Study Guide

Tulips Analysis

  • Sound Check

    A Flooded River

    It's All About the Vowels

    The best way to talk about sound in this poem is to jump right in the deep end, so let's take a look at the first stanza to see what we can uncover. Read the first four lines aloud to yourself. What do you hear? If you're anything like us, you hear a lot of "I" sounds: excitable, white, quiet, I, lying, myself, light.

    Okay, so the next step is to ask ourselves, what's the effect of these "I" sounds? How do they help us understand the poem? For one thing, "I" is a long vowel sound, and that lengthy sound causes us to slow down when we read the poem. Plus, it creates its own kind of rhythm – like the whooshing of water – by repeating the same slow sound over and over and over again. See if you can find similar repetitions of long vowel sounds in the poem, like long A's or E's. Does the repetition of these sounds have the same effect?

    More Water (Yep)

    Let's get back to that idea of whooshing water for a minute. We don't know about you, but Shmoop hears the sound of water just about everywhere in this poem. The whoosh and gurgle and splash of currents and waves. Most of the power and chaos is happening below the surface, so usually all we hear is the steady, rushing sound of her pain: "The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble" (11). "Pass and pass" – it isn't a violent sound, but it is steady, insistent, urgent. It flows.

    But every now and then, harsh sounds interrupt this steady rhythm: "I am sick of baggage" (line 18). Do you hear the snap-crackle-pop of that word? Sick. It leaps right off the page and into our ears. Or think about the phrase, "eat my oxygen" (line 49). Such hard consonants cause us to slow down and linger over the somewhat clunky phrase. For a moment, we are highly focused on the horrifying image because the very sound of it forces us to pay attention.

    In fact, in a good poem, that's exactly what sound does; it directs our attention. It can slow our reading, with phrases like "red lead" (line 42) or "walls, also," (line 57) or speed it up with quick, light phrases like "Stupid pupil." A brilliant poet like Plath can put these tools to work shaping our understanding of the poem.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Plath doesn't exactly throw us for a loop on this one. She calls this poem "Tulips" because they are the central, recurring image in the poem – just a dozen red tulips. That's a pretty normal get-well present to have lying around a hospital room, but not in this poem. What makes Plath such a great poet is that she takes this typical image and makes it weird, scary, threatening, and totally awesome. Even though they're just cut flowers, they become almost like characters in this poem, harassing our speaker with their insistent redness. So the tulips of the title are much more than just tulips; they take on a life of their own. They're the antagonist of the poem, and they won't leave our speaker alone. See "Symbols" for more on this discussion.

  • Setting

    There's no doubt about it: our girl's in a hospital room. She refers to the classic white sheets, the nurses in white caps, doctors, surgery… you get the picture. It appears to be daytime, because the sunlight shines through the window and reflects off the white interior of the room.

    But that's just where the poem is literally happening. There's also a kind of interior setting – the speaker's mind, where things are a little – we'll just come right out and say it – weird. Emotionally, she seems caught between a rock and a hard place, and that's a setting in and of itself. She's quite literally stuck in the hospital bed, all swaddled up in the sheets. But she's also stuck in a more metaphorical sense; she wants to be empty and free, but her family's smiles and those relentless tulips keep yanking her back to the unpleasant present.

    One last thing: where's her family in all this? Usually in a hospital room, there's someone sitting next to the bed (not just a picture frame). Do you think the speaker asked them to leave or did they not show up to begin with? How does the lack of family (or friends) change how we read the poem?

  • Speaker

    This one's a toughie because – let's be honest – we don't know much about our speaker at all. But let's cobble together the clues and see what conclusions we can make.

    We know for sure that she's in the hospital, recovering from a surgery, although we don't know what kind of surgery, or if she's still in any danger or pain. We know she's thirty-ish and has a family – a husband and a kid – but we don't know a thing about them, really. And finally we know she has gotten tulips as a gift. As for who gave them to her, well, your guess is as good as ours.

    That's really it. Those are the facts, and everything else is just conjecture. So in order to learn more about our speaker, we've got to delve deeper into the language of the poem. What's she feeling and thinking? Where does her mind wander while she lies there in bed? Let's see, shall we?

