Plath, Sylvia

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Stanford, Ann Folwell
  • Date of entry: Jan-16-1998
  • Last revised: Jan-09-2007


In this nine-stanza, sixty-three line poem, the speaker articulates her process of recovery from surgery in terms of the image of "excitable" tulips that interrupt her "winter" sojourn in the hospital where she has "given [her] name and [her] day-clothes up to the nurses / And [her] history to the anesthetist and [her] body to the surgeons." The images in the poem link one stanza to the other (the nurses like "gulls," her body "a pebble," her family "little smiling hooks," herself "a thirty-year-old cargo boat").

The image of the eye appears throughout the poem as well. The speaker is herself the pupil of a huge eye whose lids are the pillow and the sheet; in another stanza she finds herself existing between the "eye of the sun" and the "eyes of the tulips," herself without a face, but beginning to see beyond her own pain.

The speaker has wanted only quiet and emptiness and is agitated by the presence of the tulips, whose "redness talks to [her] wound" and "weigh [her] down" as she is being "watched" and nearly suffocated ("The vivid tulips eat my oxygen") by them. The tulips, dangerous as "some great African cat," remind the speaker of her heart, a "bowl" that blooms red "out of sheer love of me," and realizes that the tulips call her, ultimately, back to "a country far away as health."


Tulips is a fascinating look at the interplay between the desire for isolation and anonymity a hospital provides and the process of moving out of that isolation in the journey toward health. It also describes the totalizing qualities of pain and the necessary self-absorption that accompanies recovery. Plath's mention of the family as "hooks" is troubling and provides useful context for discussions about the family's role in a patient's healing. Finally, it is a beautifully crafted and complex poem that rewards several readings.

Primary Source

The Collected Poems


Harper & Row

Place Published

New York