In this essay, I will be analysing the poem Tulips by Sylvia Plath with the use of stylistic devices. This poem was published in 1965, after Sylvia Plath’s death. This is a first person poem composed of nine stanzas and each one contains seven lines with no rhyme scheme. It is about a woman who is recovering in a hospital room after she had a surgery. She receive a bouquet of tulips that confront her with their bright red colour and vividness. She goes into detail describing why they trouble her, claiming that she would rather be left alone with the quietness of white walls of her hospital room. The major themes of this poem are death, evasion and the contrast between reality and imagination. In this analysis, I will be focusing on lexical semantics, more specifically antonyms and synonyms, the conceptual metaphor theory and personifications.
First, I will be focusing on lexical semantics. Lexical semantics is the study of how meaning is represented by the use of language. To be more specific, the purpose of semantics is ‘to explain how literal meanings are linguistically encoded and decoded by speakers and hearers’ (Stringer, 2019, p. 180). Lehrer (2012) describes two parts that meaning consists of: ‘reference’ and ‘sense’. Reference is characterised by the application of words to different things, and sense explores relationships between words and linguistic expressions (p. 97). Sense describes the ways words are related to other words and also phrases by relationships like antonymy, synonymy, hyponymy, xenonymy or semantic fields.
The woman in Sylvia Plath’s poem describes the tulips to be ‘red’, ‘vivid’, ‘excitable’ and that they filled up the room like a ‘loud noise’. This is the opposite of the description of the environment that surrounds her, she details her room to be ‘quiet’, ‘peaceful’, ‘white’ and ‘snowed-in’. ‘The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here. / Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in’ (line 1-2). The description of tulips and her surroundings contrast each other, meaning they are antonyms. Mullany & Stockwell (2015) define antonym as ‘a word of another if its meaning is almost exactly the same’ (p. 65). The tulips are the representation of life in this poem, as she equates them with ‘red blooms’ of her heart, which goes on beating despite her wish for death. She complains that they are what is distracting her from her peaceful surroundings, as she compares them to a ‘loud noise’. The loud noise of these tulips disturbs the quietness of her room. The colour red is a strong contrast to the white room she inhabits. The colour white has been often associated with death and sadness in many Asian countries and in this poem it seems that it is also the case – she seems to have given up on life and the tulips she has received distract her from this thought and remind her of life in this death-like room. She is thankful for the whiteness of her surroundings, as it helps her to abandon her individuality. The tulips are torturing her with the though of life that caused her so much pain and the irony here, is that they are what save her from her lifelessness. As Johnson (1980) states, ‘The tulips “hurt” her because they are red, excitable, breathing, alive – they remind her of life and of the pain which is inextricable from life’ (p. 7).
The words that describe the tulips; red, vivid and excitable; are carrying a similar connotation in this poem, which means that they are synonyms in the context of this text. Stringer (2019) defines synonyms as ‘words with different phonology but with the same, or approximately the same, meaning (p. 185). To the woman in this poem, these words are all used to described the loudness the tulips emanate. They describe the life she’s trying to forget about, the life that the tulips bring out in her room and the fact that life is difficult to live. She is used to the mundane, lifeless, boring surroundings of her room and the tulips disrupt it with their contrast, life and excitability.
The words describing her room; quiet, peaceful, white and snowed-in; are also synonyms in this poem. The emptiness, whiteness and quietness of the room gives her a feeling of peace, in which she loses herself in, as it is the opposite of living. The atmosphere she is creating with her language in this poem makes these words synonyms.
In the next part of my analysis, I will be talking about the conceptual metaphor theory in relation to the poem Tulips. The conceptual metaphor theory is defined by Lakoff & Johnson (1980) as a ‘device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish – a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language’ (p. 3). We can observe many metaphors in the poem Tulips, such as ‘my body is a pebble to them’, ‘a dozen red lead sinkers around my neck’ or ‘the tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals’. We could argue, that the concept of tulips itself in this poem is a metaphor. The language Sylvia Plath uses in this text to talk about the tulips is as if she’s talking about life itself. The woman is upset with the tulips, because their liveliness and intensity remind her of the life that has caused her so much pain. For example, in the line 49, the poem states ‘The vivid tulips eat my oxygen’. The tulips here may refer to her life, as she is trying to avoid the mere thought of it. She feels like the sight of the tulips is killing her as does the thought of life. Another example of this, as I mentioned earlier in this paragraph is the line 42, in which she refers to the tulips as ‘A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck’. Again, she implies that the sight of the tulips is killing her. It is interesting that both of these metaphors refer to a death by suffocation. This could mean that the woman in the poem is overwhelmed by these tulips as she is overwhelmed with the difficulty of life.
