Sylvia Plath and the Bees
In the autumn of 1962, only four months before her death in February 1963, Sylvia Plath wrote a cluster of extraordinary poems about Bees. She had taken up beekeeping that June and wrote excitedly to her mother in America to describe the events of attending a local beekeepers’ meeting in the Devon village of North Tawton, where she had moved with her husband, Ted Hughes, and their young daughter in September 1961. Her son was born there in January 1962. It seemed to be an idyllic setting for a perfect family life – with bees.
Sylvia’s father, Otto Plath, had been an authority on bumble bees. His book, Bumblebees and Their Ways (1934) is still highly regarded today. As a boy in Germany, he had been nicknamed Beinen-Konig (king of the bees) and when he emigrated to the United States, he became a professor of entomology at Boston University. His death when Sylvia was only eight years old deeply affected her feelings and thoughts for the rest of her life. Her mother writes that, when she was told of her father’s death, she said: “I’ll never speak to God again!”
But the idyll in Devon, even with the bees, rapidly turned into a nightmare for her. She realized that the ‘friend’ who was helping her and Ted with the babies was actually Ted’s mistress. At the same time as the Bee Poems were written, she was writing to her mother about seeking a separation from him. Maybe she even realized that this ‘friend’, Assia Weevil, was pregnant by Hughes. (The baby was aborted, but after Sylvia’s death, Ted Hughes had another child with Assia. In 1969, Assia killed her daughter by Hughes and then herself.) Sylvia wrote to her mother: “I guess my predicament is an astounding one, a deserted wife knocked out by ‘flu with two babies and a full time job!” In the winter of 1962-3, Sylvia fled to London with the children and ended her own life in a flat which was once lived in by W.B. Yeats.
For beekeepers, I think the poems are a treasure trove. They are full of fresh, unexpected imagery about the familiar things we take too much for granted in our craft. I don’t mean the stings – in the poem about Stings, it is not Sylvia who is stung, but we may believe it is Ted, and serve him right! No, it is the power of the poems to recover the intensity of our first experiences with the bees, the imaginative grasp she has of the special relationship which beekeepers have with each other (at every meeting), her delicate and accurate attention to colour, form, sound, smell, which make them unique in all the literature about bees:
“The white hive is snug as a virgin
Sealing off her brood cells, her honey, and quietly humming.”
She calls the angry sound of the bee box, “furious Latin”, which somehow catches the feeling I always have when the bees are cross, of their high-pitched communication of outrage.
Or how about this for a description of stings?
“The bees found him out,
Molding onto his lips like lies,
Complicating his features.”
Of course, we can read this in many ways, but for me it captures the rapid twisting of my flesh when the stings go in, to perfection!
As a good beginner, Plath has obviously read the right books and knows about queens killing off rivals:
“While in their fingerjoint cells the new virgins
Dream of a duel they will win inevitably,
A curtain of wax dividing them from the bride flight…”
Interestingly, it seems that in North Tawton in 1962, they were still using the banging method of catching swarms, which we can see in medieval manuscripts – the theory being that the percussions would bring the bees down.
And the final poem of the sequence, Wintering, brings into sharp focus the anxiety I suppose all beekeepers feel as they close the hives for the winter:
“Will the hive survive?”
a poignancy made all the more troubling when we know of Plath’s own failure to survive that winter. But the end of the poem is not pessimistic –
“The bees are flying. They taste the spring.”
Below are two extracts from Sylvia’s letters to her mother, which may give you some background to the poems, but I hope that the intense emotional impact of the works will speak its own language to you. Like the language of bees, it may be difficult to study, but worth it.
