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The poem’s speaker is convalescing in a hospital room. Although she is attended by nurses and doctors, basically she is alone, and she has just received a dozen red tulips, obviously from her husband or a friend, as a get-well gift. In her mental condition, she perceives the tulips not as a joy but rather as a threat. Even before she unwraps the flowers, she thinks of them as a danger to her solitude. She also sees them as competing with her for her very breath, and therefore as depriving her of life (line 37). Still in the wrapping paper, which she compares to “white swaddlings, like an awful baby” (line 38; see Luke 2:7), the tulips seem not to cheer her, but rather they resemble “A dozen red lead sinkers” dragging her down into a drowning despair. It would appear that there is nothing the speaker might receive that she would not construe as threats to her continued existence.
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