In the lines 50-53 the poem states ‘Before they came the air was calm enough, / Coming and going, breath by breath, without any fuss. / Then the tulips filled it up like a loud noise.’ If we continue with the idea that the tulips actually represent the life of the woman in this text, this may imply why she prefers to be absent from living. In the first line of these three lines, the poem states that before the tulips came, she was calm and undisrupted – this may refer to a sudden disaster or a drastic change in her life that caused her to no longer continue to care about life. This idea can be further explored in the two following lines, where she continues to say that her life was quiet without any disruptions before the tulips came. This could further support the theory that she is actually talking about an event in her life, rather than the tulips, that had disrupted her life. The tulips cause her to confront the reality, that she is living in an environment that is not a true representation of life.
The very first line of the poem, ‘The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here’ contains a metaphor. She compares ‘winter’ to the life she is living in the hospital room. Again, she is referring to the white and simple environment that heavily contrasts with the red tulips. It is possible that the reason she is so opposed to the idea of having the tulips in her hospital room is because she is scared to enjoy her life. She is scared of what these tulips represent, the life they enforce, and of possibly getting hurt again.
In the very last stanza, in the line 57, the poem states ‘The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves’. This contains a metaphor, in which the walls refer to herself and the slow healing of her body and soul. ‘Warming up’ here represents the healing process, that is causing her to no longer experience the ‘winter’ she has felt in the first line of this poem. The tulips that she has complained about have caused her to have a desire to experience life again.
In the next part of this analysis, I will be discussing the personifications this poem contains. Lakoff & Johnson (1980) defined personifications as ‘extensions of ontological metaphors’ which ‘allow us to make sense of phenomena in the world in human terms – terms that we can understand on the basis of our own motivations, goals, actions, and characteristics’ (p. 34).
There are many examples of personification in Tulips. What is interesting about the concept of tulips in this poem, is that the woman talks about the tulips as if they were alive. ‘Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds’ (line 39). In this line, the personification is of the colour red, which talks to her wound. The colour red, or the tulips, can’t actually talk – this is the personification in this line. The communication with her wound is meant as a metaphor – the tulips are hurting her with their intense colour. The intensity of the colour of the tulips is getting through to her mind and soul. The ‘wound’ here could mean her actual wound that she is in the hospital for, but metaphorically it could also mean the wound on her soul that has been caused by the event in her life which caused her to have a fear of living. Although this is a personification, the tulips here could also refer to an actual person that has caused her to distance herself from life.
Tulips are personifies numerous of times, for example ‘Nobody watched me before, now I am watched. / The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me’ in the line 43-44. The personification here is ‘the tulips turn to me’- tulips cannot physically turn by themselves. The woman also feels that she is watched by the tulips, which is another metaphor since tulips do not have sight. The reason as to why she feels this way, is because the contrast between the white room and vivid red tulips is so strong.
The line 46, which contains another metaphor, states ‘And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow’. What is interesting about this line, is that the woman refers to herself as an inanimate object and from her language, she doesn’t seem to think of herself as a person. She refers to herself as an object a couple of times in this poem. For example, ‘My body is a pebble to them, they tend it as water’ in line 15, ‘I am nobody’ in the line 5, ‘I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boat’ in line 22 and ‘Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut’ in line 9. She talks about the sun and the tulips as if they were alive and personifies them and yet, she can’t think of herself in that way. It is possible that she thinks of the tulips to be more alive than she is. ‘I am nobody’ symbolizes giving up, she has surrounded her life to the hands of the hospital staff. ‘I had given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses’ (line 6). From this language, we can see that she has decided to abandon her identity. The tulips have come to bring her back to life, to reanimate it, which she’s very much opposed to because it means that she would have to gain back her identity.
In the line 9, which I have quoted in the previous paragraph, she compares herself to an object – eye. In the line 47, which states ‘Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips’, she personifies both the sun and the tulips. Because her room is so quiet and white, the sun and the tulips heavily stand out. It is as if she identifies herself with the surroundings and is trying to mimic it by losing her identity and herself. The tulips and the sun are infecting her mind with their vividness and she sees this as an attack, which is why she refers to the objects as if they were alive – it is possible that the reason she uses personification with these objects is because she feels that they are hurting her and changing her like an actual person.
In conclusion, Sylvia Plath’s poem Tulips was very interesting to analyse. This analysis has provided me with information in greater depth about issues such as identity and lack thereof, absence of life and the depression that comes with it and the idea of giving up on life completely and how it can infect a person’s mind. I am very impressed with the use of personification – the concept of treating inanimate objects as if they were alive and treating people as if they were inanimate objects. This poem was very interesting to read and I will definitely read more of Sylvia Plath’s poetry.
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Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. London: University of Chicago Press.
Lehrer, A. (2012). A theory of meaning. Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, 161(1), 97-107. Retrieved April 23, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23261442
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Stringer, D. (2019). Lexical Semantics: Relativity and Transfer. In Applied Linguistics for Teachers of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Learners (pp. 180-203). IGI Global