Karen Ford

Karen Ford: On 280 ("I felt a Funeral, in my Brain")

The relationship between figurative excess and endings that lack closure suggests why so many of Dickinson's poems were originally published with their difficult endings deleted (or not selected for publication at all until they were published in the complete, variorum edition in 1955). "[I felt a Funeral, in my Brain]" (P 280) was typically printed without its last stanza:

[. . . .]

And then a Plank in Reason, broke And I dropped down, and down-- And hit a World, at every plunge, And Finished knowing--then--

Yet, if we recognize the final stanza as a product of figurative escalations that are excessive rather than standard, we begin to understand its place in the poem.

"[I felt a Funeral--in my Brain]" begins, as so many of the poems do, with an assertion whose stability sounds unquestionable. Despite its semantic oddness, the first line is delivered with rhetorical assurance that temporarily contains its volatile subject matter. The sense of containment is not merely a product of orderly syntax and confident tone, however; it also derives from the claustrophobic setting of the funeral. Though the feeling of a funeral occurs in the speaker's brain, the analogy suggests premature burial. The mental state the speaker describes is not merely like a funeral in her brain, it is like being buried alive: the heightened awareness of sounds (treading, beating, creaking, tolling) and the sense of enclosure ("in my Brain," they all were seated," "a Box") combine with other evidence in the poem to suggest that the mourners are conducting a funeral service for a speaker who is not yet dead ("My Mind was going numb," "creak across my Soul").

The mental state described here begins as a numbing, monotonous, claustrophobic feeling but proceeds to its opposite. If the beginning of the poem figures extreme interiority, the ending of the poem depicts an even more disturbing exteriority whose boundlessness is finally indescribable. The "Plank in Reason" that breaks in the final stanza is anticipated in the shift from interior to exterior space, as though the walls, floor, and ceiling of the room (or the sides, lid, and bottom of the coffin), all made of planks, suddenly disappear, plunging the speaker into limitless and terrifying space.

The figurative path to the complete loss of reason, and its attendant spatial dissolution, is difficult to follow. Comparison with the more logical sequence of a similar poem offers an instructive contrast. "[I felt a Cleaving in my Mind]" (P 937) employs a metaphor that describes exactly what "[I felt a Funeral, in my Brain]" enacts (that is, poem 937 says what poem 280 does):

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind-- As if my Brain had split-- I tried to match it--Seam by Seam— But could not make them fit.

The thought behind, I strove to join  Unto the thought before-- But Sequence ravelled out of Sound  Like Balls--upon a Floor.

The word "cleaving" may abbreviate the contradictions of "[I felt a Funeral, in my Brain]" between the description of the mental state as claustrophobic (cleaving together) and boundless (cleaving apart). The second line establishes that the sensation being described here is some sort of mental falling apart. The orderly progression of thoughts, compared to a string of yarn or thread, cannot be knit or sewn together into a coherent sequence. On the contrary, the balls of yarn (perhaps a graphic corollary for the brain with its bundled folds and convolutions) unravel when they roll to the floor.

Not only does this poem describe the movement toward disintegration that poem 280 undertakes to depict, but it also refers to the difficulty of such representation: "But Sequence ravelled out of Sound" is not just a description of mental undoing, it is an account of linguistic failure. The sequence of mental events that leads to the disruption of rationality (another sequence) quickly moves out of verbal reach (out of sound). But that one phrase is the only hint that "[I felt a Cleaving in my Mind] " cannot fully represent its subject. Its metaphors, strings of yarn torn from some knitted whole and balls of yarn unraveling on the floor, are adequate to the task they are given. The consistency of these analogies and the brevity of the poem are indices of a certain conceptual neatness.

The difference in "[I felt a Funeral, in my Brain]" is not that its metaphors are inadequate but that its subject is much more complicated and elusive than the subject of poem 937. Here the figurative increases must be followed with decreasing certainty. In stanza one, the speaker's mental state is compared to a funeral and is characterized by morbidity, monotony, and repetitiveness so oppressive that "it seemed / That Sense was breaking through." In the second stanza, the monotony and repetitiveness continue, but the sensation of motion (in the treading feet) decreases as "they all were seated." The sound of a drum replaces the treading with even more monotonous and repetitive beating until the speaker feels her mind "going numb." When, in stanza three, she "hears" the creaking of the pall bearers' steps carrying the coffin "across [her] Soul," something changes. Perhaps the movement from the interior space of the funeral service to the exterior space of the graveyard precipitates the drastic figurative change when "Space--began to toll." The tolling of a church bell to signal the burial of the dead is consistent with the metaphor thus far, as the monotony of a ringing bell is akin to the insistent treading, beating, and creaking that precede it. What is not consistent, however, is that all of "Space" is tolling, not just a church bell. At the end of stanza three, then, the setting of the initial figure is abandoned, and only the maddening sound persists to carry the metaphors of the poem forward.

