"Tulips" is a first-person poem about a woman recovering from an unknown operation in a hotel room.
The woman first notes that her hospital room is like "winter," white and resembling snow, and that the newly-arrived tulips are too "excitable" for such whiteness. Everything is peaceful as she lies on her bed quietly, watching the light play on the walls, on the bed, and on her hands. She considers herself inconsequential, utterly removed from loud, explosive things. She has surrendered her identity and her clothes to the nurses, her "history to the anesthetist," and her body "to the surgeon."
The hospital staff has propped her body up between the pillow and the sheets, which she equates to being like an eyeball between two lids that cannot close. From this vantage, she cannot avoid "tak[ing] everything in," even though she wishes it were otherwise.
The nurses come in and out of her room, but they do not bother her. There are so many of them, all dressed in white and constantly busy doing "things with their hands," that she cannot determine how many of them there are.
She notes that the nurses treat her gently and smoothly, the way "water/ Tends to the pebbles it must run over." The nurses bring her sleep and numbness with their needles. Because of her illness and her sense of selflessness, she does not need the "baggage" that her life had before surgery: she does not need her black suitcase, or her husband and child that she sees in a family photo. She is like a "cargo boat" that holds onto her name and address only, and has lost all other "associations" in life. All of the material items from her old life melted away as she sunk below the water, and she likens herself to a pure nun.
In fact, she never wanted the tulips; she only wanted to lie in her bed and be empty, free, and peaceful. This simple peacefulness is utterly enormous, yet it only requires a "name tag, a few trinkets." She considers it akin to what the dead must feel, what they must close their mouths on.
The redness of the tulips pains her, and she believes she can hear them breathing lightly through their wrapping paper. The color also speaks subtly to the color of her wound. The tulips oppress and upset her, and she compares them to "a dozen red lead sinkers round [her] neck," dragging her down.
She used to be alone in the room, but now the tulips share her space, watching her and eating up the oxygen. She feels caught between the tulips and the window behind her, believing she has lost her face while surrounded by the flowers and the sun.
The air in the room used to be calm, but it is now agitated and loud because of the tulips. The air now draws her attention to the flowers, where her attention had previously been less directed, "playing and resting without committing itself."
She feels the walls are getting warmer. The only solution is to place the tulips in captivity, since they are dangerous like a jungle animal. Her heart opens and closes on its own, keeping her alive because it loves her. The water she tastes is "warm and salt," like the ocean, and comes from a place of health that she considers to be far away.
“Tulips,” written on March 18th, 1961, is one of Plath’s most beloved and critically acclaimed poems. It was originally published in Ariel. Ted Hughes has stated that the poem was written about a bouquet of tulips Plath received as she recovered from an appendectomy in the hospital. The poem is comprised of nine seven-line stanzas, and has no rhyme scheme. Its subject is relatively straightforward: a woman, recovering from a procedure in a hospital, receives a bouquet of tulips that affront her with their glaring color and vividness. She details the manner in which they bother her, insisting she prefers to be left alone in the quiet whiteness of her room.
“Tulips” is a rich and evocative poem. Plath contrasts the whiteness and sterility of the hospital room with the liveliness of the tulips. In regards to the former, she explains “how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.” There, she is “nobody” amidst of a sea of faceless nurses who bring "no trouble." She is frequently numbed by medications, and has lost all of her "baggage." She is but a “thirty-year-old cargo boat” whose former life has disappeared. In other words, she treasures the whiteness and sterility because they allow her an existence devoid of any self, in which she is defined by no more than the feeling she has at any particular moment. She has no context.
The tulips work against her desire to "lie with [her] hands turned up and be utterly empty.” She personifies them with excitability, with loud breathing, and with eyes that watch her as she rests. Her choice of adjectives - "excitable," "red," vivid" - all imbue them with a sense of liveliness. In fact, they are dangerous and alluring like an African cat. Even their color reminds her of her wound, which implicitly suggests it reminds her of her past.
The main tension in the poem, therefore, is between the speaker’s desire for the simplicity of death and the tulip's encouragement towards life. What attracts her to the sterility of the hospital room is that it allows her to ignore the complications and pains of living. Her “loving associations” have been stripped away, and she feels pure and peaceful. The feelings suggested by her description of the room are hibernation, dormancy, and detachment. Here, she does not have a “self.” She does not have to worry about her family, the pressures of being a woman, her education, etc. Perhaps the harshest image in the poem is that of her husband and child in a picture frame. For the average reader, this is the image we expect to encourage an invalid towards life, but she considers it as simply another factor of annoying encouragement. The tulips thrust themselves in front of her with all of the brazenness of life. They not only watch her, but also insist that she watch them. By bringing warmth and noise to the room, they demand she acknowledge the vivacity of life. One critic described the effect of the tulips on the speaker as the feeling one experiences when his or her leg begins to prickle with feeling after having fallen asleep.
The choice she must make is to either embrace death or painfully return to life. Most critics seem to agree that she chooses the latter. Marjorie Perloff writes that “in her anxiety, [Plath] equates the tulip petals with the ‘red blooms’ of her heart which insists on beating despite her desire for death. Finally, life returns with the taste of her hot tears; health is a ‘far away’ country but at least now it is remembered. The spell of the hospital room is broken.” In other words, she comes to realize that life is her natural state, and that she will fight for it instinctively in the way her heart beats instinctively. Pamela Annas bases her argument around the organization of stanzas. She notes how, in the first four stanzas of the poem, the speaker “[describes] the world of the hospital in the yearning tones of one who has already turned her back on it and knows it is slipping away,” and in the fifth, she begins referring to her wish to stay in the past tense. In other words, the verb tenses and tone suggest the speaker is slowly accepting her decision through the poem, rather than actively making the choice.
M.D. Uroff agrees, seeing the end of the poem as a tentative return to health, but also views the poem as an expression of the mind's ability to “generate hyperboles to torture itself.” In other words, he does not want the general interpretation - that the speaker chooses life - to distract from the harshness of her perspective towards life. Barbara Hardy concurs, writing that the tulips are “inhabitants of the bizarre world of private irrational fantasy, even beyond the bridge of distorted science: they contrast with the whiteness of nullity and death, are like a baby, an African cat, are like her wound (a real red physical wound, stitched so as to heal, not to gape like opened tulips) and, finally, like her heart;” yet they, more than anything else, are what bring her back to life. It is safe to assume that without them, she would have remained ensconced in her bed, enjoying her lifelessness. The irony of the tulips is that they save her by torturing her, by forcing her to confront a truth that she otherwise would ignore in favor of the easier lifelessness. What this interpretation implies, then, is that the choice of life is necessarily a difficult and painful one, whereas death is not itself a choice but rather simply a refusal to continue living.