Words

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 

    smiles. 

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.