Vast, undifferentiated, resounding space is the setting of lines 11 through 14, a setting, if it can any longer be termed such, of pure sound. Space tolls as [if] "all the Heavens were a Bell" and "Being, but an Ear." Whatever the speaker means by "Being," she is not included in that category, for she and "Silence, some strange Race" are [ship]wrecked in this world of sound, like two lost mariners washed up in some alien and, we discover, hostile land. "Wrecked, solitary, here" suggests shipwreck and strange lands, but we must remember that the speaker and her companion, Silence, are disembodied; and even Being, the native race of this aural world, is "but an Ear." It is worth reflecting, before proceeding to the final stanza, that the speaker has moved from the claustrophobic environment of the funeral (perhaps of the coffin) to the boundless environment of pure sound; worse, the mind-numbing experience of the beginning of the poem has reduced her to silence, rendering her strange and solitary in this world of sound. It is this strangeness and isolation that she amplifies in the final stanza.

The last stanza restores the spatial setting, at least to the limited extent that one prop, a plank, from the material world is poised precariously over this aural abyss. Balancing on the imagery of the preceding stanza, the speaker seems to be walking the plank of a [pirate] ship, the victim of a nautical execution that recurs to the funeral motif. When the "Plank in Reason" breaks, however, she plunges into space again, rather than into the sea, and thus descends through the vast emptiness that here seems to be outer space: she "hit[s] a World, at every plunge."

This dizzying perspective of the speaker tumbling through space yet colliding with whole worlds (then bouncing off of them and continuing her fall?) is difficult to picture, which is precisely the point of such excessive imagery. Once again the admission of failure and the end of the poem coincide: "then," like "now" in "[Grief is a Mouse]," points to a moment when the poem's formulations recognize defeat. "How then know" and "Finished knowing--then" bring their respective poem's processes of knowing to an end, though the way that "—then--" in this poem is suspended between two dashes suggests both ending and continuation: at that moment [then], I finished knowing; and, I finished knowing, [and]. . . then [I can't convey what happened then]. In either case, what the poem is able to do with words has ended.

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

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.

Karen Ford: On "The Swarm"

The sense of anonymity that opens "The Swarm" (215-17)--"Somebody is shooting at something in our town"--has the opposite effect of the atmosphere of anonymity in "The Bee Meeting." In the earlier poem, the speaker’s inability to distinguish the identities of others serves to heighten her own extreme subjectivity. Here, however, the speaker is not concerned with determining who the particular actors are; on the contrary, the poem will argue that "somebody" is ultimately "everybody."26

In "The Swarm" the speaker parallels her own personal story with world history; however, unlike a later poem such as "Daddy" (222-24) that makes historical facts a questionable image for private feelings ("Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen. . . . / I think I may well be a Jew"), "The Swarm" extends its interest outward to others. Only in the first stanza does the speaker briefly account for the shooting in terms of her own experience: "Jealousy can open the blood, / It can make black roses." Her first impulse when she hears the shooting is to think what would motivate her to violence--jealousy. She indulges her imagination in one vivid metaphor--that visualizes blood-saturated gunshot wounds as "black roses"27--but then immediately turns to the larger question: "Who are they shooting at?"

The voice that emerges in the second stanza to answer this question is powerfully accusatory, marshaling a variety of rhetorical resources to the task of declaring an important truth about history. It begins, "It is you the knives are out for / At Waterloo, Waterloo, Napoleon"; the long, repeated u-sound of "Waterloo" echoes the direct indictment, "It is you," and insistently recalls the place name of his crushing defeat. The image of the throats is used again in this poem to suggest victimization and vulnerability--the facts about the masses that "somebody" like Napoleon would deny:

Shh! 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 narrative of Napoleonic aggression is interwoven with that of the swarm. The bees have swarmed into the top of a tree; the sound of the gun shots is supposed to draw them down (it is not the case, as some readers suggest, that the man is actually shooting into the hive). The bees, like "everybody," have learned that the lesson of history is violence:

So 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, the claw, the grin of the dog

Yellow-haunched, a pack-dog,

Grinning over its bone of ivory

Like the pack, the pack, like everybody.

The bees "argu[ing], in their black ball," the "yellow-haunched" pack-dog, Napoleon with "The hump of Elba on [his] short back, the "man with the gray hands" (whose hands turn out not to be human hands at all but "asbestos receptacles") all appear stooped and deformed by violence. Each has learned hostility at the hands of the other and chooses to return it, believing that the sound of aggression is "the voice of God." In fact, the gunman’s excuse for shooting at the swarm is that "They would have killed me."

The pervasiveness of violence is what allows Napoleon to be "pleased" at the end of the poem, even despite his own defeat at Waterloo. The weapons of the bees, "Stings big as drawing pins!" (their version of the "knives" and "cutlery" and possibly an image suggesting map pins used by military strategists to pinpoint battle sites), prove to him that the "bees have a notion of honor / A black intractable mind." Like the swarming drudges in "Stings" who attack the scapegoat in an act of self-sacrifice for the hive, the bees in "The Swarm" also lay down their lives for the pack. "Napoleon is pleased, he is pleased with everything" because he recognizes that "everyone," indeed "everything," condones the beak and the claw.

