Poetry Analysis – Sylvia Plath’s Tulips

Sylvia Plath’s Tulips, published in her collection Ariel, is about a woman recovering from an operation in a hospital room. It is written in nine, seven line stanzas without a rhyme scheme. The poem is written in first person point of view, the narrator is a figure observing the ground of the hospital. The present tense places the temporal deixis as I here now, giving the poem more urgency.

            The first figure introduced are the ‘tulips’ which are ‘too excitable’, the use of the adverb ‘too’ reinforces the description which has been projected from the woman as the relational deixis forces us to take her viewpoint. ‘It is winter here’ is present tense and determines the temporal deictic centre as I here now, the use of the locative ‘here’ shows winter is in close proximity to the narrator. This may refer to the white room or season but is deliberately ambiguous. The use of the abstract noun ‘winter’ implies the whiteness of the room and how the tulips stand out in it.

            In addition, ‘how white everything is… how snowed in’ represents the background the figure occupies, prototypical of a hospital as ‘white’ has connotations of clean and sterile and preserving the image schema (the term schema refers to ‘an element of background knowledge of a particular aspect of the world’[1]). White and red are the only colours emphasised throughout the piece; white represents the peacefulness the woman feels and the red of the flowers corresponds with the redness of her wounds and disrupts her inner peace.

            Speculative extension, ‘things the characters anticipate about their world’[2], of the narrator’s world comes from lines such as ‘[t]hey seem to float, though they weigh me down’ which is also paradoxical and emphasises the incoherence of her thoughts. Similarly, ‘[t]he walls, also, seem to be warming themselves’ view the scene from a limited perspective as heating up with the addition of the flowers, connecting back to their colour.

            At the end of the first stanza ‘[m]y day clothes to the nurses / And my history to the anaesthetist and my body to the surgeons’ fits the hospital image schema which is the domain space (area of activity) within the poem, triggering the script. The speaker has actively ‘given’ herself to the staff, surrendering her identity, and exposes the vulnerability of hospital patients. This is in contrast to how ‘sick of baggage’ the speaker is. The circumstances prior to the tulips ‘allow her an existence devoid of any self’[3] and it is these material desires which restrict her serenity. She goes into a wish world with a hypothetical space, ‘conditional situation[s]’[4], in the line ‘I only wanted / To lie with my hands turned up’ where the flowers were never in the room.

            Movers such as the nurses are described prototypically through an active voice ‘[t]hey have propped up my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff’ as they mother the patient, and the use of the preposition ‘between’ shows the spatial deixis of the narrator in the bed tucked up. This indicates her state of being cared for, a lack of responsibilities and therefor sense of self.

            The instrumental header, which ‘refer to actions that may lead to the invocation of a particular script’[5], ‘[t]hey bring me numbness in their bright needles’ is prototypical actions of nurses and reinforce the image schema. There is a summary scan of the ‘family photo’ where the smiles ‘catch’ onto her skin, like an irritation reminding her of her sense of self which explains why the narrator is grateful for the ‘numbness’. The internal conceptualised header (‘references to actions or roles from the script’[6]) ‘I have let things slip’ is describing prototypical emotions of a middle-aged woman, further reinforced by the conceptual metaphor ‘thirty-year-old cargo boat’ which implies the body is a vessel, and LIFE IS A JOURNEY. Journey is the source domain and life is the target.

            Other metaphors such as ‘[m]y body is a pebble to them, they tend it as water’ have a presentation space, which here is the ‘body’ and the ‘nurses’, and a reference space, the ‘pebble’ and ‘water’ which creates the blended space and emerges the meaning that the staff smooth her rough edges, bettering her. The imagery also relates back to the feeling of peace the woman seeks. She compares herself to a pebble, which indicates she has sunk in her surroundings and surrendered herself to the moving current of the staff.

            Plath builds the epistemic world, ‘knowledge worlds; what the characters … believe to be true’[7] through concrete description of the ground using nouns ‘my tea-set, my bureaus of linen, my books’. This develops the narrator by her self-analysis using perceptual deixis ‘I am a nun now, I have never been so pure’ showing that without belongings and identity (e.g. attachment) there is no suffering, leaving only innocence which is a Buddhist belief.

             Overall, through the ritual of being tended to which purifies the narrator, the poem has a sense of desperately wanting calmness and the narrative voice seems

[1] Jeffries, Lesley and MacIntyre, Dan, ‘5.2.1 Schemas, scripts and frames’, Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics: Stylistics (Cambridge University Press, 2010) p.127

[2] Stockwell, Peter, ‘Discourse Worlds and Mental Spaces’, Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction (London: Routledge, 2002) p.94

[3] http://www.gradesaver.com/sylvia-plath-poems/study-guide/summary-tulips

[4] Stockwell, Peter, ‘Discourse Worlds and Mental Spaces’, Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction (London: Routledge, 2002) p.96

[5] Jeffries, Lesley and MacIntyre, Dan, ‘5.2.2 Triggering Schemas’, Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics: Stylistics (Cambridge University Press, 2010) p.129

[6] Ibid

[7] Stockwell, Peter, ‘Discourse Worlds and Mental Spaces’, Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction (London: Routledge, 2002) p.94



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