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Tracing Intertexts – (I)

Watch Dr Hannah Roche trace the intertextual relationship between Sylvia Plath, Amy Lowell and Andrew Marvell.
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When we talk about intertexts, we’re referring to relationships and connections between poems, often across decades or even centuries. In 1961, just a month after she had had her appendix removed, Sylvia Plath wrote a poem titled ‘Tulips’. At a poetry reading, she explained that the poem was ‘occasioned quite simply by receiving a bouquet of red tulips while convalescing in hospital’. But the poem is informed not just by Plath’s experience of recuperation, but also by her reading. In the poem, Plath’s overpowering red tulips
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threaten to kill and consume the patient-speaker: ‘The vivid tulips eat my oxygen’, writes Plath, ‘The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals’. But Plath was not the first poet to present tulips as a dangerous, death-dealing force. When she writes ‘The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me’, Plath echoes a poem written by another woman poet from Massachusetts, Amy Lowell. In ‘Appuldurcombe Park’, published in 1918,
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Lowell describes: rows of painted tulips. Parrot flowers, toucan-feathered flowers, How bright you are! You hurt me with your colors, Your reds and yellows lance at me like flames.
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SO TO COMPARE DIRECTLY: Plath writes ‘The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me’, and Lowell writes ‘You hurt me with your colors, / Your reds and yellows lance at me like flames’. In 1914, so four years before ‘Appuldurcombe Park’, Lowell had written a sonnet titled ‘A Tulip Garden’, where tulips are imagined as ‘platoons of gold-frocked cavalry, / With scarlet sabres tossing in the eye / Of purple batteries, every gun in place’. This idea of tulips as soldiers can be found in an even earlier poem, Andrew Marvell’s mid-seventeenth century poem ‘Upon Appleton House’. We might think about the similarities between those
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titles: ‘Appuldurcombe Park’ and ‘Upon Appleton House’.
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Marvell writes: See how the Flow’rs, as at Parade,
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Under their Colours stand displaid: Each Regiment in order grows, That of the Tulip, Pinke, and Rose. So we can trace an intertextual line back from Plath to Lowell to Marvell, finding that these tulips were first planted not in the 1960s but in the 1650s, three centuries before Plath wrote her poem. Finding these intertextual references and allusions is what makes our job as critical readers of poetry
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so exciting: it can feel like detective work, as we unearth unexpected points of influence and we piece together clues to the poetic past. T. S. Eliot, who described John Donne as a writer who ‘merely picked up, like a magpie, various shining fragments as they struck his eye’, famously claimed that ‘immature poets imitate; mature poets steal’.
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But intertextuality is not always a question of stealing: it’s about drawing readers’ attention to the work that may have informed or inspired a poem, and ultimately it’s about showing us that a poem may not be an independent unit in and of itself. There are often complex and enriching textual networks at play.

In this video, Dr Hannah Roche traces the intertextual relationship between Sylvia Plath, Amy Lowell, and Andrew Marvell through tulips…

Read the poems Dr Hannah Roche mentions in the links listed, below:

Over to you

Consider these prompting questions and let us know what you think in the comments section. You may like to use these questions as a starting point for your comment, or you may choose to answer one specific question – we look forward to hearing from you!

Which of the presentations of tulips do you prefer?

Does knowing about the ways they have drawn on and reimagined their poetic predecessors make a difference to how you read Plath’s and Lowell’s poetry?

How does each poet reinvent what they have found?

Let us know in the comments below.

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