Sylvia Plath's "Bee Sequence": A Microcosm of Poetic Development
Indeed, Plath fights for a sense of control over her own life, by first addressing the two major betrayals she struggles with, namely the betrayal of a hive turning on its own queen and the betrayal of a once sweet husband. In response to such treacherous acts, Plath urges herself onward and the speaker predicts that "It is almost over" (31). Plath realizes that she can exert control over her life, as well as her poetry. She leaves her readers with her "honey-machine," her poetry, which "will work without thinking" (33-34). Her honey might be bitter, but at least she reclaims her poetry for herself in the end. Interestingly, Plath acknowledges that her poetry can live on and continue her legacy even without her presence in the world. Sadly, Plath's kind of poetry seems to require her death, or at least Plath herself perceives this to be the case. She desires an escape into a world in which she can exist as a new kind of queen bee and not just another indistinguishable, compliant, mindless worker bee.
Moreover, while the worker bees remain in this world to carry out their ruin on Plath's former husband, "molding onto his lips like lies, / Complicating his features," (49-50) Plath departs from her home and life entirely. She does not want to avenge all the pain which Hughes inflicts on her; she leaves him to the future he must endure without her and the worker bees of society who will now haunt him, reminding him every day of the wife he abandoned. At the end of her poem, Plath realizes that she and the queen bee alike "have a self to recover" (52). The recovery of that self, however, does not involve survival; instead, she wholeheartedly believes that it requires her death.
The "lion-red" queen (55) flies "over the engine that killed her - / The mausoleum, the wax house" (59-60). Plath, in her role as the queen bee, finally leaves the hive, providing the queen bee with a new role. A shocking transformation occurs at the end of "Stings," as Plath abandons the tomb which her house represents and leaves behind her a trail in the sky, the trail of her most ambitious poetry yet.
Notably, the early drafts of "Stings" carry out a much harsher revenge on "the great scapegoat," Plath's former husband (41). Plath alters her poem so that it focuses not so much on revenge or bitterness towards her husband, but on herself, as she paves a new path for the queen bee. In the original drafts of the poem, the speaker describes how Hughes "peers through a warped silver raindrop, / Seven lumps on his head / And a big boss on his forehead" ("Drafts of Plath's 'Stings'").
Plath employs much more violent imagery in the earlier draft of her poem, describing a physically beaten Hughes. Later, too, the speaker describes that the bees descend on Hughes "Black as the devil, and vengeful" ("Drafts of Plath's 'Stings'"). In removing such lines, Plath distances herself from her bitter feelings, and instead of imagining a dark revenge for Hughes, she leaves the imagining to the worker bees. In the end, Plath acknowledges that detachment from her former husband is better than holding on to resentful feelings which would inevitably lead to more suffering.
Significantly, Plath chooses not to conclude her bee sequence, and Ariel as a whole, with the image of her death in "Stings." Instead, she follows "Stings" with "Wintering," perhaps reflecting the cold, yet somehow serene lull before her suicide. At the beginning of her poem, Plath contends that winter "is the easy time, there is nothing doing" (1-2). After such intense preceding poems, the more relaxed attitude of "Wintering" relieves Plath's readers. The first stanza seems to harbor anticipation for renewal and healing, especially in the line, "I have my honey" (3). Plath sustains herself on honey in the first stanza, but the second stanza takes on a darker tone, reversing the positive outlook of the first stanza. Plath describes that she is "wintering in a dark without window / At the heart of the house / Next to the last tenant's rancid jam" (6-8). While Plath does indeed survive in her house, she only just barely survives. She lives as a prisoner in her own home, surrounded by rotten jam. The royal jelly which, in nature, sustains queen bees in the hive is no longer serving its nutritive duty, at least for Plath.
Yet Plath recognizes the value of turning inwards and initiating a dialogue with herself. In his article "Bodied Forth in Words," Scott Knickerbocker holds that, "The speaker experiences winter as an introspective season; she goes inside not only the house but also the wine cellar, the "heart of the house," a metaphor for her own subconscious mind (Plath 2004, 89). She admits that she has been previously unaware of what goes on there, that introspection is a new process for her: 'This is the room I have never been in. / This is the room I could never breathe in' (89)." Indeed, Plath delves into the recesses of her very soul, finally addressing her own wants and needs, rather than those of society. She rummages through her frightening interior, searching for renewed inspiration and poetic insight. At last, Plath searches for a new poetry, a kind derived from her own inventive genius.
