Critical Analysis of Tulips Poem by Sylvia Plath

Critical Analysis of Tulips Poem by Sylvia Plath

Analysis of Tulips Poem by Sylvia Plath

Tulips was written on March 18, 1961 by Sylvia Plath. It was first published in New York Magazine in 1962. This poem is one of the subtlest and best organized poems of Plath. The speaker of this poem is a person who has suffered most in life. His principle is “I let things slip”. The material ending of the poem by Plath is the best organized from the view point of Craftsmanship.

Tulips is a poem which presents to the reader the appathetic psychological or spiritual crisis and the speaker gradually liberating herself from it, the speaker liberates herself provisionally and by implication.

Symbolism in the Poem Tulips

Sylvia Plath has used many significant symbols in the poem and the title of the poem “Tulips” is symbolic which carry contrast in colour, White and Red. Then there are ages of illness and health. The imagery of water flows smoothly throughout the poem. Sylvia Plath in this poem has realized wholeness.

Dramatic Element in the Poem Tulips

The most impressive symbol in the poem is the Tulip flowers. The flowers have a dramatic quality. The speaker in the poem is apathetic and feels that he is nobody and thinks that he had lain himself quietly. The speaker is a woman who thinks that she no longer possesses excitability and explosiveness. These are the real characteristics of the Tulips.

Ironical Feeling in the Speaker

In the beginning of the poem there is a little bit of irony because the woman speaker has already left behind the qualities of excitability and sudden action. Now she has become calm and sedate. She now goes to the hospital which is a temporary about her and not a permanent sojourn. The world is a hospital for her as Thomas Browne thought in his book “Religio Medici” that this world is a hospital, but the Tulips are always blooming and smiling,

The Outside world for the Woman Speaker

The woman speaker, although she is in a hospital has her husband and children outside the private ward. She remembers them by a photograph of the speaker husband and child. The husband and child are compared to little smiling hooks which catch a small family in the field of normal health. The picture in the photo is the token of love and a close knit family.

The Managing of Dead Dears

When the speaker is thinking of explosion and excitability of Tulip flowers, she is lying in hospital. She thinks of the poem ‘Daffodils‘ of Wordsworth in which the poet is in a vacant and pensive mood. She sees in imagination the long line of daffodils. Similarly the speaker fancies that the dead relations and friends are crying for love. This is the communion of the dead and non-living. At first the speaker resists the Wanton intrusive tulips which have disturbed her in the sick bed of hospital. She says,

“The tulips are too red tinkers round my neck”

Similarity between the Family Life of Plath and Tulips

The dominating presence of the red tulips is conveyed in the poem in a variety of ways. They are real presents from the world of the living and the dead, visiting the world of the undead-unliving speaker. They are in themselves seen, wrapped in tissue paper, as figures simultaneously from the world of the living and the dead. The flowers are wrapped in ‘White swaddlings’ (swaddlings, simultaneously, of an awful baby” and the shroud of somebody dead). They are a “gift” but more significantly, they “correspond” to the speaker’s unidentified wound, and also to her heart which has given her the supreme gift of life. Water imagery is common to the three “Worlds” of Tulips. The speaker’s husband and child, smiling out of a photo in at the speaker are figured as anglers.

Their smiles catch into my skin, little smiling hooks.”

On the other hand, the dead close on, finally and they are imagined by the speaker to be like big sharks shutting their mouths on it (the problematic peacefulness that is the speaker’s lot in the poem), like a communion tablet (holy water), offering association in a Church or the name of a medicine, threatening to pull the speaker down to a “communion” with the dead.

This poem is a comparative poem and the comparison is done between the life of the speaker and Tulips. The Tulips can perform many functions or tasks in the poem. They are not only visual presence but they can freely move from one element to another. They are like children in the poem, “Morning Song” They live in the world quite different from the world in which the speaker lives.

The speaker in this poem confesses two feelings between eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips. The tulips try to efface just as Plath wishes to efface herself by suicide. Thus through the description of Tulips the speaker is giving her own account of nothingness and humanity.

