Kate Moses: On Ariel

Ariel as edited by Ted Hughes has a particular trajectory.  It seems to be a narrative of a woman who is intentionally moving toward her self-destruction.  Robert Lowell’s foreword claimed “these poems are playing Russian roulette with six cartridges in the cylinder… they tell that life, even when disciplined, is simply not worth it.”  And that became the way people saw Plath: defiantly suicidal, a lost cause from the start.  Years later, with the publication of The Birthday Letters shortly before his own death in 1998, Hughes reiterated this idea that he was helpless to protect Plath against her own determined martyrdom.

So when I read Hughes’ comments about Plath’s manuscript of Ariel, I was dumbfounded.  She started with “love” and ended with “spring”?  Clearly Plath had another idea for the shape of the narrative of Ariel, and that narrative was largely unknown.  Out of the countless writings on Plath, there was only one scholarly article about her version of Ariel, written by Marjorie Perloff, and no one had ever done a complete study of the Ariel manuscript and what it suggested about Plath as an artist and a human being.  As a long time Plath reader, but without any desire to write about her—I thought everything of value had already been written—I went back to the Ariel poems in Plath’s arrangement, based on the order appended in Collected Poems, and it was clear that the story she had created in her version of Ariel was entirely different from the published Ariel.  Like the Ariel we all know, it too was mythic and archetypal and fierce, but it was very much a narrative about a persona, a woman, who was remaking her life after having it burned down to the ground, and she was rising to another place of survival and optimism.  This stands in stark contrast to the published Ariel, which ended with the poem “Edge” in which a woman is perfected by her own death, her lifeless face smiling with accomplishment, and there’s an image of her two dead babies curled on either side of her.  “Edge” wasn’t even in the original Ariel manuscript.  Plath’s Ariel ended with one of her cycle of bee poems, set in winter and asking the question, “Will the hive survive… to enter another year?”  The poem, and so the book, ends with an image of rejuvenation, a declaration of optimism and survival: “The bees are flying.  They taste the spring.”

From “Re-Composing a Life in the Biographical Novel.” Truthful Fictions: Conversations with American Biographical Novelists.  Ed. Michael Lackey. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing USA. p.161-178. Print.

Karen Ford: On "Wintering"

In "Wintering" (217-19), the final poem of the sequence, the speaker has come to her last and most important confrontation--that with herself. With her work completed, and with no demands upon her from others, she is able to give herself to the natural rhythms that the seasons decree. "This is the easy time, there is nothing doing," she says in the first line of the poem in a colloquial manner that expresses her own ease and patience. A similar line later confirms that she views her wintering as a distinct phase, a certain kind of time: "This is the time of hanging on for the bees." Her recognition that wintering is one part of a larger cycle of time is important because it qualifies the images of hibernation--elements that lead many readers to assume this is a poem about passivity and death.

She shares the experience of wintering with her bees, and she will learn a great deal from them. Like them, she has put up her winter stores: "I have my honey, / Six jars of it, / Six cat’s eyes in the wine cellar." These jars of honey are clearly more than just pantry supplies, however. It is as though she has gathered that overwhelming "sweetness" of the earlier poems and stored it where it is available but also contained. In fact, the number of jars supports the notion that they serve a symbolic purpose: Plath was married for six years, and they may represent that period of memories and emotions that now must be put away. Moreover, "cat’s-eye" is the name of a semiprecious gem distinctive for its band of reflected light that shifts position as the stone is turned. Thus the jars contain treasures that have great value to her and great beauty. And finally, in their similarity to actual cats’ eyes, the jars suggest the power of their vision, especially the ability to see in the darkness she is facing.28

Though she considers her stores precious, she also understands that she cannot survive on memories (or past emotions or former accomplishments) alone. Proof of this comes when she sees that what is preserved in the jars now is not permanent; they may seem so at the moment, but others have been here before and discovered the transience of such things. She places her jars of honey "Next to the last tenant’s rancid jam / And the bottles of empty glitters-- / Sir So-and-so’s gin," evidence that even these domestic treasures spoil and evaporate.

The symbolic importance of the setting is further established through sound, repetition, and metaphors of the unconscious. The cellar parallels the core of the self, where normal perception fails her because she has never before been there.

Wintering in a dark without window

At the heart of the house . . .


This is the room I have never been in.

This is the room I could never breathe in.

The soft alliteration of w’s and h’s creates a tone of silent, solitary reflection, yet the sense of calm that these sounds convey does not completely offset the agitation she feels in such surroundings. The repeated, "This is the room," suggests how difficult it is for her to accept where she is. The gothic imagery, accompanied by the alliteration of the explosive b’s, incites her nervous dread: "The black bunched in there like a bat."

She enters the room with "No light / But the torch," a primitive, or again, gothic, source of illumination that is consistent with the atmosphere of imminent revelation. It is significant that she must supply her own light. Further, she is in another sense "carrying a torch" for her lost love, and that aspect of the light may contribute to the distortion of her vision. More important, though, is that she is looking into the room for the first time in "a dark" that receives no other illumination, and therefore she has trouble seeing. At first she distinguishes only "appalling objects"; but gradually her vision adjusts and she sees, in turn, "appalling objects," "Black asininity," "Decay," and finally "Possession." This may constitute a list of things she sees in the room (a psychological hoard of mementos from the past that she has relegated to her emotional "cellar") or shifting views of the same object, perceptual superimpositions, each one more accurate in perceiving the actual thing.