from Letters Home
June 15th 1962
…Today, guess what, we became beekeepers! We went to the local meeting last week (attended by the rector, the midwife, and assorted beekeeping people from neighboring villages) to watch a Mr Pollard make three hives out of one (by transferring his queen cells) under the supervision of the official Government bee-man. We all wore masks and it was thrilling. It is expensive to start beekeeping (over $50 outlay), but Mr Pollard let us have an old hive for nothing, which we painted white and green, and today he brought over the swarm of docile Italian hybrid bees we ordered and installed them. We placed the hive in a sheltered out-of-the-way spot in the orchard the bees were furious from being in a box. Ted had only put a handkerchief over his head where the hat should go in the bee-mask, and the bees crawled into his hair, and he flew off with half-a-dozen stings. I didn’t get stung at all, and when I went back to the hive later, I was delighted to see bees entering with pollen sacs full and leaving with them empty at least I think that’s what they were doing. I feel very ignorant, but shall try to read up and learn all I can. If we’re lucky, we’ll have our own honey, too! Lots of people are really big keepers in town with a dozen to twenty hives, so we shall not be short of advice. When we have our first honey, I think we shall get half a dozen hens…
Letter of 9th October 1962
Everything is breaking: my dinner set is breaking in half, the health inspector says the cottage should be demolished there is no hope for it, Even my beloved bees set upon me today when I numbly knocked aside their sugar feeder, and I am all over stings…
The Bee Meeting
Who are these people at the bridge to meet me? They are the villagers –
The rector, the midwife, the sexton, the agent for bees.
In my sleeveless summery dress I have no protection,
And they are all gloved and covered, why did nobody tell me?
They are smiling and taking out veils tacked to ancient hats.
I am nude as a chicken neck, does nobody love me?
Yes, 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.
They will not smell my fear, my fear, my fear.
Which is the rector now, is it that man in black?
Which is the midwife, is that her blue coat?
Everybody is nodding a square black head, they are knights in visors,
Breastplates of cheesecloth knotted under the armpits.
Their smiles and their voices are changing. I am led through a beanfield.
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.
Now they are giving me a fashionable white straw Italian hat
And a black veil that molds to my face, they are making me one of them.
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.
Is it some operation that is taking place?
Is it the surgeon my neighbors are waiting for,
This apparition in a green helmet,
Shining gloves and white suit.
Is it the butcher, the grocer, the postman, someone I know?
I cannot run, I am rooted, and the gorse huts me
With its yellow purses, its spiky armory.
I could not run without having to run forever.
The white hive is snug as a virgin,
Sealing off her brood cells, her honey, and quietly humming.
Smoke rolls and scarves in the grove.
The mind of the hive thinks this is the end of everything.
Here they come, the outriders, on their hysterical elastics.
If I stand very still, they will think I am cow-parsley,
A gullible head untouched by their animosity,
Not even nodding, a personage in a hedgerow.
The villagers open the chambers, they are hunting the queen.
Is she hiding, is she eating honey? She is very clever.
She is old, old, old, she must live another year, and she knows it.
While in their fingerjoint cells 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 villagers are moving the virgins, there will be no killing.
The old queen does not show herself, is she so ungrateful?
I am exhausted, I am exhausted –
Pillar of white in a blackout of knives.
I am the magician’s girl who does not flinch.
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.
3rd October 1962
The Arrival of the Bee Box
I ordered this, this clean wood box
Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift.
I would say it was the coffin of a midget
Or a square baby
Were there not such a din in it.
The box is locked, it is dangerous.
I have to live with it overnight
And I can’t keep away from it.
There are no windows, so I can’t see what is in there.
There is only a little grid, no exit.
I put my eye to the grid.
It is dark, dark,
With the swarmy feeling of African hands
Minute and shrunk for export,
Black on black, angrily clambering.
How can I let them out?
It is the noise that appals me most of all,
The unintelligible syllables.
It is like a Roman mob,
Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!
I lay my ear to furious Latin.
I am not a Caesar.
I have simply ordered a box of maniacs.
They can be sent back.
They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner.
I wonder how hungry they are,
I wonder if they would forget me
If I just undid the locks and stood back and turned into a tree.
There is the laburnum, its blond colonnades,
And the petticoats of the cherry.
They might ignore me immediately
In my moon suit and funeral veil.
I am no source of honey
So why should they turn on me?
Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.
The box is only temporary.
4th October 1962
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’.
Brood cells gray as the fossils of shells
Terrify me, they seem so old.
What am I buying, wormy mahogany?
Is there any queen at all in it?
If there is, she is old,
Her wings torn shawls, her long body
Rubbed of its plus Poor and bare and unqueenly and even shameful.
