Karen Ford: On "The Swarm"

The sense of anonymity that opens "The Swarm" (215-17)--"Somebody is shooting at something in our town"--has the opposite effect of the atmosphere of anonymity in "The Bee Meeting." In the earlier poem, the speaker’s inability to distinguish the identities of others serves to heighten her own extreme subjectivity. Here, however, the speaker is not concerned with determining who the particular actors are; on the contrary, the poem will argue that "somebody" is ultimately "everybody."26

In "The Swarm" the speaker parallels her own personal story with world history; however, unlike a later poem such as "Daddy" (222-24) that makes historical facts a questionable image for private feelings ("Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen. . . . / I think I may well be a Jew"), "The Swarm" extends its interest outward to others. Only in the first stanza does the speaker briefly account for the shooting in terms of her own experience: "Jealousy can open the blood, / It can make black roses." Her first impulse when she hears the shooting is to think what would motivate her to violence--jealousy. She indulges her imagination in one vivid metaphor--that visualizes blood-saturated gunshot wounds as "black roses"27--but then immediately turns to the larger question: "Who are they shooting at?"

The voice that emerges in the second stanza to answer this question is powerfully accusatory, marshaling a variety of rhetorical resources to the task of declaring an important truth about history. It begins, "It is you the knives are out for / At Waterloo, Waterloo, Napoleon"; the long, repeated u-sound of "Waterloo" echoes the direct indictment, "It is you," and insistently recalls the place name of his crushing defeat. The image of the throats is used again in this poem to suggest victimization and vulnerability--the facts about the masses that "somebody" like Napoleon would deny:

Shh! These are chess people you play with, Still figures of ivory. The mud squirms with throats, Stepping stones for French bootsoles. The gilt and pink domes of Russia melt and float off

In the furnace of greed.

The narrative of Napoleonic aggression is interwoven with that of the swarm. The bees have swarmed into the top of a tree; the sound of the gun shots is supposed to draw them down (it is not the case, as some readers suggest, that the man is actually shooting into the hive). The bees, like "everybody," have learned that the lesson of history is violence:

So the swarm balls and deserts

Seventy feet up, in a black pine tree.

It must be shot down. Pom! Pom!

So dumb it thinks bullets are thunder.


It thinks they are the voice of God

Condoning the beak, the claw, the grin of the dog

Yellow-haunched, a pack-dog,

Grinning over its bone of ivory

Like the pack, the pack, like everybody.

The bees "argu[ing], in their black ball," the "yellow-haunched" pack-dog, Napoleon with "The hump of Elba on [his] short back, the "man with the gray hands" (whose hands turn out not to be human hands at all but "asbestos receptacles") all appear stooped and deformed by violence. Each has learned hostility at the hands of the other and chooses to return it, believing that the sound of aggression is "the voice of God." In fact, the gunman’s excuse for shooting at the swarm is that "They would have killed me."

The pervasiveness of violence is what allows Napoleon to be "pleased" at the end of the poem, even despite his own defeat at Waterloo. The weapons of the bees, "Stings big as drawing pins!" (their version of the "knives" and "cutlery" and possibly an image suggesting map pins used by military strategists to pinpoint battle sites), prove to him that the "bees have a notion of honor / A black intractable mind." Like the swarming drudges in "Stings" who attack the scapegoat in an act of self-sacrifice for the hive, the bees in "The Swarm" also lay down their lives for the pack. "Napoleon is pleased, he is pleased with everything" because he recognizes that "everyone," indeed "everything," condones the beak and the claw.

The speaker, however, knows from witnessing the self-destruction of the bees in "Stings" that violent retribution is not "worth it"; she comes to "The Swarm" from "Stings" able to confront the abuses of history because she is not susceptible to the lesson they teach. Yet the task of confronting such a history is strenuous. Not surprisingly, the poem employs excess as if to steel itself against its own revelations. The stylistics of excess can be heard in "The Swarm" in the alliteration ("Somebody is shooting at something" and at every repetition), the assonance ("The man with gray hands stands," "marshals, admirals, generals," "black intractable mind,"), the frequent repetitions ("pom, pom" [repeated eight times], "Waterloo, Waterloo," "Mass after mass," "Shh! // Shh!" "Clouds, Clouds," "The pack, the pack," "Elba, Elba," "Napoleon is pleased, he is pleased with everything"), the buckling anagram ("Elba, Elba, bleb on the sea!") and the onomatopoeic "pom, pom." Additionally, the poem ricochets from metaphor to simile as the parallel between Napoleon’s army and the bees provides constant opportunity for analogy. Thus, the speaker, who has been striving throughout the sequence to relinquish verbal excesses, discovers in "The Swarm" the efficacy of such a style once more. The poetic excess that characterizes the poem is, I think, necessitated by the speaker’s attempt to square off against history. What she confronts in the poem is the same oppression she experiences in her private life--played out on a world scale. Understandably, then, the tactics that enabled her to withstand her own hardships permit her to address the suffering of others as well.

From Gender and The Poetics of Excess: Moments of Brocade. Copyright © 1997 by the University Press of Mississippi. Reprinted by permission of the author

Ellin Sarot: On "The Swarm"

"And as a poet," Sylvia Plath was asked by an interviewer in October 1962, "do you have a great and keen sense of the historic?" "I am not a historian," Plath replied,

but I find myself being more and more fascinated by history and now I find myself reading more and more about history. I am very interested in Napoleon, at the present: I’m very interested in battles, in wars, in Gallipoli, the First World War and so on, and I think that as I age I am becoming more and more historical.

"I certainly wasn't at all in my early twenties," she added, suggesting that distance from youth one feels on turning thirty, as Plath had the same month as this interview.

Sylvia Plath's account here of historical interests seems to forecast what might have proved part of her subject matter, had she lived. The background of history usually associated with her work is the Nazi era, which appears in the imagery and figures of several poems she wrote in the last months of her life. Among these are, for example, "Lady Lazarus" (written 23-29 October 1962), in which the speaker counts out " A cake of soap, / A wedding ring, / A gold filling," and "Daddy" (12 October), in which the figures poised in their now familiar terrifying opposition are the father, a Nazi "panzer-man," and the daughter, who declares herself his victim and a Jew, "I think I may well be a Jew." Such late poems suggest that by October 1962 Plath was working toward public patterns to accommodate personal dread.

Among her terrors that October was freedom: what it meant, how to find it, or, having had it thrust unwanted on her, how to use it. October 1962 was a difficult time for Plath, marked not only by the ordinary milestone of turning thirty but also by extraordinary upheaval and enormous, unexpected literary productivity. This was the month Plath and her husband Ted Hughes separated legally, a month when she struggled to maintain her home in Devon while feeling abandoned, furious, and humiliated. She sought household help and an au pair girl to assist her with her children, a son nine months old and a daughter two-and-a-half years old. This was also the month in which Plath wrote twenty-five poems, many now the basis for her reputation. In one week in October, Plath wrote a sequence of poems she originally called "Bees," in which the female speaker's progress toward self-possession and self-definition is realized through identity with the queen bee, emblem of generation, or birth and rebirth. The sequence consists of five poems: "The Bee Meeting" (3 October), "The Arrival of the Bee Box" (4 October), "Stings" (6 October), "The Swarm" (7 October), and "Wintering" (9 October). With the exception of "The Swarm," the bee poems are ahistorical, drawing on a background not of historical horror but self-begotten myth.

[. . . .]

For Plath, bee imagery, like the references to Germany, evokes the figure of her father, Otto Emil Plath, a German-speaking emigrant from Grabow, a biologist specializing in entomology and author ofBumblebees and Their Ways (1934), who died when she was eight. Generally underlying all of Sylvia Plath's work is the theme of a daughter's relationship to a dead father she ambivalently loves and hates, who seems to her a malign god against whom she is compelled to struggle to salvage identity and, the consequence of that compulsion, the theme of a desperate recovery of the self. From this figure, then, issue both the historical poems, with their German, or Nazi, references, and such ahistorical work as the bee sequence, where the grief informing the earlier bee poems and the desire to reunite with the dead father are transformed to fury—the same fury revealed in "Daddy"—and to the female speaker's urgent flight toward freedom.

[. . . .]

Although bees provide the imagery and the title of "The Swarm," this poem, unlike the others in the sequence, is focused neither on the queen bee nor on a female speaker striving for an authentic self. Of all the poems Plath wrote during October 1962 only "The Swarm" reflects a particular historical interest she mentioned in the interview she gave that month, for the central figure in the poem is Napoleon.

Plath had probably had Napoleon on her mind since her review of Hubert Cole's biography of Josephine, which had appeared in the New Statesman the previous April. In her review, Plath praised Cole for recreating "with a beautifully steady luminousness the sense of what it meant to be a certain person in a certain period." "The portrait of Napoleon," she wrote, "growing from the fresh genius, the passionate lover and husband (never so loving that it could make his ambition tremble), into the Emperor and godhead of France, comes completely alive in the mirror of Josephine's devotion." This devotion, this womanly capacity to become a mirror and call it love, Plath knew, and hindsight suggests that the episodes in Josephine's life that Plath selected for comment reflected her own difficulties—or, eerily, foretold them. At the end of the review Plath pictured the former empress, long after Napoleon, pursuing hopes of dynasty and empire that were to end in defeat, had abandoned her:

She and her children have a blessed strength; their loyalty to each other is an odd contrast in the public tumult of vacillation and defections. It persists, undiminished, just as Josephine's loyalty to Napoleon persists—even after the notorious divorce and through the draughty, scabrous damps of Navarre, to which he relegated her, and her final grandmotherly mellowing at Malmaison.