Tulips as a Poem of Subtle Craftsmanship

Tulips is a very important poem because it brings to us the spiritual vision of Plath just as Lady Lazarus and Daddy for us. A critic has explained its greatness and grandeur in the following terms:

“Tulips is a “spasmodic trick of radiance”, a poem of artistic “miracle” of rare device. It enacts the involved drama of an apathetic speaker’s psychological or spiritual crisis and her gradual “freeing.” herself from it, even if the speaker would have done it only by implication and provisionally in the poem. As presenting the “other” Sylvia Plath, the poet’s more hopeful aspect, Tulips is a poem of subtle, scrupulous craftsmanship and deep feeling. As such it belongs, in the Plath canon to the forefront, along with “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy“. Life triumphs over death in this poem.”

Imagery in the Poem Tulips

The very title of the poem is flower. Just as Wordsworth made use of flower in his poem similarly Sylvia Plath shows her fondness for the flower-images in her best poem we often come across floral motives.

Sylvia Plath’s fondness for flower-images, her frequent recourse to floral motifs in some of her well-known poems like Tulips, “Edge”

Electra along the Azalea Plath”, “Among the Narcissi”, “Morning Song”, “Poppies in October”, “Fever 103, among others, manifests itself in the way in which flowers either form a significant background or emerge as co-agents in resolving the crucial psychological or spiritual issues problems inherent in a specific poem-situation.

The use of Water Imagery

In Plath’s poetry, another very important form of imagery is water imagery, In the poem the mental journey of the speaker is performed in three separated spirits.

(A) The first stage represents the nameless Nurses, ‘Doing things with their hands’. The poet has not given us the number of the Nurses functioning in the poem therefore it is impossible to tell how many nurses were there. The nurses are metaphorically seen here as channels runnels of the water plashing over dry pebble. The coming of vivid tulips. This is the third stage which is the crux of the poem. In an interesting figure of sketch the air is presented as a current flowing down the tulips as well as the rusty speaker.

“Now the air snags and eddies round them the way a river

Snags and eddies round a sunken rust-red engine.”

Another image is that rust-red engine for the de-personalised speaker has been used towards the end of the poem and the redness of the Tulips has begun to transfer itself to the speaker. Spiritual transformation occurs in the end of the poem.

The Speaker moves out of the Orthodox World

At the end of the poem references are made to a larger world of the spirit which arouses oceanic feeling in the speaker. The following statement of a critic is worth quoting:

“Phase three of the process of recovery and an existential regaining of “health” is signalled by an allusion to a much larger world out there, the world of “oceanic feeling”. The speaker has spiritually moved out of and beyond the orthodox, constrictive “bound”, worlds of both the living” and “the dead” (a hospital is a hospitable place for the living as well as the dead, for all those who go or are taken there in quest of health”, some of these may even be d.o.a.) towards the “origin” of life, the sea Plath’s own fascination for the sea, especially for the Atlantic, has been recorded in her wonderful account of the years of her drawing consciousness and infancy in “Ocean 1212-W”. The sea water is salt and warm :

“The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea

And comes from a country far away as health.”

Stanza Patterns the Poem Tulips

The stanza in the poem looks like a rhyme royal but it does not have rhyme scheme of a rhyme royal stanza however every stanza contains seven lines each mostly unrhymed. The stanzas are in the iambic penta-metre but sometimes they change into iambic as the metre. Apparently Tulips is in blank verse form but it is not free verse. On reading the poems one becomes sure that Sylvia Plath has attempted to write the poem as nine stanza, rhyme royal form.


The more dramatic element in Tulips are flowers which are invoked by the speaker. The speaker is hidden behind the line is Sylvia Plath herself who is no more excitable or explosive which are the eternal characteristics of the Tulips.

In Tulips, crossing the water in search of health is still a distant hope, wistfully, reveried, envisioned, but not yet actually translated into activity, “health”. The way to health, perhaps, lies in travelling light. For the speaker is “sick of baggage” and now wishes to shed most of it. Sylvia Plath has elsewhere remarked :

Writing is my health. Tulips enacts the search for health, not in the anodynes of medicine, hospitalization, normal life or even premature death, but in a rhetorical process that is Open-ended rather than foreclosed, Desolation, stalled in words” here, in The Tulips, is kept at an arm’s length, “stalled”, for the time being.

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