Sylvia Plath's "Bee Sequence": A Microcosm of Poetic Development

By Natasha L. Richter
2010, Vol. 2 No. 01 | pg. 1/2 |

The poems which Sylvia Plath composed in the weeks and days immediately preceding her death contain some of the most disturbing themes present in Modernist poetry. In Ariel, an anthology containing her most fervent, emotional, and troubling poetry yet, poems such as "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus" appall readers with their frank references to death, suicide, mental instability, and the slow, agonizing erosion of the self.

However, Plath purposefully changes her poetic tone at the end of Ariel when she uses the natural metaphor of bees to alternatively represent the community which immediately surrounds her in "The Bee Meeting," the chaotic emotions which she experiences in "The Arrival of the Bee Box," and her life as a queen bee in "Stings" and "Wintering." Throughout the bee sequence, Plath entertains thoughts of her own death and explores contributing factors, such as an increasingly unsupportive community and her unfulfilling role as a domestic housewife and mother.

While she seems disturbingly attracted to the utter emotional detachment which death represents, Plath ends her bee sequence, and Ariel overall, with an emphasis on endurance through a winter of pain and violent struggle. Thus, the bee sequence represents, in microcosm, Plath's development as a poet. She turns away from the vulnerability expressed in "The Bee Meeting," shapes her emotions into her own poetic form in "The Arrival of the Bee Box" forges a new trajectory for a "lion-red" queen bee at the end of "Stings," and discovers a hope for which to endure in her newly defined strain of poetry in "Wintering."

In "The Bee Meeting," the first poem of the bee sequence, Plath emerges as a prone, susceptible female writer easily swayed by her community's wishes. Indeed, Plath's concern with her public image and appearance emerges strongly in her poetry, and Plath addresses such a concern head-on in "The Bee Meeting." Immediately, at the beginning of the poem, Plath's alarmed voice asks, "Who are these people at the bridge to meet me?" (line 1). The anxious questioning tone develops into a far more frightened tone as the stanza continues. Plath describes that, "In my sleeveless summery dress I have no protection," while "they are all gloved and covered" (3-4).

In such telling lines, Plath reveals her feelings of sheer nakedness before an oppressive community which betrays her in its failure to warn her about the arrival of the bees. Interestingly, Plath relates the betrayal of her community to her love life, hinting at the pain her former husband still causes her and pointing to his traitorous abandonment of her. Again her questioning voice arises as she asks, "I am nude as a chicken, does nobody love me?" (6). Her continual questioning points to both her doubts concerning her writing and her lower self-confidence as a result of her recent slight by her husband.

Plath ventures a weak attempt at regaining control in asserting, "They [the bees] will not smell my fear, my fear, my fear" (10). Nevertheless, her repetition of "fear" merely establishes the intensity of her panic and dread. Indeed, the image of the community which she describes becomes progressively more frightening, as she depicts the people as "knights in visors," each one donning a "square black head" (13). Plath appears completely powerless, and the poem seems particularly invested in the notion of protecting Plath from the people who hurt her, especially when the speaker asks, "Is it blood clots the tendrils are dragging up that string?" (19). Essentially, in this instance, Plath projects her internal pain as "scarlet flowers" resembling "blood clots" (19-20). However, in declaring that the scarlet flowers which represent her struggles will one day be "edible," Plath seems to maintain hope that she can one day transcend such pain when it becomes "edible," rather than dangerous and incapacitating (20).

Plath's fear of conformity to a critical society emerges in the next stanza, as the speaker recounts the community members dressing her in a "black veil," effectively "making me one of them" (22). As the community leads her to the "circle of hives," the poet's tone becomes frantic for any kind of explanation regarding the strange activity of the community members. She wonders about a potential "operation" being carried out by a surgeon and oddly denies her role in the ensuing events, instead asking, "Is it the butcher, the grocer, the postman, someone I know?" (30).

Overall, Plath emerges as peculiarly passive in the poem. Like the "clever" queen bee (43) forced into hiding by the bees hunting her, Plath feels the need to conceal herself from society, but she finds herself utterly "rooted" (31). Clearly, Plath identifies with the queen bee, comfortable in her position but wary of an eventual overthrow by the "new virgins" who "dream of a duel they will win inevitably" (45-46). Plath foreshadows her own death here, blaming a community which hunts her down, threatening to replace her with new, less emotionally disturbed poets, and seeking to drain originality from her poetics, imposing a rigid conformity in its place.