The speaker, however, knows from witnessing the self-destruction of the bees in "Stings" that violent retribution is not "worth it"; she comes to "The Swarm" from "Stings" able to confront the abuses of history because she is not susceptible to the lesson they teach. Yet the task of confronting such a history is strenuous. Not surprisingly, the poem employs excess as if to steel itself against its own revelations. The stylistics of excess can be heard in "The Swarm" in the alliteration ("Somebody is shooting at something" and at every repetition), the assonance ("The man with gray hands stands," "marshals, admirals, generals," "black intractable mind,"), the frequent repetitions ("pom, pom" [repeated eight times], "Waterloo, Waterloo," "Mass after mass," "Shh! // Shh!" "Clouds, Clouds," "The pack, the pack," "Elba, Elba," "Napoleon is pleased, he is pleased with everything"), the buckling anagram ("Elba, Elba, bleb on the sea!") and the onomatopoeic "pom, pom." Additionally, the poem ricochets from metaphor to simile as the parallel between Napoleon’s army and the bees provides constant opportunity for analogy. Thus, the speaker, who has been striving throughout the sequence to relinquish verbal excesses, discovers in "The Swarm" the efficacy of such a style once more. The poetic excess that characterizes the poem is, I think, necessitated by the speaker’s attempt to square off against history. What she confronts in the poem is the same oppression she experiences in her private life--played out on a world scale. Understandably, then, the tactics that enabled her to withstand her own hardships permit her to address the suffering of others as well.

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

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.

Karen Ford: On "The Arrival of the Bee Box"

The first stanza of "The Arrival of the Bee Box" provides, in some measure, a corrective to the excesses and exaggerations of "The Bee Meeting." The speaker is now able to answer her own earlier question about the box; in fact, overcoming her former passivity, she even takes responsibility for it, "I ordered this, this clean wood box." Seeing it more clearly in her present state of mind, it is no longer the long, white virgin’s coffin feared to be for her but a prosaic "clean wood box" that she herself owns. As if to demonstrate the unequivocal reality of the box, she says it is "Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift." The choice of "chair," the classroom philosopher’s favorite object for exhibiting the "real," is good humored and appropriate. Further, the rhyming phrase, "square as a chair," gives aural substance to the box, and the word "square" suggests honesty, directness, and exactitude. In three words, then, she has overturned the hallucinatory tone of the first poem.

Yet her fine control over words diminishes rapidly, and she concocts a quick succession of odd metaphors for the box--"I would say it was the coffin of a midget / Or a square baby." The subjunctive "I would" testifies that she is aware even before she generates them that her metaphors are contrived. These self-conscious tropes preview the numerous metaphors and similes that this poem will hazard. Even when she claims to leave off making metaphors, she slips immediately into another sort of verbal play, "I would . . . were there not such a din in it." The humming sound created by the three short i’s of "din in it" attests to irrepressible linguistic production. But the difference between "The Arrival of the Bee Box" and "The Bee Meeting" is that here the speaker remains fully aware that she is using poetic language to shape her experience.

In fact, one could read this as a poem about poetic language. If the box represents form and the clamor inside of it represents content, then "The Arrival of the Bee Box" may best be read as a poem in which the speaker explores the relationship between her "asbestos gloves" and her incendiary subject matter. In this view, the two aborted metaphors, the coffin of the midget and the square baby, can be understood as descriptions of poetic content that becomes malformed or remains undeveloped when cramped into conventional structures. In this sense, her first attempts to describe the box were accurate. "The box is locked" because its contents are "dangerous," yet the speaker "can’t keep away from it." As she examines the box and considers opening it, she is faced with the threat that what is inside may destroy her.

This is a box she has approached elsewhere in her poetry. In each case it seems to represent the conflict between rigid outer forms and a suppressed inner life. It is, of course, the long, white box she fears in "The Bee Meeting" that will trap her in a premature grave; but it is also the hive box in an earlier poem, "The Beekeeper’s Daughter" (118). There, in a line she will recycle for "The Arrival," the daughter of the beekeeper, like the present speaker, tries to look into the box: "Kneeling down / I set my eye to a hole-mouth and meet an eye / Round, green, disconsolate as a tear." The eye of the daughter recognizes in the eye of the queen bee a reflection of her own dejection. Both are isolated by their special bond to the father/beekeeper and trapped by structures of power in which they are defined completely by their relation to him. Here, however, the bees are "furious" rather than disconsolate, and she can see nothing of them. When the effort to see fails, "I put my eye to the grid. / It is dark, dark," she must take recourse in listening, "I lay my ear to furious Latin." Here again, as in "Words heard," the persona finds her own voice by hearing the voices of others.