I stand in a column
Of winged, unmiraculous women,
I am no drudge
Though for years I have eaten dust
And dried plates with my dense hair.
And seen my strangeness evaporate,
Blue dew from dangerous skin.
Will they hate me,
These women who only curry,
Whose news is the open cherry, the open clover?
It is almost over.
I am in control.
Here is my honey-machine,
It will work without thinking,
Opening, in spring, like an industrious virgin
To scour the creaming crests
As the moon, for its ivory powders, scours the sea.
A third person is watching.
He has nothing to do with the bee-seller or with me.
Now he is gone
In eight great bounds, a great scapegoat.
Here is his slipper, here is another,
And here the square of white linen
He wore instead of a hat.
He was sweet,
The sweat of his efforts a rain
Tugging the world to fruit.
The bees found him out,
Molding onto his lips like lies,
Complicating his features.
They thought death was worth it, but I
Have a self to recover, a queen.
Is she dead, is she sleeping?
Where has she been,
With her lion-red body, her wings of glass?
Now she is flying
More terrible than she ever was, red
Scar in the sky, red comet
Over the engine that killed her –
The mausoleum, the wax house.
6th October 1962
Somebody is shooting at something in our town –
a dull pom, pom in the Sunday Street.
Jealousy can open the blood,
It can make black roses.
Who are they shooting at?
It is you the knives are out for
At Waterloo, Waterloo, Napoleon,
The hump of Elba on your short back,
And the snow, Marshaling its brilliant cutlery
Mass after mass, saying Shh!
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. Clouds, clouds.
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 have got so far. Seventy feet high!
Russia, Poland and Germany!
The mild hills, the same old magenta
Fields shrunk to a penny
Spun into a river, the river crossed.
The bees argue, in their black ball,
A flying hedgehog, all prickles.
The may with gray hands stands under the honeycomb
Of their dream, the hives station
Where trains, faithful to their steel arcs,
Leave and arrive, and there is no end to the country.
Pom! Pom! They fall
Dismembered, to a tod of ivy.
So much for the charioteers, the outriders, the Grand Army!
A red tatter, Napoleon!
The last badge of victory.
The swarm is knocked into a cocked straw hat.
Elba, Elba, bleb on the sea!
The white busts of marshals, admirals, generals
Worming themselves into niches.
How instructive this is!
The dumb, banded bodies
Walking the plank draped with Mother France’s upholstery
Into a new mausoleum,
An ivory palace, a crotch pine.
The man with gray hands smiles –
The smile of a man of business, intensely practical.
They are not hands at all
But asbestos receptacles.
Pom! Pom! ‘They would have killed me.’
Stings big as drawing pins!
It seems bees have a notion of honour,
A black intractable mind.
Napoleon is pleased, he is pleased with everything.
O Europe! O ton of honey!
7th October 1962
This is the easy time, there is nothing doing.
I have whirled the midwife’s extractor,
I have my honey,
Six jars of it,
Six cat’s eyes in the wine cellar,
Wintering in a dark without window
At the heart of the house
Next to the last tenant’s rancid jam
And the bottles of empty glitters –
Sir So-and-so’s gin.
This is the room I have never been in.
This is the room I could never breathe in.
The black bunched in there like a bat,
But the torch and its faint
Chinese yellow on appalling objects –
Black asininity. Decay.
It is they who own me.
Neither cruel nor indifferent,
This is the time of hanging on for the bees the bees
So slow I hardly know them,
Filing like soldiers
To the syrup tin
To make up for the honey I’ve taken.
Tate and Lyle keeps them going,
The refined snow.
It is Tate and Lyle they live on, instead of flowers.
They take it. The cold sets in.
Now they ball in a mass,
Mind against all that white.
The smile of the snow is white.
It spreads itself out, a mile-long body of Meissen,
Into which, on warm days,
They can only carry their dead.
The bees are all women,
Maids and the long royal lad.
They have got rid of the men,
The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors.
Winter is for women –
The woman, still at her knitting,
At the cradle of Spanish Walnut,
Her body a bulb in the cold and too dumb to think.
Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas
Succeed in banking their fires
To enter another year?
What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?
The bees are flying. They taste the spring.
9th October 1962