Sylvia Plath

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Compare "The Bull Calf" by Irving Layton to "Tulips" by Sylvia Plath.

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In comparison, both poems are written in free verse using common language. They also use imagery, dramatic tension and logical progression of thought to advance their messages. Both poems are thematic in nature, but “Tulips” is an expression of the speaker's mental state; “The Bull Calf” is an expression of a death of innocence.

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Your first step in writing your essay is to identify the basic characteristics of Irving Layton's “The Bull Calf” and Sylvia Plath's “Tulips.”

Layton's poem is composed in free verse with no particular rhyme or meter. It is a narrative poem in four stanzas that uses common language and...

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tells the story of the death of a bull calf. This everyday incident on a ranch (for apparently there is “no money in bull calves”) becomes symbolic. The calf is both innocent and apparently filled with pride. The latter, of course, is ametaphor, for the calf is an animal, and the speaker is attributing human emotions and ideas to it (personification). The speaker sees the calf as being impressed that it can be away from its mother, but it doesn't realize that it has been taken away only to be killed.

The calf stands trustingly when the speaker and his companions kill it, and the speaker imagines what the calf is going through when it is struck. Notice the sharpness of the one-word line at the beginning of the third stanza that emphasizes the suddenness of the blow. At this point, the poet uses vivid imagery to help us enter into the calf's experience. Then the poem takes a step back, and we see the bull calf dead in its grave. The speaker thinks it is beautiful, and it has no pride now. It is peaceful. The speaker weeps, for the calf symbolizes the death of innocence.

“Tulips” by Sylvia Plath also uses symbolism, as well as much figurative language. It, too, is a narrative poem. The speaker is a patient, probably in a mental hospital. She first vividly describes her shaky peacefulness, and she uses plenty of metaphors and similes to do so. Her head is like “an eye between two white lids.” The nurses pass like gulls, and the speaker's body is a pebble. The patient herself is a “thirty-year-old cargo boat.”

Apparently someone has sent the speaker some bright red tulips as a gift, but those tulips are highly disturbing to her. They are like wild animals ready to pounce. They suck the oxygen out of the room. The tulips actually become symbolic of the speaker's illness.

This poem is also in free verse, but its nine stanzas of seven lines each do carry some internal rhythm. The language is common and accessible although a bit higher than Layton's diction. The speaker's tone shifts from calm to agitated, reflecting her illness.

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