The reviewer in England recapitulating Josephine's predicament comprehended the dangers of "draughty, scabrous damps" (being herself plagued lifelong by recurrent sinus infection), and one has only to think of Plath's theme of angry grief for the father—or consider, perhaps as early as April, the incipient defection of the husband—to see how deeply she comprehended a bitter consciousness of abandonment.

Whether Plath may have seen in Josephine's situation some reflection of her own, surely she was fascinated to read Cole's description of her attire for the coronation in 1804, a "robe of white satin, embroidered in gold and silver and scattered with golden bees." Golden bees were Napoleon's personal emblem, richly embroidered in his coronation mantle, and, in paintings, tapestries, and architectural designs, were intended to reinforce the idea of French empire, going back, as they do, to the hundreds of metal bees discovered in 1635 at Tournai, in the tomb of the Merovingian king Childeric.

* * * *

"The Swarm" opens, however, not with Napoleon or with the bees of the title, but with a speaker—neither emperor nor empress, not general, or soldier, only, perhaps, mere villager—who notes the beginning of an assault: "Someone is shooting at something in our town— / A dull pom, pom in the Sunday street." The question that follows, "Who are they shooting at?" is immediately answered: "It is you the knives are out for / At Waterloo, Waterloo, Napoleon." Snow, the Russian winter that defeated Napoleon, marshals its "brilliant cutlery" against him. Obeying no will or law but his own, Napoleon disregards lives caught by his war:

. . . These are chess people you play with,

Still figures of ivory.

The mud squirms with throats,

Stepping stones for French bootsoles.

The gilt and pink domes of Russia melt and float off


In the furnace of greed.

The bees in "The Swarm" have a double identity. At first they are Napoleonic, his emblem and his army, which will "fall / Dismembered, to a tod of ivy":

So much for the charioteers, the outriders, the Grand Army!

A red tatter, Napoleon!


The last badge of victory.

The swarm is knocked into a cocked straw hat.

The "badge" and the suggestion in "cocked" of the cockade that symbolized a liberty Napoleon's assumption of the French throne perverted, transport Napoleon from his lost gamble in Russia to exile on "Elba, Elba, bleb on the sea" and fulfill the first step of his ultimate defeat which the earlier invocation of "Waterloo, Waterloo" forecasts. With Napoleon's defeat, the leaderless "white busts of marshals, admirals, generals" only worm "themselves into niches," their assigned historical places; and the bees, "Walking the plank draped with Mother France's upholstery / Into a new mausoleum, / An ivory palace, a crotch pine," appear both to die and yet to survive their emperor, losing their freedom to the rule of a new palace as well as recovering in a new white hive.

At the same time, the bees are also the victims of war. They are part of the besieged town on whose Sabbath war erupts. At Napoleon's thunderous entry, "the swarm balls and deserts / Seventy feet up, in a black pine tree":

It must be shot down. Pom! Pom!

So dumb it thinks bullets are thunder.


It thinks they are the voice of God

Condoning the beak and the claw . . .


The bees have got so far. Seventy feet high!

Russia, Poland and Germany!

With the naming of these countries, as if by compulsive anachronistic reference, the victims of Napoleon's war instantly become analogous to victims of the European Holocaust of more than a century later. Bees arguing "in their black ball, / A flying hedgehog, all prickles" are kaleidoscoped with victims taken by trains to the Nazi death camps:

The man with grey hands stands under the honeycomb

Of their dreams, the hived station

Where trains, faithful to their steel arcs,


Leave and arrive, and there is no end to the country.

"The man with grey hands smiles— / The smile of a man of business, intensely practical." He, to use a nearly forgotten phrase, is a good German: wary, obsequious, his self-serving defense is, "'They would have killed me."' In the wake of Napoleon's brutal glory, the true conqueror asserts himself, with hands that "are not hands at all/But asbestos receptacles," capable of surviving unharmed both the holocaust of "the furnace of greed" and the stings of the bees.

By the end of the poem, the tableau of history would seem to have become recollection, not action, the bees an idea of bees, an emblem, rather than a vital swarm. Recalled by Napoleon, the bees are part of the history in which he himself figured, and, as such, their power is magnified—"Stings big as drawing pins!"—although the comparison undercuts the bees' power, reducing it to the mundane order of thumbtacks. Brooding on his sea-girt bubble of remnant kingdom, Napoleon can think, "It seems bees have a notion of honor," or loyalty—the virtue Plath praised in Josephine and her children when she reviewed Hubert Cole's biography—while "the man with grey hands," who survives exaggerated foes by remaining loyal to himself, has none. Remembering glory, "Napoleon is pleased, he is pleased with everything," for like "the man with grey hands," he formulates history according to his delusion, to serve his own purposes. What remains at the end of "The Swarm," perhaps for the cataclysms of the twentieth century to ravage, is "O Europe! O ton of honey!"

Written the same week as the other poems Plath provisionally grouped under the title "Bees," "The Swarm" shows few connections to those poems other than what that provisional title indicates, and these few have a quality of association. In "Stings," which directly precedes "The Swarm," it is possible to see the queen bee who is imagined as "Poor and bare and unqueenly and even shameful" as a recollection of the discarded empress, Josephine; and the bees in "Wintering," which follows "The Swarm" and ends the sequence, file "like soldiers" in a simile that offers the only military reference in these poems other than that in "The Swarm." The bees in the other bee poems, developing for Plath from a personal mythology, symbolize interior history, a psychological dilemma from which the central speaker tries to free herself. From the start, this struggle is hindered and compromised, the bees remaining the emblem initiated by Otto Plath's life and death. Whatever power the self engaged in contest with this great haunter gains stays contingent, for power in these poems means the capacity to dismiss the haunter, or his surrogate, that "third person," the "scapegoat." In the bee sequence, as elsewhere in Plath's work, the speaker's freedom requires motion ("Lady Lazarus"), flight ("Ariel"), the resolution of conflict having become a pursuit of queens hip meant to prove equal to the father's ghostly kingdom. Its conditions mixing what threatens with what heals, this is a freedom overruled from its beginning.

In spite of its general connection through the bee imagery to the other poems in the sequence, "The Swarm" differs from them not only in relying on a particular historical figure and background but also in having no central female speaker. There is, by contrast, a glaring absence. The speaker in this poem, however responsive and subjective, stays a voice, observant, informative, external, and even genderless. Perhaps, thinking of Josephine, Plath converted sympathy for the rejected empress into a paradoxically palpable female absence, this in a poem portraying Napoleon's brute genius and defeat. If while reading about Napoleon, as Plath mentioned in the interview she was doing, she turned to War and Peace, or recalled it, she would have found there a passage to fortify the coincidence of Napoleon and bees, the defeat in Russia, and this absence of a female center, for Tolstoy wrote of the deserted city Napoleon conquers, "Moscow was empty it was empty: empty as a queenless, dying hive is empty." Yet had she turned to War and Peace, Plath would also have found, in the Epilogue, in the disquisition on history and on necessity and free will, Tolstoy's argument against "biographical historians," those who view "the power that moves nations. . . . as a force inherent in rulers and heroes." Sylvia Plath's use of history was romantic: she was, it seems, in love with larger-than-life presences and drew them, from life, from myth, and from history, into her poetry. History was personal, its wars, in which no woman participates, an attack on her, while the masculine power which initiates battles confines her to the rituals of birth, the life of the hive. The figure of the father that recurs in Plath's work appears an implacable tyrant, a "colossus"—or emperor—in a child-daughter's vision. Both as a person and as a poet, Plath wanted heroic presences, as if these could order chaos, as if, the human-self, father, world-proving flawed, giants were needed, and miracles.

Yet in "The Swarm," where the bees are appropriate equally to the father, whose presence they imply, and to Napoleon, who actually appears, the alloy of personal imagery and public figure suggests that here, as in other poems usually called "historical," Plath had begun to move in a direction T. S. Eliot urged young poets to take, to labor for "the historical sense," "which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year." A generation of poets pursued Eliot's idea of depersonalization, to be followed by another that turned away from impersonal art, toward individuality, baring personality to its nethermost psychoanalytical roots. It is with this generation that Sylvia Plath came into her own, although toward the end of her life she began to move away from them, relinquishing the autobiographical confines confessional poetry had taught her to enter and to use.

She died, at thirty, too young to have formed any conscious and complete philosophy, the kind that afforded Eliot accessible patterns and that Yeats, with whom Plath felt a special sympathy, assembled in A Vision and used as a foundation for poetry. Although Plath knew their work well, the patterns that availed these longer-lived poets and allowed them their doubtful faiths in times of upheaval and wars were not for her. Sylvia Plath's impulse toward myth-making might have led to a different pattern: in the sequence of bee poems, excepting "The Swarm," the struggle for autonomous female life and for self-unity emerges from dramatic and symbolic imagery, yet this imagery itself derived from the same center—the figure of the father—from which the historical poems, with their different, public reference, sprang.

