color red as life/wound, the fascination with oxygen and breath, the heart as a bloom of roses and an unwanted "love gift, " the omnipresent devouring "mouths" of Nature, the image of herself as a small, submerged rock, or "pebble."
This strange, idiosyncratic image of the "pebble" haunts Plath's work. As if Plath were playing a game of skipping rocks over the surface of a lake, the Plathian "pebble" bounces from piece to piece until it spirals into the watery depths of "Words:"
- . . . I entered
The stomach of indifference, the wordless cupboard.
- The mother of pestles diminished me.
I became a still pebble.
The stones of the belly were peaceable . . . "The Stones"
- I plummeted down past the zigzaggers, the students, the experts, through year after year of doubleness and smiles and compromises into my own past. People and trees receded on either hand like the dark sides of a tunnel as I hurtled on to the still, bright point at the end of it, the pebble at the bottom of the well, the white sweet baby cradled in its mother's belly. "The Bell Jar" (Ski slope suicide attempt)
- "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. . . "Tulips"
- The sap
Wells like tears, like the
To re-establish its mirror
Over the rock
- That drops and turns,
A white skull,
Eaten by weedy greens. . . "Words"
The juxtaposition in the "Bell Jar" excerpt of the "pebble at the bottom of the well" with "the white sweet baby cradled in its mother's belly" is highly significant. It confirms that Plath's desire to become a stone, inanimate and unconscious at the bottom of a watery grave, is in fact a deep longing to return to the womb, the abnegation of Self, of Ego. The bizarre melding of fetus and pebble is highly symbolic; in what is probably an unconscious fusion in Plath's private mythology, this sleeping stone embryo at the bottom of a stagnant pool is, of course, the tiny offspring of the stone Colossus/sea god Otto Plath - literally, "a chip off the old block!"
Poised tenuously between death/escape and the red life force of the malevolent tulips shimmers what Elaine identifies as "a transcendent state . . .akin to the states of consciousness attained by Buddhist meditation: "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 . . ." This almost mystical yearning for self-abnegation directly links "Tulips" to Plath's suicidal late poems, particularly "Paralytic," which transforms and condenses the earlier poem into chrysalis:
- I smile, a buddha, all
Falling from me like rings
Hugging their lights.
I must disagree with attempts to interpret the poem as a feminist renunciation of "traditional femininity." In this love song to Oblivion, the speaker in "Tulips" is not craving a new life as a liberated woman, she is craving "the peacefulness . . . the dead close on, finally; I imagine them/ Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet." What amounts to salvation for Plath, she tells us, is death, not emancipation from her teasets and linens.
For me, "Tulips" is the first real "Ariel" poem, not "The Elm," and, in its simplicity, vulnerability, and final hesitant baptism of the reader in life-giving tears, one of Plath's most authentically moving works.
New York, USA
Thursday, August 6, 1998
The word "correspond" has a lot of weight in the Western poetic tradition after Wordsworth's "Prelude," his "corresponding mild creative breeze." What a different conception Plath brings to poetry with "Tulips," where her "wound" and the tulips' "redness" are the sympathetic entities ("Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds").
Plath uses the flowers as Wordsworth used the natural world, as a metaphor for the creative consciousness, but here that consciousness is unwelcome, it undermines the speaker, it is a sinister force. It is, moreover, largely out of place in this realm of clean efficiency, of nurses and surgeons. The associative tulips, which stand in jarring contrast to the sparse, colorless, antiseptic hospital, correspond with the associating poet, who exists in stark contrast to the conception of a predetermined, ordinary, "domestic" daily life. What are these blooms symbolic of but the agitation of difference, of a restive, unique, demanding, discriminating consciousness? The poet is unable to shut down; even prostrate, she is forced into observation (poetry); her body in the hospital bed is still "an eye that will not shut."
Stewart Clarke is right to call the poem a "lovesong to oblivion," but here the oblivion is not self-achieved -- it is drug-induced, it comes via "bright needles." Elaine Connell sees the poet as reaching a "transcendent state" -- I would agree, but here it's been made possible only through outside intervention. Indeed, the poem reads like a drug trip, a hallucination; the tulips "watch" her, they "breathe," they are "dangerous." The poet's body, her physical being, is benign, by contrast: her heart "opens and closes/Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me." How wonderfully seductive, such reduction! But the poet's existence is much more complicated; the poem's tension is beween the creative sensibility that threatens/claims Plath and the restful state that is denied her by reason of this sensibility.
The last line of the poem is surely one of the most moving in all her poetry. Of course Plath could never have "nothing to do with explosions" -- the country she longed for was, to her reader's benefit -- a far shore indeed.
Newport RI, USA
26th July 1998
Tulips -- two lips numbness--none-ness nun-none the insatiable other eats the subject up for its own enjoyment - red mouth.. eat my oxygen. A premordial memory: a heart opens and closes its bowl of red blossoms. The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea...
She opened the lid -- red mouth /white mouth -- the lid of the oven, and slid in her head between two white lips, where her oxygen was eaten...
Yes, I think "The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals... and I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself."
Ironically, there is no evidence to support the commonplace that flowers must be removed from a hospital room at night because they consume oxygen. Rather, that "myth" seems to have been born of a primal fear: "If I should die before I wake... " Then again, maybe nurses in hospitals fussing over the removal of flowers from patients' rooms at night is/was a power thing. Maybe "two-lips" are the like "the eye between two white lids that will not shut./ Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in." To be uncontrollably observant would be enough for this guy writing this to wish for "numbess"!
Sharon, Vermont, US
9th August 1998