Naturally, then, she begins to create metaphors for the sound in an attempt to understand it. Over the course of the next three stanzas she proposes three analogies for the contents of the bee box, each one an image of power and oppression. First it reminds her of "the swarmy feeling of African hands / Minute and shrunk for export, / Black on black, angrily clambering." Here her role in relation to the box is that of slave trader or colonizing exporter. The power of the colonizer (exporter/poet) over the colonized (African hands/poems) results in the diminution of the latter, which are "Minute and shrunk for export"; the contents of the box are once again imagined as dwarfed and deformed as the whole notion of containment through forms is repeatedly called into question. The bees (and, we can infer, the poems) resent their captivity and agitate to escape. In this analogy, she is right to feel that the bees are dangerous. Next "It is like a Roman mob, / Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!" Echoing again that line from "The Beekeeper’s Daughter," she says, "I lay my ear to furious Latin." Relinquishing power over this mob because she cannot understand them, she admits, "I am not Caesar." Almost inadvertently, these first two metaphors for the din in the box employ exemplary instances from history of domination: the slave trade, white colonization of non-white countries, and autocracy. These political structures, then, are related to the formal structure that controls and contains content. This is the role she rejects in claiming not to be Caesar. Finally, she tries to speak more directly, but even this effort produces a metaphor: "I have simply ordered a box of maniacs." This line is a continuation of her preceding disclaimer: I am not a tyrant who wants to dominate the bees; I simply ordered a bee hive, but it has turned out to be more than I bargained for. Further, however, it too offers a metaphor of power relations--the mental asylum--this time one that the speaker can perhaps identify with more easily since, in "The Bee Meeting," she felt herself becoming the maniac in the box.

Realizing now that she is obliged to the box at least for the night, she senses the danger she is in and toys first with the idea of abdicating her power, "They can be sent back" (the passive voice construction is not accidental), then immediately with the idea of exerting it, "They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner." Clearly, the poem views such power as corrupting, for as soon as she assumes the position of authority ("I am the owner"), she becomes aware of her total control ("They can die").

Fortunately for the bees, the role of autocrat is not one she relishes; thus, instead of executing her control over them, she wonders "how hungry they are"--a line that reveals she is probably not capable of withholding food from them. (Even the syntax of the line that proposes not to feed them is contorted to throw emphasis on the likelihood that she will care for them: the affirmative phrase "I need feed them" comes first and then, as an unconvincing afterthought, the negative word "nothing.") Indeed, she would like to feed them, or better, to set them free, but she cannot tell how they will treat her if they are liberated. Turning again to the protective myth of Daphne, she tries to imagine freeing them without harm to herself: "I wonder if they would forget me / If I just undid the locks and stood back and turned into a tree. . . . / They might ignore me immediately." These lines are actually quite strange. She does not wonder if the bees will attack her but if they will "forget" her, as though her connection to them is more profound and binding than that of a customer who has just purchased a hive. Likewise, the choice of the word "immediately" suggests a concern with duration rather than with the imminent event of their assault. This language also indicates that she has some prior connection to the bees. In the reading I am pursuing, this connection parallels a career of writing that shuts up her imaginative vitality in rigid forms. The bees, then, represent her own repressed feelings, and she dreads the possibility of being overcome by her own memories and outrages. Would she ever be able to forget the slights and injustices? Would the feelings immediately consume her? The "unintelligible syllables" causing the commotion in the box are the sounds of her own anger and fury, and it is her inability to articulate an outrage that she can nevertheless hear that "appalls [her] most of all."

The allusion to Daphne in this poem is not merely an image for the speaker’s isolated problem; rather it represents other women as well. She recognizes precedents for the metamorphosis: "There is the laburnum, its blond colonnades, / And the petticoats of the cherry." Here for the first time she detects the traces of other women in these trees, their blondness and their petticoats. To refuse the metamorphosis is to attempt to remain in the world as she is, an extremely vulnerable position for a woman (even more so for a woman writer). It necessitates protective gear that is hardly less alienating than bark and leaves, a "moon suit and funeral veil." Moreover, the gear that is meant to protect her human vulnerability seems instead to dehumanize her (the moon suit suggests her strangeness).

In a last effort to find a way to release the bees without risking injury, she reasons that since she is "no source of honey," they have no cause to attack her. Yet she overlooks the irony that whoever liberates the bees must inevitably be exposed to danger. This point is conveyed through the verbal play on "honey" and "sweet": "I am no source of honey / So why should they turn on me? Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free." Ironically, by being sweet she will be like the honey that the bees are after; in fact, it is her sweetness--her desire to help and her willingness to release the bees--that makes her so vulnerable. On all levels of the poem, the beekeeper opening the box, the woman giving vent to repressed emotions, or the poet uncovering her real subjects, the liberator will likely get hurt.

"The Arrival of the Bee Box" is the only poem in the sequence that exceeds the five-line stanza pattern. It closes with an extra line--significantly, a line about form that the form of the poem is not able to contain--that asserts "The box is only temporary." This final utterance not only announces the inevitable displacement of the box but also outstrips the formal boundaries set by the poem (and the sequence). The speaker will release the bees. The content will exceed the form. More important, of course, the hand that penned the apocalyptic last line will remove its asbestos glove.