Shortly before her death, Plath constructed a manuscript she called "Ariel and Other Poems" which differs to some degree from either the Ariel first published in England in 1965 or the same title published in an expanded edition in the United States the following year. Plath's list of contents shows that she chose to end her book with the bee poems. Her list also shows that, having compiled the manuscript, she hesitated, putting the poem "The Swarm" into a hand-penned parenthesis; and the poem is not included in her typed manuscript. It appears she recognized that, although connected by association to the other bee poems, this one mirrored different—that is, historical—concerns. The English edition of Ariel, in fact, abided by this parenthesis, omitting "The Swarm," but when the American edition was published it was restored.

Placement of the bee poems at the end of the book, had her plan been followed when Ariel was published, might have led to a different sense of Plath's intentions, as a woman and as a poet, than conclusions based on the poems that close the book, poems that range in dates of composition from June 1960 ("The Hanging Man") to the last week of Plath's life. The four final poems—"Kindness" (I February 1963), "Contusion" (4 February), "Edge" (5 February), and "Words" (1 February)—offer a distillation of fury and grief true to the course of the poet's action, her suicide, and without that redemptive desire for wholeness and rebirth shown in the bee poems. In November 1962 Plath wrote to her mother that she had "finished a second book of poems in this last month," and, from the papers in the Smith College Library Rare Book Room, there is no evidence that, Plath herself altered the design of her book, to include either earlier work or poems written after she had put the manuscript of "Ariel and Other Poems" into order.

Her effort in the bee poems to subsume anger at obstruction and abandonment and terror of annihilation forecast what might, in time, have proved to be a feminist political vision of the kind now associated with the work of Adrienne Rich, the only woman poet Plath acknowledged as a rival, whose first collection of admittedly angry, consciously feminist poems, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, was published the year of Plath's suicide. Dying before the current feminist movement took hold, Plath, like generations of women before her, protested in favor of humanity—walking with her baby in the pram to a "Ban the Bomb" march in London, decrying the building of shelters and the competition for such safety—rather than protest the lot of women, that is, protest on behalf of her own life.

As it was, Plath found her images for personal anger, for want of power, in historical victims of injustice and horror and in the violences of history. "The Swarm" issues from the impulse toward history, yet its composition among the poems of the bee sequence, which reject male dominion and cultivate female authority, and its relation to them through imagery and through antagonism to an overwhelming, if, here, defeated male figure, afford this poem a balance between myth and history that may be unique among Sylvia Plath's poems.

From "'Becoming More and More Historical': Sylvia Plath's 'The Swarm.'" Concenring Poetry 20 (1987).

Karen Ford: On "Stings"

The third poem of the Bee sequence, "Stings" (214-15) fulfills this prediction. Not only have the bees been set free (they now dwell in and around their hive) but the speaker, too, we learn in the first word of the poem, is "bare-handed." In some ways, "Stings" is another bee meeting, but this time the speaker and the bee seller are equals--working together and similarly attired for the job: "Bare-handed, I hand the combs. / The man in white smiles, bare-handed." The short fifth line, containing only the pronouns "he and I," and the stanza break that follows it with a gulf of white space, suggest the insularity and detachment of the two workers. The basis of their relationship appears to be the orderliness of their work. There is something sterile in their association yet also something undeniably tender:

Bare-handed, I hand the combs.

The man in white smiles, bare-handed,

Our cheesecloth gauntlets neat and sweet,

The throats of our wrists brave lilies.

He and I


Have a thousand clean cells between us,

Eight combs of yellow cups,

And the hive itself a teacup,

White with pink flowers on it,

With excessive love I enameled it


Thinking ‘Sweetness, sweetness’.

The imagery makes clear that there are no more battles, even parodic ones, as there were in "The Bee Meeting." Taking up an image of armor from that poem, "Breastplates of cheesecloth knotted under the armpits," "Stings" reworks it, infusing it with the tender tidiness that characterizes these opening stanzas, "Our cheesecloth gauntlets neat and sweet." Similarly, the ghastly image of feeling "nude as a chicken neck" finds its delicate counterpart here in "The throats of our wrists brave lilies." The inside and the outside of the hive alike exude domestic refinement and charm when they are compared to china teacups that are "yellow" and "white with pink flowers." Everything about this passage is "sweet"--the relationship between the workers, the honey, the hive, the paintings, and, most of all, the speaker’s former love.

"Stings" is so renowned for its ferocity that it is easy to forget this painfully tender opening. The aspects that are said to give it vehemence--the speaker’s refusal to remain a drudge (and the jealousy among the female figures this decision supposedly sets off), the drudges’ attack on the scapegoat, and the queen’s "violent" bride flight--are simply not enough to negate this gentle beginning. Plath drafted and finalized "Stings" on the backs of her husband’s own writing work sheets. She began the poem two months before the burst of writing in October that produced the Bee sequence when the pain of losing Hughes was probably sharpest. Further, the earliest drafts of the poem were written on the reverse sides of several Hughes’ poems about the birth of their first child (Van Dyne 159); these were pages that documented their lost happiness. Thus, she began the poem in a period of acute pain and on the very papers that could only serve to intensify her misery. The threat of stings in this passage comes less from the bees than from the evocation of the "excessive love" the speaker recalls as she performs her beekeeping tasks. The stings the scapegoat receives from the bees can be nothing compared to the stings the poet experiences in writing under these conditions or those the speaker evokes in remembering her former relation to the hive. At the very least, the sensitive opening must give another resonance to the title that readers of the poem seem reluctant to acknowledge.

Additionally, that resonance ought to inform the other aspects of the poem. For example, the speaker’s attitude toward other women, represented by the beekeeper’s relationship to the queen and the drudges, is not at all condescending or competitive. Though she makes the important disclaimer, "I am no drudge," she clearly has been acting the part of one for years. She is sympathetic with the "women who only scurry" and worries that they will hate her for refusing to continue scurrying herself. Virtually every critic who discusses the speaker’s relationship to the drudges quotes the paradoxical line that describes them but invariably misses the paradox (or avoids it by eliding part of the line). The speaker says, "I stand in a column // Of winged, unmiraculous women." At least half the quotations of this passage omit the word "winged"; the rest treat the line as though it read "wingless unmiraculous women." "Winged, unmiraculous women" is paradoxical because a woman with wings would be miraculous; "winged" suggests flight, transcendence, loftiness. The drudges, then, are not inherently ordinary; rather they represent women whose strangeness has evaporated in the service of others, here of the hive and the queen, elsewhere of husbands and children, women whose energies have been "pour[ed] . . . through the direction and force" of others. Their attack on the scapegoat verifies that they are not utterly servile. The speaker recognizes this.

Even the description of the scapegoat is affected by the tone of the opening. The key word from the first two stanzas, "sweet," unexpectedly appears again here: "He was sweet, // The sweat of his efforts a rain / Tugging the world to fruit." There is an initially negative connotation in the "sweat of his efforts," some sense that he has encouraged the world to fruit (probably best read as having fathered her children or more generally having made her blossom) and then left it in a state of vulnerability to suffer. Yet "sweet" and "sweat" associate themselves through sound for a much more positive effect and reveal that the speaker recalls him with tenderness.

Further, she alludes to the Cinderella story in her description of his disappearance: "Here is his slipper, here is another, / And here is the square of white linen / He wore instead of a hat." These lines acknowledge his vulnerability by feminizing him; he is Cinderella who leaves behind her slipper or the coy woman who drops her hankie in an attention-seeking gesture. It is not surprising that such descriptions are followed by the conciliatory phrase, "He was sweet." It appears that she delegates revenge to the bees--"Molding onto his lips like lies, / Complicating his features"--yet this simile hints that his own evils are his undoing. The bees merely dramatize his crimes. His deceptions have complicated his features, have made him seem altered. However, even his change is qualified by the Cinderella allusion, another tale of personal transformation. Further confusing the purpose of the allusion is the speaker’s own implication in it; she, too, is a Cinderella figure: "for years I have eaten dust / And dried plates with my dense hair." (These lines are laden with other allusions as well. The serpent’s punishment for tempting Eve was to eat dust; Mary Magdalene washed Christ’s feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.) Finally, calling him "a great scapegoat" overtly acknowledges that she is transferring her own guilt to him. When he is chased off by the bees, he carries away her sins as well as his (we recall from "The Bee Meeting" that her black veil "mold[ed] to her face" like the bees here have molded to his); this is perhaps the source of the feminine imagery.25

Though some of these lines seem to establish a connection between the speaker and the scapegoat, the passage is framed by the speaker’s detachment. First she says, "A third person is watching. / He has nothing to do with the bee-seller or with me." After the bees sting him, an act which assures their death, she asserts, "They thought death was worth it, but I / Have a self to recover, a queen." Her detachment is clearly a much more significant victory for her than revenge would have been. If "Stings" is a vengeful poem, it is only ambiguously so.

The drafts of "Stings," however, disclose a much more brutal treatment of the scapegoat. The speaker’s self-possession in the final version is shown to be hard won as the scapegoat enters the poem a stanza earlier and cuts a quite different figure:

He was sweet,


The sweat of his efforts a rain

[On the world that grew under his belly]

Tugging the world to fruit.

Now he peers through a warped silver rain drop;

Seven lumps on his head

And a [great] big boss on his forehead,

Black as the devil, and vengeful.


                                (Original Drafts 14)

In this version, he begins to look more like the ominous male figure in "Daddy," a later poem that indulges its speaker’s resentment. That resentment surfaces here in the evidence that the scapegoat has been recently beaten--he has bumps on his head. The drafts confirm that Plath edited out a more vicious caricature of the scapegoat. Likewise, she deleted many elements from the drafts that added tension and hostility to the poem--gagging repetitions, the idea of desertion, and the specters of dead men. Noticeably, these are the kinds of elements that she emphasized in "The Bee Meeting." "Stings," then, is a poem that self-consciously suppresses excess; yet it is still a poem of tremendous energy and "terribleness."

