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Literature11 - The Poetry of Sylvia Plath: Poem: Tulips

Tulips by Sylvia Plath
‘Tulips’ by Sylvia Plath is a personal and confessional poem. It explores the poet’s innermost emotions and mental state. After being hospitalised for an appendectomy, Plath wrote this poem about a bouquet of tulips that Ted Hughes had gifted her. Hughes himself noted that this poem was the first that she wrote “at top speed, as one might write an urgent letter. From then on, all her poems were written this way.” The poem balances the ease of death with the tulips voracious desire for life. Plath hates the tulips, ‘vivid tulips eat my oxygen’, not wanting to acknowledge reasons to live. Tulips marks a change in Plath’s writing, setting her on a course of destruction. The poem delicately balances ideas of life and death, ruminating on Plath’s own state of mind.

Audio: Tulips by Sylvia Plath

Poem: "Tulips" by Sylvia Plath



The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.

Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.   

I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly

As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.   

I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.   

I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses   

And my history to the anesthetist and my body to surgeons.


They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff   

Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut.

Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in.

The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble,

They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps,

Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,   

So it is impossible to tell how many there are.


My body is a pebble to them, they tend it as water

Tends to the pebbles it must run over, smoothing them gently.

They bring me numbness in their bright needles, they bring me sleep.   

Now I have lost myself I am sick of baggage——

My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox,   

My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;   

Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.


I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boat   

stubbornly hanging on to my name and address.

They have swabbed me clear of my loving associations.   

Scared and bare on the green plastic-pillowed trolley   

I watched my teaset, my bureaus of linen, my books   

Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head.   

I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.


I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted

To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.

How free it is, you have no idea how free——

The peacefulness is so big it dazes you,

And it asks nothing, a name tag, a few trinkets.

It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them   

Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet.   


The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.

Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe   

Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.   

Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.

They are subtle : they seem to float, though they weigh me down,   

Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color,   

A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.


Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.   

The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me

Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,   

And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow   

Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,   

And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.   

The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.


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.

Now the air snags and eddies round them the way a river   

Snags and eddies round a sunken rust-red engine.   

They concentrate my attention, that was happy   

Playing and resting without committing itself.


The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.

The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;   

They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,   

And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes

Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.

The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,

And comes from a country far away as health.


First published in 1962 and collected in Ariel in 1965. Reprinted in The Collected Poems, 1981.

Sylvia Plath, “Tulips” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1960, 1965, 1971, 1981 by the Estate of Sylvia Plath. Editorial matter copyright © 1981 by Ted Hughes. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

Source: Collected Poems (HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 1992. From Poetry Foundation,


Sylvia Plath reads "Tulips"

SOURCEL C (Oct 30, 2012) YouTube,