Karen Ford: On "The Bee Meeting"

In the first poem, "The Bee Meeting" (211-12) the speaker finds herself in the midst of other people. The long, Whitmanian lines sprawl horizontally to accommodate the crowd of villagers, "The rector, the midwife, the sexton, the agent for bees" and later "the butcher, the grocer, the postman, someone I know." There may be a pun in the title of this first poem (and in the running title for the sequence) since the word "bee" itself refers to a group of neighbors. In an interesting etymological loop, the word "bee," meaning a meeting of neighbors who unite their labors for the benefit of one of their number (as in a barn raising bee or a quilting bee), is an allusion to the social character of the insect. This sense of "bee" may account for the fact that the villagers all appear to be doing something specifically to or for the speaker and may qualify the speaker’s paranoid response to their attentions toward her.

The place and time of the meeting suggest that the speaker is at a transitional stage. She meets the townspeople "at the bridge," a symbolic place of connection between divided locales and, therefore, a site of change. The way the speaker is dressed confirms the time of the year is summer, a season traditionally associated with the final harvest that precedes decline. Further, the sequence itself moves from summer to winter--and even beyond since the final poem promises spring. Many readers are fond of emphasizing that Plath’s Ariel began with the word "love" and ended with the word "spring" (Poems 14-15), but none has stressed the significance of summer in this culminating sequence. She began the Bee poems shortly after moving to the country cottage she had dreamed of, giving birth to her second child, losing her husband to another woman, seeing her first book of poems in print, and finding a publisher for her first novel. Clearly, the new volume of poetry would reap the sweet and bitter fruits of these recent events. The Bee poems assess the speaker’s relation to her neighbors, children, husband, other women, and herself, as well as her place in history. The summer season hints that one phase of her life is ending, and so it is an appropriate time for reevaluation and change.

The most distinctive feature of "The Bee Meeting" is its gothic tone. If this is a poem about transition, then the speaker finds change extremely disorienting--even nightmarish. The speaker’s paranoia is conveyed through her confused and incessant questions, inability to recognize familiar people, stuttering repetitions, monstrous personifications, and obsession with violence and death. Likewise, the bizarre setting is created through imagery and metaphors of violence, a mixed atmosphere of the ritual, the carnival, and the funeral, and mythic allusions. These elements are intensified rhetorically with alliteration, assonance, and dissonance. Noticeably, then, the formal features that lend the poem its gothic tone are the staples of Plath’s poetics of excess. In this expressionistic landscape the speaker must begin to puzzle out her relationship to others. Significantly, the task demands that she control her overactive imagination, that is, that she see through the thematic and rhetorical trappings of excess that she herself has contrived.

The poem opens and closes with questions and is riddled with questions throughout. Of the eleven stanzas, all but two have at least one question and most have more. Through much of the poem, the speaker tries to answer them herself; but when the last line closes the poem with yet another question, obviously it cannot be answered (at least not within this poem). Consequently, it is the one inquiry in the poem that is not punctuated with a question mark as though the atmosphere of enigma and uncertainty has been naturalized in this perplexing setting, and the interrogative is now as definitive an utterance as she can formulate.

Her first questions concern the people around her and what they are doing: "Who are these people at the bridge to meet me?" "Which is the rector now, is it that man in black? / "Which is the midwife, is that her blue coat?" "Is some operation taking place?" "Is it the butcher, the grocer, the postman, someone I know?" and finally "what have they accomplished?" The manuscript drafts from this poem reveal that Plath changed many of these questions from straight declarative sentences apparently in order to intensify the speaker’s confusion and disorientation.20 Her sense of alienation from her neighbors naturally serves to emphasize her isolation, but this is a larger point than we may at first realize. A central issue of the Bee sequence is the speaker’s autonomy; the sequence, in fact, works to separate her from others. In itself, isolation is not a problem; on the contrary, it is a state the speaker must achieve in order to know herself, gather her resources, and pursue a new direction. The anxiety and dislocation she experiences in "The Bee Meeting" suggest it is the community of neighbors--not isolation--that the speaker cannot tolerate. She receives their attempts to help her, well-intentioned though they may be, as assaults upon her. She feels vulnerable ("In my sleeveless summery dress I have no protection"), effaced by their efforts to protect her ("here is the secretary of bees with her white shop smock, / Buttoning the cuffs at my wrists and the slit from my neck to my knees. / Now I am milkweed silk, the bees will not notice."), forced to conform ("they are making me one of them"), and yet finally betrayed ("The villagers are untying their disguises, they are shaking hands. / Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold"). However, there is no evidence in the poem that the villagers actually behave suspiciously. Instead, what should be obvious is that participating in the collective life of the village has disastrous effects on the speaker; clearly, she is not "one of them," and thus she finds their attempts to include her extremely threatening.21

It is not only in her dealings with the townspeople that the speaker’s perceptions are distorted and exaggerated. She views the setting with the same expressionistic sensibility that informs her apprehension of the villagers. Stanzas four and five depict a dangerous and frightening landscape:

Strips of tinfoil winking like people,

Feather dusters fanning their hands in a sea of bean flowers,

Creamy bean flowers with black eyes and leaves like bored hearts.