Here the speaker, like the queen, is "more terrible than she ever was" because she confronts tenderness, loss, anger, resignation, and release bare-handed--as the first word of the poem asserts. And despite the way we generally read it, "Stings" is neither obsessed with maiming the male figure nor with the violence of the queen’s flight. She is, after all, a "red / Scar," not a bleeding gash; thus, she embodies a wound that has already begun to heal. And even the "red comet" that leaves such a fierce impression is nevertheless ambiguous--potentially (and historically) a sign of good luck. (Like the red meteor in The Scarlet Letter, this comet is susceptible to multiple readings, an intertextual resonance that Plath’s poem exploits.)

It would be foolish to deny that the lion-red queen is the precursor of a group of terrifying female images that Plath will create in the next few weeks and days. As the material miseries of her solitary life bear down on her, her anger justifiably explodes. In "Fever 103o" (231-32) the woman is the lantern "going up" as "The beads of hot metal fly, . . . a pure acetylene / Virgin / Attended by roses"; in "Ariel" 239-40) she is "the arrow, The dew that flies / Suicidal, at one with the drive / Into the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning"; in "Purdah" (242-44) she is "The lioness, / The shriek in the bath, / The cloak of holes"; and, most famously, in "Lady Lazarus" (244-47) she is the phoenix figure who rises "with [her] red hair / And . . . eat[s] men like air." Though these poems postdate the Bee sequence and may articulate Plath’s final emotional perspective, they cannot be considered her concluding poetic statement. Around Christmas 1962, after all the Ariel poems were written, Plath carefully arranged them for the book placing the Bee poems last. "Stings," with its contradictory emotional swings, is therefore a crucial part of her culminating poetic vision.

Finally, it is the sweetness that causes the sharpest pain in "Stings." Remembering lost tenderness and "excessive love," catching a glimpse of the man who "tugg[ed] the world to fruit," putting the hives in perfect order with another man, even standing with the honey-drudges, watching the honey-machine, and witnessing the queen’s ascension--each of these has an element of sweetness that she cannot ignore.

The breakthrough of "Stings" is that it is intensely personal in its themes yet not excessive in its final style. This new relationship between subject and style enables the poem to articulate complex and ambivalent emotions without attempting to depict them as monolithic and overwhelming. In this, it anticipates "Wintering," where the speaker adds resignation and hope to the emotional range she has been developing throughout the sequence. In "Wintering," the speaker faces the most difficult confrontation of all--that with herself. At this point, however, having assessed her relationship to the community in "The Bee Meeting"; to her art in "The Arrival of the Bee Box"; to her husband, children, other women, and her own contradictory fictional selves in "Stings"; she next addresses her relation to history in "The Swarm."

From Gender and The Poetics of Excess: Moments of Brocade. Copyright © 1997 by University Press of Mississippi. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Mary Lynn Broe: On "Stings"

Central to Plath's developing consciousness, and visually central in the sequence, is "Stings." It seems that in the queen bee's double-bind situation, Plath identifies with the complexities of her institutional position as queen versus her experiences as mother. The young girl makes this stark discovery of kinship as early as the first poem, "Beekeeper's Daughter":

Here is a queenship no mother can contest--

A fruit that's death to taste: dark flesh, dark parings.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 

set my eye to a hole-mouth and meet an eye 

Round, green, disconsolate as a tear.

(We must remember that the apiary is a world of curiously inverted sexual principles. The queen, parthenogenic, can only produce idle male drones--"the blunt clumsy stumblers, the boors"--who will ruin the hive. Only the drone mate can contribute the female principle to the union.) One law, however, is central to the apiary. The queen, old and plushless, neither directs nor participates in any of her subjects' riches of cross-pollination, never sees daylight, has no bodily provisions for work. To her the virgin worker's world of activity is "death to the taste." She remains ill-fated, hidden, and otherwise useless in her singular mission of motherhood.

The paradoxical nature of the queen extends to other levels as well. The queen lives for one moment--a brief nuptial flight, blend of ecstasy and tragedy, life and death. Apiarists tell us that the mate of the queen--chosen from thousands of suitors who pursue her high-spiraling nuptial flight--lives for a single moment of delight. But in this instant of "dark pa(i)ring" as he impregnates the queen, his abdomen slits open, loosing the entrails which the queen then totes behind her as a kind of triumphal banner. Dispensable (his death required for propagation of the hive), the mate falls to earth as a carcass. The queen sports her murderous trophy, proof she has guaranteed the future of the hive.

Yet when required, the queen can be mistress of evasion, proving her cleverness by refusing to show herself in the smoking-out ritual (when the virgins are moved so they do not kill the old queen bee). "She is very clever./ She is old, old, old, she must live another year, and she knows it." Her power is in absence:refusing to show herself in duel with younger virgins or to escape some random fate from villagers. To her--and this is what Plath learns about power in a sequence where physical power is at least undermined, if not continually mocked--power is an attitude, a matter of perceiving life and death, the familiar and the terrible comprehensively, wholly. She manipulates the visible from the vantage point of isolation. Though physically her fate is in others' hands, imaginatively she remains untouched, "sealed in wax." Likewise the young girl speaker at the bee induction--exhausted from the tedium of ignorance, fear, and hosts of unanswered questions--chooses immobility. Despite outward conformity, she remains a "gullible head untouched by their [the bees'] animosity."

In "Stings" the speaker successively dons the roles of beekeeper, honey-drudge, and queen in a dramatic exploration of their various functions. "It is almost over./I am in control," she announces midway through the process of adopting and rejecting various forms of power. And indeed Plath is in control. She conducts us from the literal level of "sweet bargaining" for honey, through the mechanical collection of it by drudges, finally to the queen bee's controlling inactivity which is her last triumph.

In the final stanza, despite the imagined ritual deaths throughout the sequence, the elusive queen, at last visible, is a triumph of contradictions. She comprises images of illness, vulnerability (red scar, wings of glass) as well as those of vital resilience. Here--in fact, in the whole sequence--the authoritative mode is abandoned.

From Ariel Ascending: Writings About Sylvia Plath. Ed. Paul Alexander. Copyright © 1985 by Paul Alexander.

Margaret Dickie: On "Stings"

In "Stings," . . . she and a man in "white smiles" remove the honey cells from the hive. Once again the queen bee does not show herself; if she exists at all, she is old, "Poor and bare and unqueenly and even shameful." All that the speaker recognizes are "winged, unmiraculous women / Honeydrudgers," with whom she does not want to identify, although she wonders if "These women who only scurry" will hate her. In control now, she sees "A third person watching," who has nothing to do with the bee-seller and herself. He is "a great scapegoat," the person the bees attack. "They thought death was worth it," but the beekeeper refuses that death. "I / Have a self to recover, a queen," she admits, although again she does not find her but imagines her as a flying "red comet."

This curious choice between revenge on the man which means death and recovering a self which signifies life introduces a prophetic note into the poem.

From Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Copyright © 1979 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Jeannine Dobbs: On "Stings"

In "Stings" (Ariel), she identifies with both the drones and the queen, and reveals the conflict between her domestic and her poetic--her queenly--selves:

I stand in a column


Of winged, unmiraculous women,


I am no drudge

Though for years I have eaten dust

And dried plates with my dense hair.


And seen my strangeness evaporate . . .


They thought death was worth it, but I 

Have a self to recover, a queen.

But even had she wished it, the real children could not be folded back into her womb. They were there to contend with along with the daily, routine, household chores. Added to this was the frustration of being married to a poet, whose own poetry was getting written while she dusted, diapered, and served as his secretary.

From Modern Language Studies (1977)

Karen Ford: On "The Bee Meeting"

In the first poem, "The Bee Meeting" (211-12) the speaker finds herself in the midst of other people. The long, Whitmanian lines sprawl horizontally to accommodate the crowd of villagers, "The rector, the midwife, the sexton, the agent for bees" and later "the butcher, the grocer, the postman, someone I know." There may be a pun in the title of this first poem (and in the running title for the sequence) since the word "bee" itself refers to a group of neighbors. In an interesting etymological loop, the word "bee," meaning a meeting of neighbors who unite their labors for the benefit of one of their number (as in a barn raising bee or a quilting bee), is an allusion to the social character of the insect. This sense of "bee" may account for the fact that the villagers all appear to be doing something specifically to or for the speaker and may qualify the speaker’s paranoid response to their attentions toward her.

The place and time of the meeting suggest that the speaker is at a transitional stage. She meets the townspeople "at the bridge," a symbolic place of connection between divided locales and, therefore, a site of change. The way the speaker is dressed confirms the time of the year is summer, a season traditionally associated with the final harvest that precedes decline. Further, the sequence itself moves from summer to winter--and even beyond since the final poem promises spring. Many readers are fond of emphasizing that Plath’s Ariel began with the word "love" and ended with the word "spring" (Poems 14-15), but none has stressed the significance of summer in this culminating sequence. She began the Bee poems shortly after moving to the country cottage she had dreamed of, giving birth to her second child, losing her husband to another woman, seeing her first book of poems in print, and finding a publisher for her first novel. Clearly, the new volume of poetry would reap the sweet and bitter fruits of these recent events. The Bee poems assess the speaker’s relation to her neighbors, children, husband, other women, and herself, as well as her place in history. The summer season hints that one phase of her life is ending, and so it is an appropriate time for reevaluation and change.

