Plath splits this opening line into two sharp, clear, simple statements, so let's tackle them one at a time.
First she tells us that "the tulips are too excitable." If there's a word that jumps out there, it's probably "excitable." It's kind of a surprising choice, if you think about it. When you say that something (usually a person or an animal) is excitable, it means that it gets excited easily. But tulips are flowers, so how exactly are flowers supposed to get excited about anything?
Ah, but that's just it; that's the beauty of this line – it makes you imagine tulips so bright and vivid that they look excited. Cool.
Okay, now onto the second half of the line. In contrast to those worked-up tulips, she tells us, "it is winter here." What a perfect balance, huh? Winter is the opposite of excitable; it makes us think of still, cold, empty whiteness.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.
Check this out: the speaker is actually talking to us here, inviting us to see just what winter looks like to her. It's almost as if we're sitting right next to her, staring out the window.
And just what do we see out that window? A completely silent world covered in white snow. We certainly won't find any tulips out there.
I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
Here, for the first time, the speaker tells us about herself. Apparently she is lying somewhere (we're not sure where yet), quiet and alone.
There's also a neat word choice here that's worth noting. She says she is "learning" to be peaceful. The word choice tells us even more about our speaker because it hints that she isn't a naturally peaceful person. Maybe it's even a bit of a struggle for her to be that way. Maybe she's more like those tulips than she is like, say, that winter scene out the window. Or maybe she's like the tulips on the inside, but she's trying hard to stay cool, calm, and collected – winter-like – on the outside. We're not sure: what do you think?
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.
Okay, now we're really setting the mood (and it's not a good one). Everything seems just a little too bright: she uses the word "white" for the second time in two lines. We're practically squinting in the glare off the page.
Plus, notice how the light doesn't shine, it "lies" on the walls and bed and hands. Plath is lobbing another interesting word choice our way. This word reminds us of the way the speaker is lying in bed, but it also makes the light seem strangely heavy.
Oh, and one more thing: notice that she doesn't talk about "my hands," just "these hands," as if they didn't belong to her. As if the hands at the end of her arms are someone else's entirely. Strange.
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
Now we're really getting bleak. The speaker picks up on the hint she gave us in the last line, but now she disappears from the world completely; she's not anybody at all. In this white wintery room, her identity has been totally erased.
The rest of the line is a bit more mysterious. What does it mean that she has "nothing to do with explosions"? Naturally, this sneaky poem doesn't tell us directly. But we'll hazard a guess. We think it might link back to that image of the tulips – so bright and excitable that they seem to be exploding.
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
Excellent. More information for us hungry readers. The speaker, we find out, is in the hospital, because she tells us that she has given her clothes to the nurses. If you've ever had to put on a hospital gown, you know that's standard procedure. But you also know it can make you feel kind of silly, and very, very exposed.
For our speaker, though, it's more than that – she feels like she gave up her name with her clothes, almost as if she has given up her identity.
And my history to the anesthetist and my body to surgeons.
The speaker plows right along, emptying out everything that makes her a person. She's already lost her name. Now she tells us that she gave her history to the anesthetist (the guy who puts you to sleep – we usually say "anesthesiologist"). Of course she could be referring to just her medical history, but she leaves out the word medical. It seems to go deeper than that.
Apparently she's recovering from surgery, because she has given up her body to the surgeons, too. Can't this lady hang on to anything of her own?
Let's face it: this is a pretty bleak and scary way to end the first stanza of a poem.