Once again, however, Plath's poetic authority seems to slip right through her fingers as she recounts the suffocating nature of her home and the bees "who own me" (19). Her images of winter become progressively more gruesome: "Black asininity. Decay / Possession" (17-18). Plath struggles for control once and for all. Yet even while she loses the ability to manage her quickly deteriorating mental condition, Plath still sees the hope of spring beyond the winter of snow and announces strongly, "This is the time of hanging on for the bees" (22). The bees, "like soldiers," (24) plow through the coldness of winter, albeit slowly. Whereas the bees of preceding poems emerge as incredibly mobile entities, waiting to erupt into a crazed frenzy at any second, the bees of "Wintering" are "So slow I hardly know them" (23). In these lines, Plath emphasizes her increasing loss of touch with reality and her dissociation from her feelings.
The dissociation fails to last, however, and does not represent a lasting solution for the depression threatening to dissolve the peace of Plath's winter. The bees "ball in a mass" (31) and eventually carry away the dead body of Plath, just like they did in "The Bee Meeting." However, Plath does not allow Hughes to kill her; instead, she lets the bees kill him. She emphasizes that "The bees are all women, / Maids and the long royal lady. / They have got rid of the men" (38-40).
Another significant turn in the poem occurs at this point. While she acknowledges the death which winter brings, Plath also maintains that "winter is for women" (42). Here, she points to the extraordinary ability of women to endure and preserve themselves through the toughest of winters. Indeed, even though she physically dies, Plath preserves her identity, crystallizing it in the words of "Wintering" and lacing the purest form of her "self" throughout Ariel.
Thus, Plath endures in the poetry of Ariel, specifically in the bee sequence, in which she develops into a poet well aligned with her recovered identity. When she queries, "Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas / Succeed in banking their fires / To enter another year?" Plath already knows the answer to her question (46-48). Instead of ending her final poem with an open question, as she does in "The Bee Meeting," Plath responds with a reclaimed poetic authority: "The bees are flying. They taste the spring" (50). She echoes once again the notions of survival and hope, knowing that Ariel encompasses her true identity within its pages.
Scott Knickerbocker agrees with an overall optimistic reading of Plath's Ariel poems and responds to the critics which seek to exaggerate only the dismal aspects of her poems. In his article, he writes, "They [critics] either ignore or dismiss, moreover, Plath's remark that her own sequencing of Ariel "began with the word 'Love' and ended with the word 'Spring'" (1992, 14-15)." As Knickerbocker points out, Plath herself acknowledged the theme of hope present in even the darkest poems of Ariel. Thus, Plath's specific ordering of her poems proves significant to her overarching theme of fortitude even through the deepest suffering.
In the bee sequence, Plath refines and modulates her art, reclaiming her own idea of poetry and throwing off the yoke of society once and for all. While Ariel does indeed reflect Plath's struggle with the slow obliteration of her ego, the bee sequence traces the full trajectory of Plath's redefinition of herself and her poetry. Only in the bee sequence does Plath succeed in her ambitious aim of self-discovery and the subsequent uncovering of her identity for her readers. Moreover, only in the bee sequence, specifically "Wintering," does Plath finally receive a certain consolation from her poetry, because she knows it will endure through time. In the end, Plath recovers her inner "queen bee" and finds herself prepared to leave the hive, a daring and frightening venture never before attempted by a queen bee.
"Drafts of Plath's 'Stings.'" Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. (2002). Web. 11 Nov. 2009.
Knickerbocker, Scott. "Bodied Forth in Words." College Literature 36.3 (Summer 2009): 1-27. Project Muse. Web. 11 Nov. 2009.
Luck, Jessica Lewis. "Mind of the Hive." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 26 (2007): 287-308. Project Muse. Web. 11 Nov. 2009.
Plath, Sylvia. Ariel: The Restored Edition. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005. Print.