Terrence Diggory: On "About the Bee Poems"

The series of bee poems in Ariel brings together the various strands , including the image of armor, that lead back from Plath to Dickinson. Bees, as was mentioned in the previous section, were favorite creatures of Dickinson's. Queens were also, and Plath combines the two images by focusing on the queen bee in "Stings." Plath identifies the queen with herself, indeed with the very idea of selfhood: "I / Have a self to recover, a queen." Her status distinguishes her from those around her:

I stand in a column


Of winged, unmiraculous women,


I am no drudge.

Similarly, Dickinson in poem 348 stands out as "The Queen of Calvary" to whom all of nature, including the bees, pay "gentle deference."

The mark of the queen, characteristically for Dickinson, is her dress. Despite her confidence in poem 348 she is still worried that her "childish Plumes" may not be enough, and in another poem she determines not to let queenhood overtake her in her "old Gown" (#373). Dress is also a problem for Plath in "Stings," for she fears that the queen within her hive and within herself may be naked:

Her wings torn shawls, her long body 

Rubbed of its plush--

Poor and bare and unqueenly and even shameful.

In such a state the common bees in the combs that she is transferring to her hive may not recognize her authority, and may punish her nakedness with their stings.

The attack never comes. The completion of the transfer gives Plath a sense of control which encourages her to resurrect her queenhood in the final image of the poem:

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.

In this image of the hive as a house, Plath has virtually turned Dickinson's house image inside-out. Protection depends on keeping the bees, the threatening others, inside the house, while the self remains outside. Breaking out of the house is a victory for the queen in "Stings," but the hive is not always shunned in this manner. In "The Bee Meeting," the hive is a symbol of the purity which is represented by whiteness elsewhere in the volume: "The white hive is snug as a virgin, / Sealing off her brood cells, her honey, and quietly humming." The woman is here identified with her house.

When the hive has darker associations, the noise inside grows more ominous. In "The Arrival of the Bee Box," Plath is struck by the weird contrast of death and life suggested by the contrasting exterior and interior of the box:

I would say it was the coffin of a midget

Or a square baby

Were there not such a din in it.

Her immediate impulse is to find a means to free the life from the death which contains it:

How can I let them out?

It is the noise that appals me most of all, 

The unintelligible syllables.

Suddenly the bees inside the hive have become words inside the poet, clamoring to be articulated.

As the poem proceeds, the question, "How can I let them out?", at first a plea for a solution, becomes a cry of indignation at a solution that is unacceptable. If the bees are released, the poet hopefully conjectures,

They might ignore me immediately

In my moon suit and funeral veil.

I am no source of honey

So why should they turn on me?

But they might turn on her and they might be able to penetrate her protective armor. We may recall Dickinson's warning,

There is a word

Which bears a sword

Can pierce an armed man--. (8)

Though Plath promises herself that she will free the bees tomorrow, the reader is convinced that that day will never arrive. The poem itself is evidence that Plath is too clearly aware of the cost of letting out those stinging words.

The gradual replacement of the confessional impulse by the anticonfessional impulse within "The Arrival of the Bee Box" reflects the larger reassessment of the whole of Plath's work which must be undertaken if her work is approached through Dickinson's.

From "Armored Women, Naked Men: Dickinson, Whitman, and Their Successors." In Shakespeare’s Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets. Ed. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Copyright © 1979 by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar

Sandra Gilbert: On "About the Bee Poems"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karen Ford: On "About the Bee Poems"

Plath was finally sure of her genius in mid-October 1962, just after completing the Bee sequence, when she wrote to her mother that she was ready to start a new life: "I am a writer . . . I am a genius of a writer; I have it in me. I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name" (468). Though the poems that would ultimately make her name came a few days later--"Daddy," "Ariel," and "Lady Lazarus," among others--she obviously felt that the Bee poems were ones on which she could build her poetic reputation. There is no question that she considered the Bee poems her culminating poetic statement in addition to her best work. She placed them at the end of her second book of poems, giving them precedence over the other poems in the volume. If we have only recently discovered the importance of the Bee sequence, it is partly because Hughes demoted it to the middle of the book when he put together his version of Ariel and partly because the sequence contradicts the myth of Plath as suicidal poet churning out her greatest poems to meet a frighteningly literal deadline.

Plath wrote the five Bee poems, which she initially titled "Bees" and conceived of as a sequence, in less than a week in October 1962 as her marriage was breaking up. They are unified by their subject matter, bees and beekeeping, and by their five-line stanza pattern, though each poem works its own unique variation of the general theme and form. They reveal a concern with self-assessment and redefinition, both personally and poetically, and proceed by scrutinizing relationships between the speaker and her world. The sequence moves from community, in "The Bee Meeting," to solitude, in "Wintering," as the speaker settles her relations with others and with her own former selves. This trajectory from an external preoccupation with others to an inward concern for the self has formal reverberations. Plath’s characteristic stylistic excess eases during the course of the sequence as the speaker retreats from the pressures of the external world, especially the world of gender conflicts, to the inner rhythms of her own exigencies. As the influence of the exterior world diminishes, the stylistic agitation seems to abate as well.

[. . . .]

Plath’s Ariel culminates in the Bee sequence because these five poems record her most important vision and embody the farthest development of her poetics. The Bee poems reveal Plath shaping a new aesthetics that is vitalized by the style of excess she had cultivated for so long--but one that is also discovering other energies. The manuscripts show her revising in favor of excess in "The Bee Meeting" and, to some extent, in "The Arrival of the Bee Box"; by "Stings," the third poem in the sequence, however, they document an effort to minimize stylistic excesses. In the final poem, "Wintering," we hear an entirely new poetic voice and confront a subtle new poetics.

The fact that the Bee sequence contradicts our received notion of Plath’s poetry accounts for its failure to "make [her] name." As every modern poetry anthology attests, her reputation rests on her most excessive poems, "Daddy," "Ariel," and "Lady Lazarus." It is an interesting paradox that the most frequent charge leveled against her work--that it envisions only violence and self-destruction--remains untroubled by the final ease and hopefulness of the Bee sequence. Critics bemoan Plath’s single-mindedness but limit their reading to the poems that confirm it.