    "I am nobody," (5) she tells us. Well, gee, that's not very helpful. Although, if we stop and think about it, it tells us she's not feeling too hot these days. She doesn't think of herself as important, and just a line or two later she tells us she's given up her name and her history to the nurses and doctors at the hospital (6-7). Our girl is having some sort of crisis, and it's not just the physical kind.

    We also know that she's "sick of baggage" (18), and all she wants is to "To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty." (30) She's got a major case of the blues, that's for sure. She feels like she's lost her identity, but she's not exactly sad about it. She just wants to empty herself out and be left alone.

    This might explain why our speaker dislikes those tulips so darn much. In fact, if we had to pick the single most important quality our speaker possesses, it would be that she simply hates these flowers. But why? Check out our "Symbols" section for Shmoop's take on this question.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    Base Camp (3)

    There are a few tricky spots in this poem, where the images come at you pretty fast and furious. Still, the main idea is clear and (we think) fascinating. So with a little help from your friends at Shmoop, this should be an easy climb.

  • Calling Card

    Intense, Direct, Personal Poetry

    Sylvia Plath's poetry is often called "confessional poetry." For our purposes, that just means that she tackles intensely personal and often upsetting subjects in a very direct way. She uses the word "I" when referring to the speaker, instead of "she" or "he," and she gives us an all-access pass to her speakers' minds. Her images can be beautiful and surprising, but also brutal and shocking. So if you're reading free-verse poetry that tackles difficult, emotional issues in a vivid, direct, and intimate way, you just might be reading Sylvia Plath. "Tulips" is no exception.

  • Form and Meter

    Free Verse in Seven-Line Stanzas

    "Tulips" doesn't rhyme in any regular way. It also doesn't have a meter that it sticks to consistently. The fancy name for this kind of poetic form is "free verse."

    However, just because this poem is written in free verse doesn't mean it isn't carefully put together. The lines don't follow a regular pattern, but the stanzas (those are like paragraphs in a poem) definitely do. There are nine stanzas in this poem, and all of them have exactly seven lines. It makes for an intriguing contrast in the poem, with such freely written lines constrained into very regular, formal stanzas.

    Plus, on closer look, many of the lines themselves have their own particular rhythms. In fact, you might even say that some of the lines are vaguely iambic. Wait, vaguely what? Well, when we call a meter iambic, we mean that it follows an unstressed syllable with a stressed one, and then repeats this pattern continuously. Take this line, for example: "The nurses pass and pass" (Line 11). Don't worry so much about what the line is saying. Just listen to it.

    The nurses pass and pass
    ta-TUM ta-TUM ta-TUM

    This meter isn't always apparent in the poem, but when it does pop up, it adds to the sense of musical flow that Plath has created with her other repeated sounds. (Take a peek at our Sound Check" section for a deeper discussion of these sounds.) It also reminds us of a heartbeat, doesn't it? It sure makes for a stirring connection when you get to that final image of her blossoming heart.

    If you take anything away from our discussion of the rhythm and meter in "Tulips," remember that just because this poem is free verse doesn't mean that Plath wasn't paying attention to rhythm. In fact, she takes advantage of it at every turn. We suggest reading each line aloud to yourself, to see if you can hear any other subtle rhythms popping up.

  • Tulips

    If you're looking for the central image in this poem, Plath lays it right out on the table for you in the title. Then she repeats it in the first line, just in case you were spacing out. This whole poem revolves around those stinkin' tulips (although it covers a lot of other ground, too).

    On one hand, the red tulips are just a great visual image. You can really see them in your head, can't you? Red tulips in a white room make for a super-clear and vivid picture. On the other hand, we think they also have to be seen as a symbol, a representation of the love and concern that other people feel for this sick woman. So maybe it's not the tulips themselves that are so problematic for our troubled speaker; maybe it's what they represent that's the issue. Let's take a peek at each time those tulips pop up in the poem, to see what we can find out.

