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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.