Sandra Gilbert

Sandra Gilbert: On 1705 ("Volcanoes be in Sicily")

Dickinson felt that although "Volcanoes be in Sicily...I may contemplate / Vesuvius at Home." For as a mistress of the mysteries of transformation, Dickinson was not just an extravagant miracle-worker, an Empress of Calvary; she was a magician of the ordinary, and hers was a Myth of Amherst, a Myth, that is, of the daily and the domestic, a Myth of what could be seen "New Englandly." In this commitment to dailiness, moreover, even more than in her conversions of an unidentified figure into a muse and agony into energy, she defines and enacts distinctive mysteries of womanhood that have great importance not only for her own art but also for the female poetic tradition of which she is a grandmother.

From "'The Wayward Nun Beneath the Hill': Emily Dickinson and the Mysteries of Womanhood" in Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickison. Ed. Suzanne Juhasz. Copyright © 1983 by Indiana University Press.

Sandra Gilbert: On 1072 ("Title divine--is mine!")

Surely this poem's central image is almost the apotheosis of anguish converted into energy, what Dickinson elsewhere called the "ecstasy of death." Transforming the puzzles of life into the paradoxes of art, the poet/speaker is on a kind of "gay, ghastly, Holiday," reminding us that she is the same woman who once told Thomas Wentworth Higginson that "I had a terror . . . I could tell to none—and so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground—because I am afraid—."

It is significant, however, that the "gay, ghastly, Holiday" into which Dickinson so often converts her "great pain" is not a weekend in "Domingo" or a passage to India. On the contrary, though she characterizes herself as an Empress of Calvary, this poet is always scrupulously careful to explain that she "never saw a moor . . . never saw the sea" (1052). Her muse-like "King who does not speak" maintains his inspiring silence in a parlor, after all, and even the Master who owns the "Loaded Gun" of her art sleeps on an "Eider-Duck's / Deep Pillow" that sounds as homely as any bedding nineteenth-century New England had to offer. Dickinson loved exotic place-names—admiring, for instance, the "mail from Tunis" that the hummingbird brought to the bushes on her father's ground (1463)—but nevertheless the news of those distances came to her at home, in her parlor, her kitchen, her garden.

From "'The Wayward Nun Beneath the Hill': Emily Dickinson and the Mysteries of Womanhood" in Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickison. Ed. Suzanne Juhasz. Copyright © 1983 by Indiana University Press.

Sandra Gilbert: On "About the Bee Poems"

. . . . if having babies (and writing poems) was a way of escaping from the dark house of daddy's shoe, it was also, paradoxically, a frightening re-encounter with daddy: daddy alive, and daddy dead.

Nowhere is that re-vision of daddy more strikingly expressed than in the bee-keeping sequence in Ariel.Otto Plath was a distinguished entomologist, author of many papers on insect life, including (significantly) one on "A Muscid Larva of the San Francisco Bay Region Which Sucks the Blood of Nestling Birds." But his most important work was a book called Bumblebees and Their Ways, an extraordinarily genial account of the lives of bee colonies, which describes in passing the meadows, the nest-boxes, the abandoned cellars inhabited by bumblebees, and the "delicious honey" they make, but concentrates mostly on the sometimes sinister but always charismatic power and fertility of the queens. The induction of the colony into the bee box, stings, wintering, "the upflight of the murderess into a heaven that loves her"--all these are described at length by Otto Plath, and his daughter must have read his descriptions with intense attention. Her father's red-leather thesaurus, we're told, was always with her. Why not also Bumblebees and Their Ways? Considering all this, and considering also the points made by De Beauvoir, it's almost too fictionally neat to be true that Plath told an interviewer after the birth of her son, Nicholas, that "our local midwife has taught me to keep bees." Yet it is true.

Plath's bee-keeping, at least as it is re-presented in the Ariel sequence, appears to have been a way of coming to terms with her own female position in the cycle of the species. When the colony is put into the box by "the villagers," she is put into "a fashionable white straw Italian hat" (the sort of hat the fifty-ninth bear tears up, the sort of hat they would have given us at Mademoiselle) and led "to the shorn grove, the circle of hives." Here she can only imagine the "upflight" of the deadly queen--for she (both the queen and the poet), the poem implies, has been put into a box along with the rest of the colony. "Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold," she asks. But the question is merely rhetorical, for the box is hers, hers and (we learn in the next poem) perhaps her baby's. "I would say it was the coffin of a midget," she decides there, "or a square baby / Were there not such a din in it." And the rest of the piece expresses the double, interrelated anxieties of poetry and pregnancy: "The box is locked, it is dangerous ... I have to live with it . . . I can't keep away from it . . . I have simply ordered a box of maniacs ... They can be sent back./ They can die, I need feed them nothing. I am the owner . . ." culminating in a hopeful resolution: "The box is only temporary."

But when the box is opened, in the third poem, the bees escape like furious wishes, attacking "the great scapegoat," the father whose "efforts" were "a rain/ Tugging the world to fruit." And here, most hopefully, the poet, mother of bees and babies, tries to dissociate herself from the self-annihilating stings her box has produced. "They thought death was worth it, but I / Have a self to recover, a queen." And "Now she is flying / More terrible than she ever was, red / Scar in the sky, red comet / Over the engine that killed her-- / The mausoleum, the waxhouse."

Alas, her flight is terrible because it is not only an escape, it is a death trip. Released from confinement, the fertile and queenly poet must nevertheless catapult back into her dead past, forward into her dead future. . . .

[T]he great poems of Ariel often catapult their protagonist or their speaker out of a stultifying enclosure into the violent freedom of the sky. "Now she is flying," Plath writes in "Stings," perhaps the best of the bee-keeping poems . . . .

From "A Fine, White Flying Myth: Confessions of a Plath Addict." Massachusettes Review (Autumn 1978). [Note: The final phrases appear earlier in the essay.]