The most distinctive feature of "The Bee Meeting" is its gothic tone. If this is a poem about transition, then the speaker finds change extremely disorienting--even nightmarish. The speaker’s paranoia is conveyed through her confused and incessant questions, inability to recognize familiar people, stuttering repetitions, monstrous personifications, and obsession with violence and death. Likewise, the bizarre setting is created through imagery and metaphors of violence, a mixed atmosphere of the ritual, the carnival, and the funeral, and mythic allusions. These elements are intensified rhetorically with alliteration, assonance, and dissonance. Noticeably, then, the formal features that lend the poem its gothic tone are the staples of Plath’s poetics of excess. In this expressionistic landscape the speaker must begin to puzzle out her relationship to others. Significantly, the task demands that she control her overactive imagination, that is, that she see through the thematic and rhetorical trappings of excess that she herself has contrived.

The poem opens and closes with questions and is riddled with questions throughout. Of the eleven stanzas, all but two have at least one question and most have more. Through much of the poem, the speaker tries to answer them herself; but when the last line closes the poem with yet another question, obviously it cannot be answered (at least not within this poem). Consequently, it is the one inquiry in the poem that is not punctuated with a question mark as though the atmosphere of enigma and uncertainty has been naturalized in this perplexing setting, and the interrogative is now as definitive an utterance as she can formulate.

Her first questions concern the people around her and what they are doing: "Who are these people at the bridge to meet me?" "Which is the rector now, is it that man in black? / "Which is the midwife, is that her blue coat?" "Is some operation taking place?" "Is it the butcher, the grocer, the postman, someone I know?" and finally "what have they accomplished?" The manuscript drafts from this poem reveal that Plath changed many of these questions from straight declarative sentences apparently in order to intensify the speaker’s confusion and disorientation.20 Her sense of alienation from her neighbors naturally serves to emphasize her isolation, but this is a larger point than we may at first realize. A central issue of the Bee sequence is the speaker’s autonomy; the sequence, in fact, works to separate her from others. In itself, isolation is not a problem; on the contrary, it is a state the speaker must achieve in order to know herself, gather her resources, and pursue a new direction. The anxiety and dislocation she experiences in "The Bee Meeting" suggest it is the community of neighbors--not isolation--that the speaker cannot tolerate. She receives their attempts to help her, well-intentioned though they may be, as assaults upon her. She feels vulnerable ("In my sleeveless summery dress I have no protection"), effaced by their efforts to protect her ("here is the secretary of bees with her white shop smock, / Buttoning the cuffs at my wrists and the slit from my neck to my knees. / Now I am milkweed silk, the bees will not notice."), forced to conform ("they are making me one of them"), and yet finally betrayed ("The villagers are untying their disguises, they are shaking hands. / Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold"). However, there is no evidence in the poem that the villagers actually behave suspiciously. Instead, what should be obvious is that participating in the collective life of the village has disastrous effects on the speaker; clearly, she is not "one of them," and thus she finds their attempts to include her extremely threatening.21

It is not only in her dealings with the townspeople that the speaker’s perceptions are distorted and exaggerated. She views the setting with the same expressionistic sensibility that informs her apprehension of the villagers. Stanzas four and five depict a dangerous and frightening landscape:

Strips of tinfoil winking like people,

Feather dusters fanning their hands in a sea of bean flowers,

Creamy bean flowers with black eyes and leaves like bored hearts.

Is it blood clots the tendrils are dragging up that string?

No, no, it is scarlet flowers that will one day be edible.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

They are leading me to the shorn grove, the circle of hives.

Is it the hawthorn that smells so sick?

The barren body of hawthorn, etherizing its children.

All elements of the scene are personified, exacerbating the confusion of who’s who, in the opening stanzas, with what’s what here. The contraptions for warding off plant foragers (strips of tinfoil and feather dusters) present an image every bit as alien as the townspeople in their apiary gear; indeed, they are "like people" but only in the respect that they are as weird and ominous as the villagers. The "eyes" of the bean flowers are black, as though, bruised; their leaves are like pierced hearts; their flowers like blood clots; and the hawthorne tree kills its own offspring. These personifications compare the elements of the landscape to a monstrous humanity and thus have the effect of dehumanizing the whole environment.

On the other hand, the speaker depicts herself as inextricably bound in her own humanness. Throughout the sequence she alludes to Daphne, who metamorphosed into a laurel tree to elude Apollo, in contrast to her own human vulnerability. In this poem she imagines herself becoming "milkweed silk" and "cow-parsley" so that the bees will not attack her. In the second poem, "The Arrival of the Bee Box" (212-13), she employs the Daphne myth more explicitly, again as a fantasy of protection from the bees: "I wonder if they would forget me / If I just undid the locks and stood back and turned into a tree." The desire to transform from the human to the vegetable reveals a longing to escape sexual oppression. In Ovid, the source for this allusion, Daphne’s father wants his daughter to marry and have children (specifically male children): "‘Daughter, you owe me a son-in-law . . . you owe me grandsons!’" (I, 37). But Daphne resists: "‘O father, dearest, grant me to enjoy perpetual virginity" (I, 37). Though she is granted her wish ("He, indeed, yielded to her request" I, 37), she remains prey to the male sexual privilege that marriage would institutionalize. Daphne’s physical vulnerability, like the speaker’s here and in "Stings," is captured in the image of her bare arms: "[Apollo] marvels at her fingers, hands, and wrists, and her arms, bare to the shoulder" (I, 37). Surely the speaker resembles Daphne in this: in "The Bee Meeting" she says, "In my sleeveless summery dress I have no protection," and in "Stings" again she is "Bare-handed . . . the throats of [her] wrists brave lilies." The emphasis on physical vulnerability is crucial since elsewhere in mythology, as in the myth of Daphne and Apollo, the transformation into a tree is effected in order to escape sexual assault.

Moreover, the metamorphosis into a plant concerns the definition and boundaries of the human. One could change into a god or an animal (categories believed to be the outside limits of the human), but these beings are still sexually vulnerable. Only by relinquishing all claims to the human can Daphne escape sexual assault. For the speaker of the Bee sequence, however, such a metamorphosis is simply another conceit and one she must give up in order to achieve the self-awareness and new self-definition of "Wintering" (217-19). Significantly, then, the allusion occurs early in the sequence in the two most technically wrought poems with their personifications, myths, alliterations, repetitions, and what has been termed their "manic metaphor-making" (Van Dyne 168)--"The Bee Meeting" and "The Arrival of the Bee Box." By the last poem, "Wintering," the association between the woman and the plant is merely analogous, not metamorphic. She is clearly human, knitting over the cradle of her child (and therefore no longer like the virginal Daphne): "The woman, still at her knitting, / At the cradle of Spanish walnut, / Her body a bulb in the cold and too dumb to think." One might be tempted to say that the baby is encased in the Spanish walnut like Daphne in the laurel tree and that the woman too is becoming a plant, no longer even able to speak. However, the walnut tree merely serves the mother and child, by being fashioned into a cradle, in the same way that the metaphor of the bulb serves the poet, by providing an image for her hibernation. Her ability to control these plant metaphors attests to the progress she has made since the beginning of the Bee sequence. These are distinctions the earlier poems fail to make. Such restraint is still far off in "The Bee Meeting" where personification and metamorphosis are employed to heighten the speaker’s strangeness, vulnerability, and confusion.

Even so, the speaker recognizes that the myth of metamorphosis, like the other conceits in the poem, is an inadequate solution to her problem; however, her moment of clarity is brief at this point. In the crucial and distinctive seventh stanza, she confronts the hysterical tone and the surrealistic allusions to Daphne, "I cannot run, I am rooted, and the gorse hurts me / With its yellow purses, its spikey armory," and says flatly, "I could not run without having to run forever." Her separateness from others--the real issue in the sequence--would pursue her even into the Daphne myth; when she becomes "rooted," that is, transformed into the tree to evade the bees and villagers, the other vegetation now assails her: "the gorse hurts me / With its yellow purses, its spikey armory." And significantly, the flowers and prickles of the gorse are imagined as both female (purses) and male (armory) just like the communities of the villagers or the bees. Abandoning all tropes in the sanest line of the poem, she admits, "I could not run without having to run forever." Fleeing the actual scenes and causes of her anxieties is futile, but she still has not given up the attempt to escape into literariness. After this bald avowal, she appears to delegate the Daphne imagery to the hive: "The white hive is snug as a virgin, / Sealing off her brood cells, her honey, and quietly humming." The lines recall Daphne’s metamorphosis: "her soft sides were begirt with thin bark. Her hair was changed to leaves, her arms to branches. . . . Her gleaming beauty alone remained" (I, 41). The contracting assonance of the long i’s that signals the shutting up of the hive ("white hive") and the whispered alliterations of s’s and h’s ("snug," "sealing," "cells" and "honey," "humming") betray the speaker’s lyric responsiveness to the bees. The self-containment and contentment that the hive achieves at the end of stanza seven is short-lived, however, just as the speaker’s moment of sanity was; in stanza eight when the bees are smoked out of the hive, they (and the speaker) once again take flight of their senses: "Here they come, the outriders, on their hysterical elastics." Their fear ignites hers, and she reverts to her earlier fantasy of metamorphosis by trying to "stand very still, [so] they will think I am cow-parsley."