In the last stanza, Plath seems especially haunted by the idea of compliance, stating in a resigned tone, "I am exhausted, I am exhausted - / Pillar of white in a blackout of knives" (51-52). Now, Plath reaffirms her position as a "hunted" queen bee, comparing both her position, as well as the queen bee's position, to a "magician's girl who does not flinch" (53). Plath identifies with a passive queen bee whose sole job entails producing progeny without even "flinching," left only to imagine a more ambitious and fulfilling lifestyle.

At the end of the poem, Plath feels lost, sensing that her poetry lacks novelty. She feels that she only produces the "progeny" of poetry which her society demands. At the very end of the poem, she wonders fearfully, "Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, / why am I cold" (55-56). The community members violently pursue Plath, not unlike a network of bees hunting down an older queen. Society influences Plath heavily, effacing her identity.

In her article, "Exploring the 'Mind of the Hive,'" Jessica Luck addresses the vulnerability of the speaker, who represents Plath herself: "The questions, confusions, and rhetoric of vulnerability continue throughout the poem, as the speaker is passively "led through a beanfield" (1. 15) by the villagers to the "circle of hives" in the "shorn grove" (p. 65, 1. 23)." In her statement, Luck notices Plath's peculiarly submissive nature. Luck adds, "They finally dress her in protective gear like their own, leading her to claim, 'they are making me one of them' by putting on her body's surface an identity of their choosing (1. 22).

The speaker here is becoming a cultural product as she passively submits to the shaping and directing power of the villagers." Luck maintains that Plath's culture dresses her up, perceiving her the way that it wants to and imposing an identity on her. The dressing up of the speaker in "The Bee Meeting" metaphorically symbolizes the "dressing up" of Plath's poetry and Plath herself by literary critics and society in general. Plath's almost obsessive concern for her public image and appearance emerges strongly in her poetry, and in "The Bee Meeting," she addresses the concern head-on. The first poem in the bee sequence, then, introduces the societal pressures Plath confronts in her private life, as well as in her art form.

However, in "The Arrival of the Bee Box," a stronger, more self-assured Plath emerges, as she "orders" her own kind of poetry and begins to develop as her own kind of artist. While she still keeps her poetry "locked" up (6), she acknowledges at the end of her poem that, "The box is only temporary" (36). Interestingly, Plath changes the metaphor of the bees to represent her frenzied emotions and "unintelligible" words rather than her community at large. In the poem, Plath contains her "dangerous" emotions in the bee box, and yet she "can't keep away from it" (8). Plath knows she must indulge in her own form of poetry; yet the form of her poetry remains nebulous at this point.

Indeed, she finds herself hardly able to peer into the box, because "there are no windows, so I can't see what is in there. / There is only a little grid, no exit" (9-10). At this point in the poem, Plath imagines no outlet for her emotions or structure for her future poems; all she can observe through the grid "is dark, dark" feelings (12) "angrily clambering" to burst out (15). However, Plath wonders "how can I let them out?" (16). Thus, she does not yet know how to release her emotions into a form true to her own identity. Right now, the words of future poems seem like jumbled, "unintelligible syllables" (18) and chaotic as a "Roman mob" (19). While Plath seems initially overwhelmed by her disorderly emotions, she eventually re-establishes remnants of control over her box of bees.

At first, Plath considers dismissing her poetry and feelings altogether, contending "I have simply ordered a box of maniacs" (23). She even supposes that they "can be sent back" quite easily (24). Nevertheless, Plath seems bent on reasserting her power over the bees. Essentially, the bees represent not an angry community, but her angry emotions, her stinging attack on a community which attempts to reign in and abolish the disturbing thoughts present in her poetry. Plath, however, regains control over her emotions, maintaining that "They can die, I need feed them for nothing, I am the owner" (25).

Plath refuses to allow her community to exhibit any sort of control over her poetry, and instead of allowing her emotions to control her, she asserts dominance over her feelings and determines to shape them into her own strain of poetry. At the very end of the poem, Plath considers that her bees "might ignore me immediately / In my moon suit and funeral veil" (31-32). In this instance, Plath doubts that her poetry can accurately represent her interior flood of emotions. At the very least, however, her poems cannot abandon or reject her feelings entirely: "I am no source of honey / So why should they turn on me?" (33-34). The bees, taking on the guise of Plath's emotions and the jumbled words of her future poems, will not attack her for her honey or sweetness. Her kind of poetry is not the "honey" which society expects; instead, her poetry bears testimony to the unsettling, disturbing reality in which Plath exists.

