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?”. 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”, 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”. Throughout the sequence, the queen, with whom the speaker compares herself (“I / Have a self to recover, a queen” [“Stings”]), 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”).
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”). 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”. 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”). 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.
In the first poem, “The Bee Meeting” 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”, 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. 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.
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”, 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!’”. But Daphne resists: “‘O father, dearest, grant me to enjoy perpetual virginity”. Though she is granted her wish (“He, indeed, yielded to her request”, 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”. 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”. 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”–”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”. 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” 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. 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”–”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”. 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” must be understood as responding to her demand in this first poem to know “Whose is that long white box in the grove.”
In seeking to liberate the female body, Plath subjected it to a representational order which dictated its annihilation.