Feeding this impressionistic mood is the speaker’s inability to perceive accurately, to rein in her hyperactive imagination and hone her vision. Like the paranoid questions that can be answered reasonably ("Who are these people at the bridge to meet me? They are the villagers" or "I am nude as a chicken neck, does nobody love me? / Yes"), the speaker must revise her first impressions of the landscape: "Is it blood clots the tendrils are dragging up that string? / No, no, it is scarlet flowers that will one day be edible." The repeated emotional burst of "No, no" as she realizes the red clots are only flowers suggests that the simple reassuring answer is as unnerving to her as the alarming question because their contrast is a measure of her extremity. Her task in this poem is to liberate herself from both the bizarre and the mundane. She will confront more directly in "Stings" (214-15) that she does not want to end up as the queen, the extraordinary but fated center of the hive; yet she also does not want to become the drudge, one of the "unmiraculous women" whose "strangeness evaporate[s]" from a life of domestic labor. Her vacillations from the bizarre to the mundane, from the surreal to the real, from suspicious questions to matter-of-fact answers are finally what exhaust the speaker by the end of the poem--"I am exhausted, I am exhausted"--though she, like many readers of the poem, blames the villagers.

The frequency with which readers of "The Bee Meeting" conclude that the villagers fiendishly draw the innocent speaker into their demonic ritual attests to the poem’s success in evincing the speaker’s point of view.22 Yet, the townspeople appear menacing because her fantastic imagination distorts perception. It is true, as nearly every reader points out, that the first list of villagers includes the town officials--the rector, the midwife, the sexton, and the agent for bees--and therefore suggests some sort of public ritual. Yet the second list, an even more important one since it enumerates the people who might be the central mysterious "surgeon" performing the ritual, is noticeably composed of common, insignificant, and thus innocuous characters: the butcher, the grocer, the postman, and most vaguely, "someone I know." Moreover, the setting of the mysterious ritual is borrowed, like the Daphne imagery, from literature and thus gives the poem self-conscious literariness rather than emotional veracity. The event is modeled on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, "Young Goodman Brown," in which the title character, like the speaker here, has a nightmarish meeting with his neighbors in a shorn grove. That Plath wants to tap the literariness of this allusion rather than merely its theme and mood is obvious in the more playful, imbedded references to Hawthorn--the hawthorn tree in the grove and the "scarlet" flowers that recall The Scarlet Letter. Like Young Goodman Brown, the speaker of "The Bee Meeting" is a dubious judge of the intentions of the villagers.

In some ways, her position in relation to the villagers is very much like that of the bees. The townspeople do not intend to harm the bees; they merely want to divide the hive into three hives and save the queen bee from the virgins. Yet the bees misinterpret the smoke (that is used to drive them out so the hives can be moved): "Smoke rolls and scarves in the grove. / The mind of the hive thinks this is the end of everything." Likewise, the queen hides from the people who are trying to help her: "The old queen does not show herself, is she so ungrateful?" The intensely lyrical quality of some of these passages (the long o’s that almost seem to loop and curl like the smoke they are describing--"Smoke rolls and scarves in the grove"--the long i’s that tighten and enclose the bees in a unity of sound--"The mind of the hive") again belies the speaker’s sympathetic identification with the bees. Strategic repetitions further link the speaker to the bees; she says of herself, "They will not smell my fear, my fear, my fear" and of the queen, "She is old, old, old." This connection between the speaker and the bees must be read carefully, however, for its purpose is to separate her from the villagers every bit as much as it is to associate her with the bees. She is like the bees primarily in that she is unlike the townspeople. Further, the bees themselves are similar to the villagers in some ways (in their group function, in their hierarchy, in the threat they pose to the speaker). This point is more important than it first appears. Many readers interpret the sequence, especially the third poem "Stings," as a work in which Plath attempted to create an image of herself from the bees, whether as victimized wife (the drudges) or victorious poet (the queen bee). Yet the larger success of the sequence depends on the speaker’s recognition that the hive is an unsatisfactory model for human social relations (indeed, the metaphor of the hive amounts to a critique of heterosexual social relations) and that the bees are outside of her, as everything that oppresses her is. Distinguishing herself from her conceits makes possible the relationship to the bees she acknowledges in "The Swarm" (215-17)--"How instructive this is!" Here at the end of "The Bee Meeting" she still confuses herself with the bees, "Whose is that long white box in the grove . . . why am I cold," and experiences a foreboding of death (an early draft of this line read "that coffin, so white and silent" [Van Dyne 165]). Yet, like the bees, she must learn that this is not "the end of everything." By the last poem, she has established her autonomy as well as her connection to the world; despite the fact that Plath changed the sequence title from "The Beekeeper" and "The Beekeeper’s Daybook" to "Bees," the speaker is aware in the last poem that she is a beekeeper not a bee. When she says in "Wintering," "It is they [the bees] who own me," she does not mean that she cannot distinguish herself from them--only that she is connected to them by their dependence upon her, a relationship she assents to: "This is the time of hanging on for the bees." Thus, the speaker’s rhetorical and emotional identification with the bees in the first poem, like the other intensely imaginative elements, stems from excesses that the sequence as a whole works to overcome.

Another aspect of "The Bee Meeting" that often diverts critical attention from the speaker’s unreliability is the penultimate stanza in which the new virgins

Dream of a duel they will win inevitably, A curtain of wax dividing them from the bride flight, The upflight of the murderess into a heaven that loves her.

The appeal of this stanza, of course, is that it prefigures the violence of the bride flight in "Stings" and is consistent with the theme of vengeful self-destruction that is said to monopolize Plath’s imagination. And, indeed, it does foreshadow the third poem of the sequence in its vision of "recovering" a queen, as "Stings" will say. However, much more important here is the fact that the bride flight remains merely a dream. This poem ends with exhaustion and uncertainty not, like "Stings," with energy and self-assurance. And, as might be expected, the speaker recedes even further into the unreality she has been struggling throughout the poem to cast off.

The failure of her effort to distinguish between the real and the surreal is anticipated in the opening of the final stanza which signals her defeat, "I am exhausted, I am exhausted," and confirmed in the last line where three accusing questions give vent to her worst fears, "Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold." She sees what appears to be a coffin, realizes something has ended, and feels the chill of the grave already upon her. Yet the box, the sense of accomplishment, and the iciness of death all derive directly from her own metaphor in the preceding lines. When she claims to be a "Pillar of white in a blackout of knives. / . . . the magician’s girl who does not flinch," she is, in effect, conjuring up her own box and stepping into it. Reneging on all the other images for herself the poem has contrived, this last metaphor makes passivity a performance and tinctures the funereal atmosphere with the carnival. Embracing virginity with a vengeance, she becomes the magician’s "girl"--both daughter and assistant--who participates in the trick of Sawing the Lady in Half.23 The box, then, is the prop that makes the optical allusion possible. She is the "pillar of white in a blackout of knives" because she is the stoical girl in the box who remains unscathed even as the phallic knives appear to pass through her, a variation of Daphne who becomes the unfeeling tree in order to avoid Apollo’s sexual assault. The knives do not cut her because they are merely a "blackout," that is, an optical illusion. The term is taken from the theatrical expression "blackout," meaning to dim the lights while a scene changes or, in a magician’s act, to allow a trick to be accomplished under the cover of darkness; it is also a word that suggests the magician’s occupation, "black art." She is unflinching, not because she is brave, but because she is in on the trick. The shock at the end of the poem that inspires the final three questions is her surprising realization that she is the only one left performing. "The villagers are untying their disguises," but the speaker is still caught in hers. While the townspeople were carrying out their chores, and there is no evidence in the poem that they were doing otherwise, the speaker has nailed her own coffin, so to speak, with her fantastic imaginative constructions. Moreover, her role as the magician’s girl associates her with witchcraft since it allies her with sorcery as well as with illusion.

The exhaustion she feels at the end of the poem makes her unable to answer the last battery of questions. This is appropriate since the voice of the poem is expert at heightening rather than allaying fears and uncertainties. She will, however, approach the last enigma from another angle in the second poem. "The Arrival of the Bee Box" (212-13) must be understood as responding to her demand in this first poem to know "Whose is that long white box in the grove."

From The Gender of Excess: Moments of Brocade. Copyright © 1997 by the University Press of Mississippi. Reprinted by permrission of the author.

Christina Britzolakis: On "About the Bee Poems"

Plath increasingly finds ways of connecting what I have called the 'oracular' or 'transferential' drama of her poems with a larger historical process. The 1962 sequence which has become known as the 'Bee Poems 'attempts to excavate the traces of this process within the familiar scenario of the daughter's initiation into the mysteries of writing by a father whose power she both desires and repudiates. Beekeeping is associated with the childhood image of the all-powerful father in 'Among the Bumblebees', 'Lament', and 'The Beekeeper's Daughter'. It is also associated with female fertility and reproductive power. In 'The Beekeeper's Daughter', for example, the father is the 'maestro of the bees' who 'move[s] hieratical . . . amongst the many-breasted hives', in a garden of overwhelming lushness. In the Bee Poems, the relation between artistic creativity and power is inscribed as at once personal and political, drawing not only on the association of bees with Otto Plath but also on Plath's own experience of beekeeping in Devon. Beekeeping becomes an analogy for the writing of poetry, which, while playing on the Platonic figure of the bee-poet possessed by divine insanity, as described in the Ion, implies a craft, a specialized practical skill or expertize.