In her article, Jessica Luck expresses similar thoughts regarding Plath's development as a poet. Luck pays particular close attention to Plath's state of mind, contending that "the progression in consciousness charted in the bee poems moves from the surface to the interior of the body/self, from a model of consciousness as the product of culture to a model that incorporates the deeper morphological structures of consciousness." Therefore, Luck also perceives a progression in Plath's mindset.

In the bee sequence, Plath purifies her consciousness to reflect her own identity rather than the ideals of her surrounding culture. Luck expands on her argument, suggesting that, "In the bee poems, Plath moves beneath the surface of the performative model of identity she begins with in "The Bee Meeting," exploring in the image of the hive a more deeply biological foundation for identity and source for feminist resistance." Luck suggests that by delving into the natural imagery of the hive, Plath regains a sense of femininity and establishes herself more than ever as not just a poet, but a far more empowered female poet.

With this in mind, Plath plows ahead in her development as a poet; she cultivates a keen sense of self-knowledge and daringly proclaims, "Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free" (35). For Plath, the "sweetest" action she can undertake is releasing her disorderly emotions in the form of a structured, ordered poem. Just as her particular bee box contains all all the rage and brutality inherent in the African slave trade, "African hands / Minute and shrunk for export," (13-14) Plath's poetry contains a violence in its dark words which sear right through the white pages of Ariel. Moreover, while the poetic form seems well equipped to contain Plath's fury, she makes her ultimate message of fierce independence explicit. In the end, Plath snubs conformity; she refuses to be the slave of either society or her husband.

In "Stings," the third poem included in the bee sequence, Plath breaks with tradition both in her life and in her poetry when she fully adopts the role of the queen bee and creates a new path for the trapped queen. At the onset of the poem, the speaker recounts the affectionate beginnings of Plath's relationship with her husband. Both Plath and her husband act as beekeepers and together, "bare-handed" and vulnerable, they delve into a beehive, gleaning the honey from its cells (1-2). Such an image reflects the initiation of Plath's domesticated life with her husband.

Indeed, Plath even relates the hive to a "teacup," essentially converting the hive into her own home. However, the transition from "excessive love" (10) and "sweetness" (11) to "old" (13) and "wormy mahogany" (14) marks the disintegration of the love between Hughes and Plath, and the subsequent decline of their marriage. By the end of the marriage, Plath finds herself asking, like the speaker in the poem, "Is there any queen in it [the hive] at all?" (15). Plath acknowledges that for years she undertakes the job of "winged, unmiraculous women / Honey-drudgers" (21-22). In other words, as a housekeeper and a mother, she acts more as a worker bee than an actual queen bee.

Yet the speaker additionally relates to the queen bee, whose position is not much better than the worker bees. Indeed, if the queen bee does still exist in the hive, "she is old, / Her wings torn shawls, her long body / Rubbed of its plush - / Poor and bare and unqueenly and even shameful" (16-19). The hive, the house itself, robs the queen of her royalty, her uniqueness, and indeed her very dignity.

Likewise, Plath feels that her domesticated life as a housewife strips her of her originality, at least for awhile. In a sense, the queen bee degenerates into a worker bee; both kinds of bees lose their identities through their respective duties. Plath explains that much like a worker bee, "I have eaten dust / And dried plates with my dense hair. / And seen my strangeness evaporate" (24-26). Her consuming household jobs slowly rub away Plath's creative self, and now, she reclaims her creative energies.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

Sylvia Plath’s posthumously published collection of poetry, Ariel, is perhaps best defined by the vivid imagery that delves deep into Plath’s psyche. Throughout the collection, Plath explores dimensions of herself: her past, present, and future; her demons; her place in the world. Time and time again, Ariel... MORE»
Forms of poetry are constantly changing as authors stray from what is conventional and familiar, and delve into what is new and different. Elegies that one finds in twentieth century literature are far from what one would have read centuries prior, and this changing convention can be attributed to writers like Thomas Hardy and Sylvia Plath. Born in 1840, Thomas Hardy is often thought of... MORE»
Sylvia Plath‘s The Bell Jar is about a young woman named Esther Greenwood entering college in the early 1950’s, a time before the second wave of the women’s movement had been implemented. Esther has dreams of becoming a famous writer while most of the women around her dream of finding a husband. Esther does not fit in with these women - no matter how hard... MORE»
Robert Browning’s two poems, “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess,” have some striking similarities. Both feature men who seem mentally disturbed; Further, both of these men had relationships with "strong" women who, despite apparently loving them, they each ended up killing. And interestingly... MORE»
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