Is it blood clots the tendrils are dragging up that string?

No, no, it is scarlet flowers that will one day be edible.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

They are leading me to the shorn grove, the circle of hives.

Is it the hawthorn that smells so sick?

The barren body of hawthorn, etherizing its children.

All elements of the scene are personified, exacerbating the confusion of who’s who, in the opening stanzas, with what’s what here. The contraptions for warding off plant foragers (strips of tinfoil and feather dusters) present an image every bit as alien as the townspeople in their apiary gear; indeed, they are "like people" but only in the respect that they are as weird and ominous as the villagers. The "eyes" of the bean flowers are black, as though, bruised; their leaves are like pierced hearts; their flowers like blood clots; and the hawthorne tree kills its own offspring. These personifications compare the elements of the landscape to a monstrous humanity and thus have the effect of dehumanizing the whole environment.

On the other hand, the speaker depicts herself as inextricably bound in her own humanness. Throughout the sequence she alludes to Daphne, who metamorphosed into a laurel tree to elude Apollo, in contrast to her own human vulnerability. In this poem she imagines herself becoming "milkweed silk" and "cow-parsley" so that the bees will not attack her. In the second poem, "The Arrival of the Bee Box" (212-13), she employs the Daphne myth more explicitly, again as a fantasy of protection from the bees: "I wonder if they would forget me / If I just undid the locks and stood back and turned into a tree." The desire to transform from the human to the vegetable reveals a longing to escape sexual oppression. In Ovid, the source for this allusion, Daphne’s father wants his daughter to marry and have children (specifically male children): "‘Daughter, you owe me a son-in-law . . . you owe me grandsons!’" (I, 37). But Daphne resists: "‘O father, dearest, grant me to enjoy perpetual virginity" (I, 37). Though she is granted her wish ("He, indeed, yielded to her request" I, 37), she remains prey to the male sexual privilege that marriage would institutionalize. Daphne’s physical vulnerability, like the speaker’s here and in "Stings," is captured in the image of her bare arms: "[Apollo] marvels at her fingers, hands, and wrists, and her arms, bare to the shoulder" (I, 37). Surely the speaker resembles Daphne in this: in "The Bee Meeting" she says, "In my sleeveless summery dress I have no protection," and in "Stings" again she is "Bare-handed . . . the throats of [her] wrists brave lilies." The emphasis on physical vulnerability is crucial since elsewhere in mythology, as in the myth of Daphne and Apollo, the transformation into a tree is effected in order to escape sexual assault.

Moreover, the metamorphosis into a plant concerns the definition and boundaries of the human. One could change into a god or an animal (categories believed to be the outside limits of the human), but these beings are still sexually vulnerable. Only by relinquishing all claims to the human can Daphne escape sexual assault. For the speaker of the Bee sequence, however, such a metamorphosis is simply another conceit and one she must give up in order to achieve the self-awareness and new self-definition of "Wintering" (217-19). Significantly, then, the allusion occurs early in the sequence in the two most technically wrought poems with their personifications, myths, alliterations, repetitions, and what has been termed their "manic metaphor-making" (Van Dyne 168)--"The Bee Meeting" and "The Arrival of the Bee Box." By the last poem, "Wintering," the association between the woman and the plant is merely analogous, not metamorphic. She is clearly human, knitting over the cradle of her child (and therefore no longer like the virginal Daphne): "The woman, still at her knitting, / At the cradle of Spanish walnut, / Her body a bulb in the cold and too dumb to think." One might be tempted to say that the baby is encased in the Spanish walnut like Daphne in the laurel tree and that the woman too is becoming a plant, no longer even able to speak. However, the walnut tree merely serves the mother and child, by being fashioned into a cradle, in the same way that the metaphor of the bulb serves the poet, by providing an image for her hibernation. Her ability to control these plant metaphors attests to the progress she has made since the beginning of the Bee sequence. These are distinctions the earlier poems fail to make. Such restraint is still far off in "The Bee Meeting" where personification and metamorphosis are employed to heighten the speaker’s strangeness, vulnerability, and confusion.

