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,

Honey-drudgers.

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

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Terrence Diggory: On "About the Bee Poems" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Terrence Diggory Criticism Target Sylvia Plath
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 27 Jan 2014
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Armored Women, Naked Men: Dickinson, Whitman, and Their Successors
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags Stings

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