The Bee Poems are often read as a parable of female self-assertion or narrative rite of rebirth, affirming the integrity of the creative self, and thus furnishing an alternative, more hopeful ending for Plath's career. Yet if on one level the poems can be seen as forging a personal mythology of survival, on another their dreamlike logic of displacement and condensation resists narratives of self-realization anchored in a stable notion of the subject. This alternative narrative logic manifests itself through a mobility of identification, which generates various uncanny effects. In particular, the scapegoating or sacrificial trope undergoes a number of psychic and narrative permutations. Although the speaker is initially seen as at once pupil and sacrificial victim of a surgeon-priest performing an operation ('The' Bee Meeting'), she subsequently receives a box of bees with which to begin her own hive ('The Arrival of the Bee Box'). In 'Stings' it is the father-beekeeper who is stung by the bees; in 'The Swarm', he becomes a dictator who uses the bees as instruments of imperialist self-aggrandizement. In the final poem of the sequence, he disappears, leaving the speaker alone, 'wintering in a dark without a window', with the ambivalent harvest of her beekeeping.

In the Bee Poems, the governing metaphor of beekeeping inserts the dynamics of the father-daughter transference into a social and historical continuum. The beehive is a classical figure of the polis as hierarchically ordered, industrious collectivity, in which the common and private good are as one. Bees were, of course, the academic specialism of Otto Plath, author of Bumblebees and Their Ways, and of a treatise on 'Insect Societies' for A Handbook of Social Psychology. With its highly structured division of labour, the hive seems to fulfill all the requirements of the ideally 'adjusted' or technocratic society, a smoothly functioning social organism devoid of conflict. Yet it is also a rich source of paradox and contradiction. For example, it is a matriarchal society of female producers, a detail which is crucial to Plath's reflection on power. It is, also, of course, an authoritarian society. The hive allows the poet to assume multiple and constantly changing points of identification—including those of beekeeper, queen, and worker-drudge—in a psychic theatre, signalled by a pervasive imagery of clothing. For example, the villagers' protective beekeeping gear turns them into participants in a sinister scapegoating rite:

Who are these people at the bridge to meet me? They are the villagers— 

The rector, the midwife, the sexton, the agent for bees. 

In my sleeveless summery dress I have no protection, 

And they are all gloved and covered, why did nobody tell me? 

They are smiling and taking out veils tacked to ancient hats.

The speaker's lack of 'protection' casts her in the role of sacrificial initiate-victim or patient in a surgical 'operation'. She identifies herself with the scapegoat, the Queen Bee who is in the process of being moved to another hive by the villagers to prevent the virgins from killing her. Yet at the same time she becomes a performer, 'the magician's girl who does not flinch'. The rhetoric of innocence, naivety, and vulnerable nakedness is a masquerade which allows her to assume the central role in the drama. Poetic authority is inscribed as a function of the speaker's highly subjective and willed reinvention of herself, which renders the boundary between inner and outer worlds radically fluid and permeable. In 'The Arrival of the Bee Box', the speaker is a Pandora figure, who hovers on the brink of assuming her ownership of the potential hive, torn between terror of its 'dangerous' powers and fantasies of absolute control. The box of bees becomes a metaphor of the unconscious itself, whose dark, 'primitive' forces are linked with the threat of racial and class otherness ('the swarmy feeling of African hands | Minute and shrunk for export, | Black on black, angrily clambering', the 'Roman mob'). Moreover, this trope of the 'primitive' unconscious is acted out in linguistic terms. The 'unintelligible syllables' of the bees threaten the speaker with loss of sovereign control over meaning. She oscillates between the positions of master and slave, oppressor and victim; between fantasies of despotic power which mimic and caricature the authority of a 'Caesar' ('They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner') and of escape from vengeful forces through metamorphosis and disguise, assuming the 'petticoats of the cherry' or a 'moon suit and funeral veil'.

Throughout these poems, the speaker is alternately attracted and repelled by the implications of being 'in control' ('Stings'). In 'Stings' she is again cast as the beekeeper's apprentice, learning how to operate the 'honey machine' which will 'work without thinking | Opening in spring, like an industrious virgin'. Here, however, the threat emanates less from the emblematic male figure than from the female, domestic collectivity of the worker bees or 'winged, unmiraculous women', who would turn the speaker into a 'drudge'. The dreamlike logic of 'Stings' produces a splitting of the father-beekeeper figure; it pits beekeeper and female apprentice as equivocal allies against an intrusive 'third person', a false beekeeper and 'scapegoat' who provokes the fury of the bees. This surrealist triangulation is inscribed within a logic of wish fulfillment or fantasized revenge. The punitive stinging of the interloper is followed by the climactic revelation of the Queen Bee:

They thought death was worth it, but I 

Have a self to recover, a queen. 

Is she dead, is she sleeping? 

Where has she been, 

With her lion-red body, her wings of glass?


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 wax house.

These lines have often been read as announcing a moment of mythic rebirth, and the triumphant flight of the Queen Bee, escaping from her enclosure in 'the mausoleum, the wax house' , does indeed recall the apocalyptic-destructive power of other iconic female apparitions in Plath's work: the Clytemnestra figure in 'Purdah', the red- haired avenging demon of 'Lady Lazarus', and 'God's lioness' in 'Ariel'. Yet the 'terrible' power of the Queen Bee is deceptive; in spite of her 'lion-red body', her flight relies on the fragile mechanism of 'wings of glass', and the image of the 'red | Scar in the sky' suggests the vulnerability of a wounded, stigmatic 'I' rather than a triumphant affirmation of selfhood. The Queen Bee is in any case a highly equivocal totem of female power; she is a mere instrument of the hive's survival, and to that extent reinforces a mythic view of femininity as grounded in unchanging laws of nature. It is a masculine figure, the beekeeper, who exploits and regulates the labour and raw materials of the hive, and the fertility of the Queen Bee, for the production of a commodity. In 'The Swarm', the beekeeper who manoeuvres the bees into a new hive is likened to Napoleon, the prototypical dictator; the bees become armies which undergo self-immolation at his command:

How instructive this is! 

The dumb, banded bodies 

Walking the plank draped with Mother France's upholstery

  Into a new mausoleum, 

An ivory palace, a crotch pine.

The myth of maternity, like that of charismatic leadership, is enlisted in the service of nationalist and imperial ideology; Through such myths, the poem implies, the totalitarian state entwines itself with the affective life of its subjects and becomes 'the honeycomb of their dream'. Napoleon, whose imperial motif was the bee, and who kept bees during his exile at St Helena, is a figure who holds an ambiguous fascination for the speaker; in a draft of the poem, he is addressed as 'My Napoleon'. Although she ridicules the totalitarian dream which sees the world as mere plunder ('0 Europe! O ton of honey!'), herschadenfreude implicates her in Napoleon's will for power.

In the Bee Poems, equivocal attempts to imagine a female collectivity are intercut with fantasies of individual martyrdom, usurpation, and revenge. The last poem of the sequence, 'Wintering', celebrates the female hive's powers of survival and its expulsion of 'the blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors' when they have performed their limited function. But the dimension of protofeminist allegory announced by the trope of the matriarchal community remains essentially tentative and undeveloped, less a conclusion than a question. Rather, Plath's use of beekeeping as the unifying metaphor of the sequence insists on the materiality of writing as social practice. The text appears as the product of social as well as individual energies. In an ironic rewriting of her New Critical apprenticeship (which saw the poem as self-referring verbal microcosm or autotelic object), what emerges from the Bee Poems is a view of the poetic text as at once psychically and historically overdetermined. Plath's earlier rewriting of de Chirico's 'metaphysical' style represented a key moment in her theatre of mourning. While the Bee Poems also draw on the resources of surrealism, they resist the psychological determinism of the earlier de Chiricoesque landscapes for a more dynamic vision of the relation between the psychic and the figurative. Their emphasis is less on the fatalistic daughter-in-mourning scenario of 'The Colossus', 'Electra', and 'The Beekeeper's Daughter', than on the rhetorical manipulation and reinvention of such transferential scenarios as a means of imagining the possibilities of change and metamorphosis. At the same time, all myths of power, whether individual or collective, are seen as fissured by internal contradictions and therefore as ultimately self-defeating.

The Bee Poems represent the most complex and sustained instance of the oracular metaphor through which, as we have seen, Plath explores the technical resources of her craft and the range of possibilities available to her as a poetic initiate. The encounter with the 'oracle', in its various guises, combines a mythic return to the origins of poetic voice with the seductions of a pre-existent law or tradition, as in the fantasy of power gained through sacrificial victimhood. Yet Plath's struggle for poetic authority, and her revision of her modernist precursors, cannot be seen as a teleological movement culminating in a mythic moment of self-realization. Although the oracle is always linked with scenes of instruction and discipleship, its burden, from the outset, is the return of the repressed. The social, psychic, and above all linguistic energies which sustain the pedagogical transmission of authority are also capable of overwhelming or interrupting it. For Plath, the very terms of selfhood remain, as I shall argue in the next chapter, entangled with a figurative 'other'.

From Sylvia Plath and the Theatre of Mourning. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Christina Britzolakis

Kathleen Margaret Lant: On "About the Bee Poems"

. . . In seeking to liberate the female body, Plath subjected it to a representational order which dictated its annihilation.