Even so, the speaker recognizes that the myth of metamorphosis, like the other conceits in the poem, is an inadequate solution to her problem; however, her moment of clarity is brief at this point. In the crucial and distinctive seventh stanza, she confronts the hysterical tone and the surrealistic allusions to Daphne, "I cannot run, I am rooted, and the gorse hurts me / With its yellow purses, its spikey armory," and says flatly, "I could not run without having to run forever." Her separateness from others--the real issue in the sequence--would pursue her even into the Daphne myth; when she becomes "rooted," that is, transformed into the tree to evade the bees and villagers, the other vegetation now assails her: "the gorse hurts me / With its yellow purses, its spikey armory." And significantly, the flowers and prickles of the gorse are imagined as both female (purses) and male (armory) just like the communities of the villagers or the bees. Abandoning all tropes in the sanest line of the poem, she admits, "I could not run without having to run forever." Fleeing the actual scenes and causes of her anxieties is futile, but she still has not given up the attempt to escape into literariness. After this bald avowal, she appears to delegate the Daphne imagery to the hive: "The white hive is snug as a virgin, / Sealing off her brood cells, her honey, and quietly humming." The lines recall Daphne’s metamorphosis: "her soft sides were begirt with thin bark. Her hair was changed to leaves, her arms to branches. . . . Her gleaming beauty alone remained" (I, 41). The contracting assonance of the long i’s that signals the shutting up of the hive ("white hive") and the whispered alliterations of s’s and h’s ("snug," "sealing," "cells" and "honey," "humming") betray the speaker’s lyric responsiveness to the bees. The self-containment and contentment that the hive achieves at the end of stanza seven is short-lived, however, just as the speaker’s moment of sanity was; in stanza eight when the bees are smoked out of the hive, they (and the speaker) once again take flight of their senses: "Here they come, the outriders, on their hysterical elastics." Their fear ignites hers, and she reverts to her earlier fantasy of metamorphosis by trying to "stand very still, [so] they will think I am cow-parsley."

Feeding this impressionistic mood is the speaker’s inability to perceive accurately, to rein in her hyperactive imagination and hone her vision. Like the paranoid questions that can be answered reasonably ("Who are these people at the bridge to meet me? They are the villagers" or "I am nude as a chicken neck, does nobody love me? / Yes"), the speaker must revise her first impressions of the landscape: "Is it blood clots the tendrils are dragging up that string? / No, no, it is scarlet flowers that will one day be edible." The repeated emotional burst of "No, no" as she realizes the red clots are only flowers suggests that the simple reassuring answer is as unnerving to her as the alarming question because their contrast is a measure of her extremity. Her task in this poem is to liberate herself from both the bizarre and the mundane. She will confront more directly in "Stings" (214-15) that she does not want to end up as the queen, the extraordinary but fated center of the hive; yet she also does not want to become the drudge, one of the "unmiraculous women" whose "strangeness evaporate[s]" from a life of domestic labor. Her vacillations from the bizarre to the mundane, from the surreal to the real, from suspicious questions to matter-of-fact answers are finally what exhaust the speaker by the end of the poem--"I am exhausted, I am exhausted"--though she, like many readers of the poem, blames the villagers.

The frequency with which readers of "The Bee Meeting" conclude that the villagers fiendishly draw the innocent speaker into their demonic ritual attests to the poem’s success in evincing the speaker’s point of view.22 Yet, the townspeople appear menacing because her fantastic imagination distorts perception. It is true, as nearly every reader points out, that the first list of villagers includes the town officials--the rector, the midwife, the sexton, and the agent for bees--and therefore suggests some sort of public ritual. Yet the second list, an even more important one since it enumerates the people who might be the central mysterious "surgeon" performing the ritual, is noticeably composed of common, insignificant, and thus innocuous characters: the butcher, the grocer, the postman, and most vaguely, "someone I know." Moreover, the setting of the mysterious ritual is borrowed, like the Daphne imagery, from literature and thus gives the poem self-conscious literariness rather than emotional veracity. The event is modeled on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, "Young Goodman Brown," in which the title character, like the speaker here, has a nightmarish meeting with his neighbors in a shorn grove. That Plath wants to tap the literariness of this allusion rather than merely its theme and mood is obvious in the more playful, imbedded references to Hawthorn--the hawthorn tree in the grove and the "scarlet" flowers that recall The Scarlet Letter. Like Young Goodman Brown, the speaker of "The Bee Meeting" is a dubious judge of the intentions of the villagers.

