Updated June 15, 2022
If you are a fan of weird imagery built around lonely life Tulips by Sylvia Plath could be great read for you. The poem has a subtle melody and resonates with the calmness which the poetess experiences in her hospital room. The “Tulips” is a poem of nine stanzas, each having seven lines that follows no rhyme scheme. It is written in free verse that appropriately reflects the conflicting psychological condition of the narrator.
The choice of words by Plath creates strong, weird and sometimes horrific imagery in the poem. Her stark descriptions of the flowers, her room and her sickness evoke emotions of extreme isolation, suffering and depression. Plath’s writing style was known for the “intense coupling of its violent or disturbed imagery and its playful use of alliteration and rhyme” and these characteristics are present throughout in “tulips”.
Sylvia Plath was an acclaimed American poet, novelist and short story writer of 20th century. Much of Syalvia’s poems were published after her death, including “Crossing the River” and “Winter Trees” in 1971. Her semi-autobiographical novel “The Bell Jar”, was published in 1963 under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas”. Sylvia’s most famous poem “Tulips” was published in a collection named “Ariel” in 1965. “Tulips” by Sylvia Plath is put in the genre of “confessional poetry’, which is an account of extremely personal trauma or psychological experience.
Summary of Tulips by Sylvia Plath (US Poetess)
The poem is a dreadful narrative of one of the most miserable personal experiences of the poetess. It describes the lifelessness that patients experience in a hospital, the mental and physical distress that people go through when isolation and the feeling of utter emptiness that overpowers one’s thinking capability.
Sylvia Plath begins the poem by describing how a bouquet of tulips has created chaos in an otherwise still environment. She describes herself as a “nobody” who is lying alone by herself and learning peacefulness”. Her room is extremely white, quiet and devoid of any excitement. She watches unidentifiable nurses go by who have propped her in the bed. She calls herself a “pebble” and says that she has been swabbed clear of any belongings or loved ones.
Plath’s condition in the hospital is horrifying and pitiful at the same time. She does not like the presence of the bright red flowers. The tulips are demanding her concentration when she wishes to be “utterly empty”. She wants to send these flowers behind bars. She understands that it will take her very long to be back in good health. Yet, she wants to remain in solitude within the white, lifeless walls of her room, devoid of any familial associations, any possession, or any feelings, as she feels it is the utmost form of freedom.
The “Tulips” is full of symbolism and imagery. Colour plays a very important part in Path’s descriptions. Plath’s recurring mention of the colour “white” gives a chilling effect to the poem. The walls, the bed and even her hands look snowed-in”. Even the tulips are covered in a white paper. The nurses are wearing white caps and Plath also describes herself stuck in the hospital bed just like ‘an eye between two white lids that will not shut’.
Interestingly, Plath describes the tulips as “too excitable’ and ‘too red’. She relates her red wound to the tulips. The contrast between red and white is symbolic of contrast between vitality and weariness, baggage and peacefulness as well as attachment and isolation. The poetess also mentions her luggage case as a “black pillbox” and operation table as a “green plastic-pillowed trolley”.
Similarly, “water” is another important symbol in the poem. The narrator compares the way she is being treated by the nurses to the way water rubs over pebbles and smoothing them. While describing the effect of anesthesia during her surgery, the narrator feels that her belongings begin to “sink out of sight” and she is getting immersed in water.
The tulips seem float but they are weighing down the narrator. She says that the tulips symbolize “red lead sinkers” that will cause her to drown. The narrator also describes that the air in the room is swirling around the bunch of tulips just like a river swirls around the objects. In the closing lines of the poem, Plath again mentions “warm and salt” water that reminds her that her wellness is far away.
Sylvia Plath has included a plethora of imageries in “Tulips”. The flowers are central to the poem. The poetess describes the red tulips using images of “an awful baby”, “red lead sinkers”, “dangerous animals”, “a great African cat” and “rust-red engines”. These negative images explain the effect of tulips on the narrator’s traumatized psyche. Plath describes herself using the images of pebbles, cargo boat, and “swabbed” and naked, as pure as a nun and also as a “cut-paper shadow”. The images that Sylvia Plath used to describe herself speak of numbness, lost identity and dullness.
In all, the “Tulips” describes the mental and physical sufferings of the narrator. She wants to be free and in peace, yet she is aware of her lifeless body. Sylvia Plath was an extremely proficient poetess whose poems “uncompromisingly” charted female rage, ambivalence, and grief, in a voice with which many women identified”.