    • Line 1: The speaker jumps right in, talking about the tulips right away. She doesn't just mention them, though. She calls them "excitable," too. Usually we only think of people and animals as being capable of excitement, so the strange word choice grabs our attention right away. By describing the tulips like people instead of flowers (that's called personification), she makes them seem like characters in the poem, which pays off later when the tulips get even more lifelike and threatening.
    • Line 29: She tells us that she "didn't want any flowers." We're pretty sure this isn't actually about the flowers, but about what they represent because really, who doesn't like flowers? When we give a person flowers, it isn't just because they are pretty. It's because those flowers are a symbol, too; they're a representation of our fond feelings for the recipient. And it's those fond feelings that our speaker wants to get away from. She doesn't want to love people or be loved by them. She wants to be empty and alone.
    • Line 36: What's so troublesome about these tulips? Here it's the color. They're so red it hurts.
    • One thing's for sure: these are not your average tulips.
    • Line 37-38: Plath tosses some more personification in our direction. As if it weren't bad enough that Plath has made these beautiful flowers something terrible, now she's comparing them to "awful babies." How can babies be awful?
    • Line 39-42: We're back to their color again. Why does the color bother her so much? Maybe it's because the red is so bright that it's cheerful. And while this speaker could definitely use some cheering up, she hardly seems in the mood. In fact, the tulips weigh her down, like the burden of her smiling family and their love for her.
    • Line 47, 49: Now the tulips start to go really crazy. They aren't just an annoying, brightly colored distraction any more. They've got eyes. By sucking the air out of the room, they are actively hurting her now; they're on the attack, the monsters. Remember what else hurts her in the poem, too: her family's hook-smiles.
    • Line 52: These flowers just won't leave our speaker alone, will they? They breathe and twist and open their mouths. In this line they seem to expand, to take over the room. The speaker uses a simile to describe this weird growth, telling us that the way the tulips fill the air is like a loud noise in the hospital room. It's an odd comparison, so what do you make of it?
    • Line 58: More fun with similes. If we're following through with our theory that the tulips are a symbol of her loved ones' care for our speaker, this means that she views that care as something so dangerous and scary that she'll compare it to a deadly predator. Plath is such a wizard that she can turn the most apparently bland and stable picture (a vase of flowers) into a multitude of frightening images in order to reveal our speaker's inner turmoil.
  • Whiteness

    The color white is just about everywhere in this poem. It's on the walls, the sheets, the nurses' caps. If you're thinking, well that's normal for a hospital, where they like to keep things clean, you're not wrong. But still, our speaker's obsession with the color tells us it has to be important. So let's take a look at the use of white in the poem to see if we might figure out its meaning.

    In this poem, this color white connects with peace and calm and purity and emptiness. It's the color of freedom, of numbness. Its opposite is red, the color of pain and attachment and, of course, those terrible tulips. Once we start looking for the word "white," we can't help but see how the color helps to tie this whole poem together.

    • Lines 2, 4: You know what's so great about these lines? The speaker actually talks to us. She wants us to notice just how much white there is all around her.
    • Line 9: There's a super-creepy simile here. She compares her head, stuck between the pillow and sheets, to an eyeball stuck "between two white lids." While we commonly associate white with things like purity and cleanliness, here, the white eyelids makes us think of a corpse – the whiteness of dead skin. Or maybe we're just being morbid. What do you think?
    • Line 12: How lovely. The speaker compares the nurses in their white caps to a flock of gulls flying in from the ocean. There's nothing sinister about sea gulls, right? So we're safely categorizing this one as a happy use of white in the poem.
    • Line 38: Uh oh. White's bad news again. The speaker imagines the tulips being like a hideous little baby, wrapped in white blankets. Yuck. Normally, the idea of a baby in a white blanket would be cheerful, but this baby is definitely bad news. The baby/tulips simile is a weird idea in the first place, and the fact that she calls the baby "awful" pretty much seals the deal. Remember that white sheets can be used to wrap the dead, as well. Yikes.
  • Water

    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.
  • Baggage

    This one comes up pretty briefly, but it's a major moment in the poem nonetheless. Baggage means a couple of things here: both the stuff she carried to the hospital and the kind of things you can't touch. You know how sometimes people talk about emotional issues as "baggage," as in "I can't deal with all her baggage?" Same thing here. The speaker wants to get rid of all her attachments to the world – the emotional connections that tie her down – and she uses the metaphor of "baggage" to talk about that feeling.