In some ways, her position in relation to the villagers is very much like that of the bees. The townspeople do not intend to harm the bees; they merely want to divide the hive into three hives and save the queen bee from the virgins. Yet the bees misinterpret the smoke (that is used to drive them out so the hives can be moved): "Smoke rolls and scarves in the grove. / The mind of the hive thinks this is the end of everything." Likewise, the queen hides from the people who are trying to help her: "The old queen does not show herself, is she so ungrateful?" The intensely lyrical quality of some of these passages (the long o’s that almost seem to loop and curl like the smoke they are describing--"Smoke rolls and scarves in the grove"--the long i’s that tighten and enclose the bees in a unity of sound--"The mind of the hive") again belies the speaker’s sympathetic identification with the bees. Strategic repetitions further link the speaker to the bees; she says of herself, "They will not smell my fear, my fear, my fear" and of the queen, "She is old, old, old." This connection between the speaker and the bees must be read carefully, however, for its purpose is to separate her from the villagers every bit as much as it is to associate her with the bees. She is like the bees primarily in that she is unlike the townspeople. Further, the bees themselves are similar to the villagers in some ways (in their group function, in their hierarchy, in the threat they pose to the speaker). This point is more important than it first appears. Many readers interpret the sequence, especially the third poem "Stings," as a work in which Plath attempted to create an image of herself from the bees, whether as victimized wife (the drudges) or victorious poet (the queen bee). Yet the larger success of the sequence depends on the speaker’s recognition that the hive is an unsatisfactory model for human social relations (indeed, the metaphor of the hive amounts to a critique of heterosexual social relations) and that the bees are outside of her, as everything that oppresses her is. Distinguishing herself from her conceits makes possible the relationship to the bees she acknowledges in "The Swarm" (215-17)--"How instructive this is!" Here at the end of "The Bee Meeting" she still confuses herself with the bees, "Whose is that long white box in the grove . . . why am I cold," and experiences a foreboding of death (an early draft of this line read "that coffin, so white and silent" [Van Dyne 165]). Yet, like the bees, she must learn that this is not "the end of everything." By the last poem, she has established her autonomy as well as her connection to the world; despite the fact that Plath changed the sequence title from "The Beekeeper" and "The Beekeeper’s Daybook" to "Bees," the speaker is aware in the last poem that she is a beekeeper not a bee. When she says in "Wintering," "It is they [the bees] who own me," she does not mean that she cannot distinguish herself from them--only that she is connected to them by their dependence upon her, a relationship she assents to: "This is the time of hanging on for the bees." Thus, the speaker’s rhetorical and emotional identification with the bees in the first poem, like the other intensely imaginative elements, stems from excesses that the sequence as a whole works to overcome.

Another aspect of "The Bee Meeting" that often diverts critical attention from the speaker’s unreliability is the penultimate stanza in which the new virgins

Dream of a duel they will win inevitably, A curtain of wax dividing them from the bride flight, The upflight of the murderess into a heaven that loves her.

The appeal of this stanza, of course, is that it prefigures the violence of the bride flight in "Stings" and is consistent with the theme of vengeful self-destruction that is said to monopolize Plath’s imagination. And, indeed, it does foreshadow the third poem of the sequence in its vision of "recovering" a queen, as "Stings" will say. However, much more important here is the fact that the bride flight remains merely a dream. This poem ends with exhaustion and uncertainty not, like "Stings," with energy and self-assurance. And, as might be expected, the speaker recedes even further into the unreality she has been struggling throughout the poem to cast off.

The failure of her effort to distinguish between the real and the surreal is anticipated in the opening of the final stanza which signals her defeat, "I am exhausted, I am exhausted," and confirmed in the last line where three accusing questions give vent to her worst fears, "Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold." She sees what appears to be a coffin, realizes something has ended, and feels the chill of the grave already upon her. Yet the box, the sense of accomplishment, and the iciness of death all derive directly from her own metaphor in the preceding lines. When she claims to be a "Pillar of white in a blackout of knives. / . . . the magician’s girl who does not flinch," she is, in effect, conjuring up her own box and stepping into it. Reneging on all the other images for herself the poem has contrived, this last metaphor makes passivity a performance and tinctures the funereal atmosphere with the carnival. Embracing virginity with a vengeance, she becomes the magician’s "girl"--both daughter and assistant--who participates in the trick of Sawing the Lady in Half.23 The box, then, is the prop that makes the optical allusion possible. She is the "pillar of white in a blackout of knives" because she is the stoical girl in the box who remains unscathed even as the phallic knives appear to pass through her, a variation of Daphne who becomes the unfeeling tree in order to avoid Apollo’s sexual assault. The knives do not cut her because they are merely a "blackout," that is, an optical illusion. The term is taken from the theatrical expression "blackout," meaning to dim the lights while a scene changes or, in a magician’s act, to allow a trick to be accomplished under the cover of darkness; it is also a word that suggests the magician’s occupation, "black art." She is unflinching, not because she is brave, but because she is in on the trick. The shock at the end of the poem that inspires the final three questions is her surprising realization that she is the only one left performing. "The villagers are untying their disguises," but the speaker is still caught in hers. While the townspeople were carrying out their chores, and there is no evidence in the poem that they were doing otherwise, the speaker has nailed her own coffin, so to speak, with her fantastic imaginative constructions. Moreover, her role as the magician’s girl associates her with witchcraft since it allies her with sorcery as well as with illusion.

The exhaustion she feels at the end of the poem makes her unable to answer the last battery of questions. This is appropriate since the voice of the poem is expert at heightening rather than allaying fears and uncertainties. She will, however, approach the last enigma from another angle in the second poem. "The Arrival of the Bee Box" (212-13) must be understood as responding to her demand in this first poem to know "Whose is that long white box in the grove."

From The Gender of Excess: Moments of Brocade. Copyright © 1997 by the University Press of Mississippi. Reprinted by permrission 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.