In either case, she describes a progression from lack of control (appalling objects) to control (possession). At the word "possession" the poem seems to pivot in another direction, away from the past and its emotional keepsakes that have previously "owned her," toward a present that distances itself from that past, paradoxically, by accepting it. The word "possession" triggers an ambiguous statement, "It is they who own me," a recognition of (or "owning up to") this new relation of present and past. Like the beekeeper, who possesses the bees and yet is possessed by them (because she must fulfill her responsibilities to them in order for them to survive), the speaker is possessed by the memories that she herself possesses. Thus, in acknowledging her reciprocal relation to the bees, she turns from the appalling objects of memory with a tacit understanding that they too are her possessions in this double sense: "This is the time of hanging on for the bees." The easy, accommodating tone of the line suggests an even deeper acceptance and understanding.

It is significant that this decisive line echoes the opening statement ("This is the easy time") since it signals the shift toward optimism in the poem. Turning her attention, now, away from the appalling objects, she considers the bees.

At first glance, these bees appear similar to those in "The Swarm." Both are compared to soldiers. In "The Swarm" they are clearly doomed, "Walking the plank . . . / Into a new mausoleum"; in "Wintering," however, they are survivors, "Filing like soldiers / To the syrup tin." And in both poems, the bees form a ball, yet the fisted hive in the earlier poem and the huddled hive in this one again have little in common. In the first poem "the swarm balls and deserts," the "bees argue in their black ball." On the other hand, the "Wintering" bees "ball in a mass" in order to concentrate their vitality against the cold and snow. Their unity is necessary for survival (and is proven efficacious in the last line where all the bees fly, not just the queen). No doubt there is something awesome about their wintering, "Black / Mind against all that white." The season of hibernation is clearly stark and extreme, black and white, and it requires stolid obstinacy ("black asininity" even) rather than the emotional self-indulgence of "The Bee Meeting."

The key to the survival of the bees is their willingness to accommodate their circumstances. As the speaker consents to their claims on her, they accept hers on them. She gives them Tate and Lyle syrup "To make up for the honey" she has harvested, and "They take it." It is no surprise to learn that "The bees are all women, / Maids and the long royal lady. / They have got rid of the men, // The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors." The sense of alliance and cooperation that the speaker and her bees share simply has no parallel in the world of gender difference glimpsed in the other poems (with the exception of the bee seller in "Stings," where the business relationships of the apiary are apparently modeled on the social practices of the bees). Some readers make an effort to extract from this passage a vindictive spirit toward men, but the tone is so obviously detached and humorous (the onomatopoeic "stumblers" playing on "bumble-bees," the idea that men are merely boors and not tyrants or attackers) that such an interpretation is unconvincing. Furthermore, the lovely, unperturbed portrait of the mother over the cradle immediately detracts attention away from the men who are not there and refocuses it on this female community: "The woman, still at her knitting, / At the cradle of Spanish walnut, / Her body a bulb in the cold and too dumb to think." The alliteration of w’s (winter, women, woman, walnut) recalls the opening tone where that sound has already been associated with forbearance and equanimity.

The poem has retreated inward, arriving at the image in the penultimate stanza of the woman’s body as "a bulb in the cold." That she is at the moment "too dumb to think" need not suggest stupefaction and passivity; rather, it represents the period of silence that is necessary to still the incessant questions of "The Bee Meeting" or the maniac metaphor-making of "The Arrival of the Bee Box." Plath’s drafts of "Wintering" reveal that this wordless, unthinking confidence in the renewal of spring is a difficult achievement:

What will they taste [like] of the Christmas roses?

Snow water? Corpses? [Thin, sweet Spring.]

    [A sweet Spring?] Spring?

    [Impossible spring?]

    [What sort of spring?]

    [O God, let them taste of spring.] 

                                                            (Van Dyne 169)

Van Dyne observes that "Her final revision, when it comes, moves in the opposite direction from her changes in ‘The Bee Meeting.’ . . . she wills herself to assert a compelling prophecy, continuing to hope, as she has throughout the rest of the sequence, that saying would make it so" (169). Thus, the image of the woman as bulb is unquestionably one of renewal both in its similarity to the (implied) baby in the cradle and, of course, in the realization of the image in the final stanza, where the questions, at last, resolve:

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 of spring.

It is the lyric beauty of this passage that convinces--the long i’s once again suggesting the unity of the hive, the emotional, anticipatory line breaks, the promising "glad" in "gladiolas," the marvelous image of the bulb’s vitality as fire (bringing both warmth and color to the ending) and the rounded shape of the bulb redoubled in the verb "banking," the perfectly timed forthrightness of the third line, the Christmas roses that are themselves a symbol of renewal, and the three questions that blend into affirmation in the last line.

The speaker learns from the bees in "Wintering" that spring will follow this time of introspection and stillness, of uniting resources and waiting. The answer to her questions comes in the form of an act rather than in words and thus embodies certainty through enacting it. Only then is she certain that they actually "taste the spring" and have not been deceived by the early blossoms of the Christmas roses. She concludes Ariel on this rather simple and understated note of hope; its subtlety is a measure of its sureness. "Wintering" achieves a perspective Plath had advanced years before in her journals: there she promises to herself to write "without any moral other than growth is good. Faith too is good" (169). Here, at last, she seems to have listened to herself--a development only made possible by first recovering that self.

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

Margaret Dickie: On "Wintering"

She is able, in "Wintering," to accept also the activities of women who "have got rid of the men,/ The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors." Knitting, tending the cradle, harboring life in her body-bulb, she will survive. The bee sequence tells of the search for a female identity in a world without men, without stings, without knives. It is "the room I have never been in," where the "black" is bunched "like a bat." The speaker now enters with her "torch," lighting "appalling objects," "Black asininity. Decay./ Possession." This open confrontation with the blackness at the center of her own existence, and not associated with some outside threat, is the source of her tentative recognition that she will survive. For once she is totally on her own -- a painful recognition which reflects Plath's own situation.

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.

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.

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.