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).
|Title||Ellin Sarot: On "The Swarm"||Type of Content||Criticism|
|Criticism Author||Ellin Sarot||Criticism Target||Sylvia Plath|
|Criticism Type||Poet||Originally Posted||29 Jan 2014|
|Publication Status||Excerpted Criticism||Publication||"Becoming More and More Historical": Sylvia Plath's "The Swarm"|
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|Contexts||No Data||Tags||Sarot, Stings|