These dueling impulses clearly war in Plath's bee sequence - the poems with which Plath had intended to end Ariel (Van Dyne 156).  Plath's sense of female vulnerability, specifically, female vulnerability to physical nakedness, is clear in these poems, but her desire to unclothe and discover the disguised female self is powerfully manifest as well. The five poems ("The Bee Meeting," "The Arrival of the Bee Box," "Stings," "The Swarm." and "Wintering".), which Plath wrote in October 1962, deal with issues of power, and many sympathetic readers find these works triumphant and even feminist. However, a closer look at the metaphors of nakedness and disclosure makes clear that Plath cannot transcend or rewrite the figurative language which imperils her female subject. In the poem which opens the series, "The Bee Meeting," the speaker finds herself at risk because she is unclothed or inadequately clothed: "In my sleeveless summery dress I have no protection, ... I am nude as a chicken neck, does nobody love me?" (211). Not only is the speaker in danger because of her nakedness, but she is also somewhat ridiculous ("nude as a chicken neck"), and she associates her vulnerable nakedness not with the potential for closeness or intimacy, nor with the possibility of self-expression, but with the danger of violation (the bees, the gorse with its "spiky armory" [211]), with her alienation (apparently no one loves her), and with her potential sacrifice: "I am led through a beanfield.... Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold" (211-12). Throughout the sequence, the queen, with whom the speaker compares herself ("I / Have a self to recover, a queen" ["Stings" 215]), is safe because she is hidden; she will not make herself open or vulnerable to the younger "virgins" or to the peering "villagers." Clearly, to be seen is to be in danger; to remain passive and unnoticed is much safer: "If I stand very still, they will think I am cow-parsley" ("The Bee Meeting" 212).

The bees continue to present a threat to the body of the speaker, and she incessantly - almost in an incantation or ritual - insists upon her unimportance, on her hiddenness as her protection: "They might ignore me immediately / In my moon suit and funeral veil" ("The Arrival of the Bee Box" 213). The queen is released finally from her isolation; she is permitted to unclothe herself from the honeycomb which has hidden and protected her, to fly naked and triumphant:

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 wax house.

But the queen's triumph is qualified (as the triumph at the end of "Lady Lazarus," which this passage foreshadows, is qualified). The queen may now be her free, naked self, but she is a red scar, the result of a wound or some unidentified pain, and she flies only because she must die; she flies over the world that decrees that she must die. Her nakedness promises to undo her. It is too easy to say that Plath - as an artist - has found transcendence or triumph in death. The queen, who has lost her "plush," is, despite her flight, despite her majestic death, "Poor and bare and unqueenly and even shameful" (214). Even if we wish to read the poem as very positive, it is clear that the unclothed body of the female subject here - the queen/speaker  does not experience the exuberance or triumph that Whitman or Ginsberg could express. In fact, she cannot even speak that triumph from the uncovered female body.

It is significant, too, that the sequence ends not with an affirmation but rather with a series of questions. The queen, who was quite easily replaced, is dead, but the bees remain with a new queen: "The bees are all women, / Maids and the long royal lady. / They have got rid of the men" ("Wintering" 218). While the final lines of "Wintering" are poignant and lovely, and while they do imply a certain power in the female community of bees, the tone is so uncertain, so tentative, that the sense of ascendancy toward which Plath moves is hopelessly compromised. Ultimately, the sequence ends with an almost inarticulable sadness:

Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas 

Succeed in banking their fires 

To enter another year? 

What will they taste of, the Christmas roses? 

The bees are flying. They taste the spring.

Female nakedness, thus, is a liability in terms of Plath's poetry, and no matter how strongly she might long for the freedom and power of nakedness or confession, such freedom will not be hers.

From "The Big Strip Tease: Female Bodies and Male Power in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath." Contemporary Literature 34.4 (Winter 1993)

Marjorie Perloff: On "About the Bee Poems"

The first of these, "The Bee Meeting," is a dream sequence in which the poet finds herself a victim, unprotected in her "sleeveless summery dress" from the "gloved," "covered," and veiled presences of the villagers. In the initiation ritual that now takes place, there are two dreaded male figures: the "man in black" (cf. the "fat black heart" in "Daddy") and the "surgeon my neighbors are waiting for, / This apparition in a green helmet. / Shining gloves and white suit." Neither the black man nor his white counterpart are named: indeed, the poet asks: "Is it the butcher, the grocer, the postman, someone I know?" She cannot, in any case, run away:

I could not run without having to run forever.

The white hive is snug as a virgin,

Sealing off her brood cells, her honey, and quietly humming.

The virginal white hive now becomes the source of new life for the poet, identifying, as she does, with the queen bee: "Is she hiding, is she eating honey? She is very clever. / She is old, old, old, she must live another year, and she knows it." "Exhausted," she can finally contemplate the "long white box in the grove" which is both coffin and hive. She is "the magician's girl who does not flinch."

In the next poem, "The Arrival of the Bee Box," the "dangerous" box of bees becomes a challenge that is desired: "I have to live with it overnight / And I can't keep away from it." The poet is now tapping her own subconscious powers; at the end of "Stings" we read:

They thought death was worth it, but I

Have a self to recover, a queen.

Is she dead, is she sleeping?

Where has she been,

With her lion-red body, her wings of glass?


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 wax house.

"I have a self to recover, a queen": here is the lioness of "Purdah," the avenging goddess, triumphing "Over the engine that killed her," just as the "swarm" in the next poem must evade "The smile of a man of business, intensely practical," a man "with grey hands" that would have killed me." In the final poem, "Wintering," this male figure is no longer present. "Daddy," the man in black, the rector, the surgeon--all have disappeared:

The bees are all women,

Maids and the long royal lady.

They have got rid of the men,


The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors.

Winter is for women--

The woman, still at her knitting, 

At the cradle of Spanish walnut,

Her body a bulb in the cold and too dumb to think.


Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas

Succeed in banking their fires

To enter another year?

What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?

The bees are flying. They taste the spring.

With this parable of hibernation, a hibernation that makes way for rebirth and continuity ("The bees are flying"), Ariel was to have inevitability of death is everywhere foregrounded. No longer does the poet look forward to the "Years"; her thoughts turn on "greenness, darkness so pure / They freeze and are." In "Paralytic," "all / Wants, desire [are] Falling from me like rings / Hugging their lights"; in "Contusion," "The heart shuts, / The sea slides back, / The mirrors are sheeted." Finally, in "Edge" (dated 5 February 1963, six days before her suicide), Plath imagines herself in death:

The woman is perfected.

Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment, 

The illusion of a Greek necessity


Flows in the scrolls of her toga, 

Her bare


Feet seem to be saying;

We have come so far, it is over.

And the final poem, "Words" (1 February, 1963), is despairing in its sense that the poet's "words" become "dry and riderless," that they are no longer connected to the poet who gave them birth. The connection between self and language has been severed: there is only fate in the form of the "fixed stars" that "From the bottom of the pool ... Govern a life."

One can argue, of course, that Hughes is simply completing Plath's own story, carrying it to its final conclusion, where "Each dead child coiled, a white serpent" has been folded back into the woman's body, where the "Words" are entirely cut off from the poet who created them. But it is also possible that, in taking advantage of a brief spell of depression and despair, when death seemed the only solution, Hughes makes the motif of inevitability larger than it really is. "The woman is perfected" in more ways than one.

[. . . .]

In any collection of poems, ordering is significant, but surely Ariel presents us with an especially problematic case. For two decades we have been reading it as a text in which, as Charles Newman puts it, "expression and extinction [are] indivisible." A text that culminates in the almost peaceful resignation of' "Years" or "Edge." The poems of Ariel culminate in a sense of finality, all passion spent.

Ariel 1 establishes quite different perimeters. Plath's arrangement emphasizes, not death, but struggle and revenge, the outrage that follows the recognition that the beloved is also the betrayer, that the shrine at which one worships is also the tomb. Indeed, one could argue that the very poems Hughes dismissed as being too "personally aggressive" are, in an odd way, more "mainstream," that is to say more broadly based, than such "headline" poems as "The Munich Mannequins" or "Totem," with its "butcher's guillotine that whispers: 'How's this, how's this?'" For, as long as the poet can struggle, as long as she still tries to defy her fate, as she does in "The Jailer" or "The Other" or "Purdah," the reader identifies with her situation: the "Cut thumb" is not only Plath's but ours.

Perhaps Sylvia Plath's publishers will eventually give us the original Ariel. But it is not likely, given the publication of the Collected Poems, which now becomes our definitive text. How ironic, in any case, that the publication of Plath's poems has depended, and continues to depend, on the very man who is, in one guise or another, their subject. In a poem not included in Ariel called "Burning the Letters," the poet decides to do away with the hated love letters, with "the eyes and times of the postmarks":

here is an end to the writing,

The spry hooks that bend and cringe, and the 


And at least it will be a good place now, the attic.


But the attic was soon invaded, the dangerous notebooks were destroyed, and the poems that were permitted to enter the literary world had to get past the Censor. The words of the dead woman, to paraphrase W. H. Auden, were modified in the guts of the living. Only now, some twenty-five years after her death, can we begin to assess her oeuvre. But then, as Plath herself put it in a poem written during the last week of her life:

The blood jet is poetry,

There is no stopping it.

From Poetic License: Essay on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric. Copyright © 1990 by Marjorie Perloff. Reprinted by the permission of the author.