    • Line 18: Here's where she actually talks about baggage. While she's being partly literal, as she refers to her overnight case, we think she also might be talking about all the stuff that weighs her down, that stops her from being empty and free. She's happy that she has "lost herself" and the idea of having to hang onto anything makes her "sick."
    • Line 20: Now things get a little sadder. It's pretty clear that the speaker is using "baggage" as a metaphor for her connections to her family. Instead of being a source of comfort, they are a burden. That's no way to talk about her family, but by turning family into just another piece of luggage, an object like a leather suitcase, she conveys the depth of the change that is happening inside her.
  • Redness

    Those tulips are red; that much we know. But what's up with that exactly? Why not have white tulips or blue tulips or yellow tulips? Part of the answer might lie in the fact that in this poem, red is just about as far away from white as you can get. It's the color that fights and struggles with whiteness, that disrupts and dirties it. It's the color of threat and anger, the color of the awful tulips that the speaker hates so much. It's the color of wounds and pain. Yet it's also the color of real health, of the beautiful blossoming of blood in the speaker's heart. So what exactly are we supposed to make of that?

    • Line 36: Our speaker hates these tulips. She's particularly annoyed by their redness, which is the kind of thing you might say about a bright color, that it hurts your eyes. Still, we get the feeling that this goes a lot deeper, that the speaker feels somehow violated or terrified by the color red.
    • Line 39: When you give an idea like redness the ability to do human things like carry on a conversation, we call that personification, and in this case, it makes those flowers quite creepy, as if they have a mind of their own.
    • Line 42: In this particular metaphor, the speaker imagines that the tulips have turned into weights that pull her down under the water. Again, the redness of the weights conveys danger and threat. Plus, check out the rhyming sound there: "red lead." When the rhyme in a poem comes within a line rather than at the end, we call that internal rhyme.
    • Line 54: This image of a rusty engine stuck in the middle of the water is the tail end of a beautiful simile that compares this image to the way air flows around the tulips. One of the links that ties the two images together is our old friend, the color red. The red engine and the red tulips mirror each other in the way the air and water move around them. And as a bonus, Plath throws in a nice little bit of alliteration there, too, with the phrase "rust-red."
    • Line 61: We think this might be the most beautiful and surprising image in the poem, and the color red has a lot to do with that. Up until now, redness has been a symbol of pain, danger, fear – basically your average nightmare. But suddenly, things shift, and the speaker's compares her heart to a bowl of red blossoms. With that metaphor, she imagines a healthy, beautiful bunch of red flowers in her chest. They are the imaginary opposite of the awful tulips, as full of comfort and hope as the tulips are full of pain.
  • Eyes

    It's all in the eyes. The speaker in this poem feels alone, isolated and free from the outside world. Still, she also feels threatened, vulnerable, exposed to something out there that's watching her, that wants to hurt her. The image of the eyes is one way she expresses that fear, because the eyes in this poem are weird. They grow out of things that definitely shouldn't have them – namely, tulips.

    • Line 47: As we see it, this is a kind of light version of personification. The sun doesn't have eyes, and neither do tulips, so just by including eyes in this line, she gives us a pretty good idea of how warped the world seems to the speaker in this moment. Plus, think of how vulnerable she must feel, in this fishbowl where the sun and the tulips stare at her incessantly.
  • Pebble

    Compared to some of the other images in this poem, this one kind of flashes by. Still, we think it's a really important representation of the speaker's feelings about herself. The image of the pebble in the stream helps us to understand how completely empty and powerless (but also peaceful) the speaker feels.

    • Line 15: The speaker gives us plenty of images to help us understand how isolated and empty she feels. In this case, she uses a simile about rushing water and a pebble to let us know that she really doesn't feel so bad about being disconnected from the world around her. In fact, she seems to really like it. She can just sink to the bottom of a river, while the world rushes around her.
    • Steaminess Rating


      There are a few moments where the images get kind of lush and intense. Still, like most poems about hospitals, we're afraid this one isn't too sexy.