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Symbol Analysis

Water is a Big Deal in "Tulips." To be fair, there are all kinds of powerful natural forces running through this poem (light, air, etc.), but water seems to pop up more than all the others, and it makes for some of the strongest images in the poem. Why? Because it helps to voice the speaker's feelings of powerlessness.

  • Lines 15-16: In these lines, the speaker uses a simile to compare the way the nurses take care of her to the way that water rolls a stone. The water in this case seems comforting, and it's a nice enough image, but it's also perhaps not so comforting. The nurses – the water – are treating her like an object, like nothing more than a pebble. In this case, the water imagery, while soothing, also shows how belittled the speaker feels.
  • Line 27: Now we take a turn for the terrifying, and water becomes something threatening and potentially lethal. In this line, the idea of sinking underwater, even drowning, is used as a metaphor for losing consciousness before surgery. Water is a powerful force, so it makes sense that she would compare it to the sudden grip of anesthesia. When water or drugs grab hold of you, there's no way to fight – and it seems like the speaker doesn't even want to try.
  • Line 53: Here she's making an analogy between the way air moves and the way water moves. The water isn't doing anything to her directly in this case, it's just providing her with an image, a way to capture and describe the invisible movement of air, swirling around her detestable tulips. The analogy helps her express just how disruptive these tulips are; they're even messing with the very air around them.
  • Line 62: We think this is the weirdest (and maybe the most interesting) use of water in this poem. Suddenly she's tasting warm and salty water. Where is it coming from? Is it something someone gave her to drink? Is she imagining it? Could it just be her own saliva? Honestly, we're not sure we're supposed to be able to figure it out. Even in a poem as personal as this one, the speaker still keeps some secrets, and that's part of what makes it interesting. In any case, the water here, though it seems almost comforting, is a sad reminder of how far away she is from health, and it comes out of the blue.

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