Analysis of Poem "Stings" by Sylvia Plath

Updated on June 1, 2018
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath and Stings

Stings is one of five special poems Sylvia Plath wrote in October 1962, at a time of great emotional turmoil for the poet and mother of two.

The five poems, known collectively as the Bee Sequence, comprise The Bee Meeting, The Arrival of the Bee Box, Stings, The Swarm and Wintering.

They each stand on their own as poems but read together form a comprehensive exploration of Sylvia Plath's female identity at a time in her life when emotions were supercharged and the future uncertain.

  • A mix of real life autobiography, metaphor and mythological story, Stings takes the reader into the life of the hive through the eyes of a speaker who is personally involved in the practicalities, yet crucially distant enough to widen the picture as she searches for a sense of self, which comes in the shape of the Queen Bee.
  • The poet also used extracts from her journal in the poem, typically weaving them into a dream-like partially surreal narrative set in the present.
  • The speaker explores the ambiguous role of the queen bee and thus the feminine power within the hive. This power is also that of the female artist within society and specifically Plath's vocation as a poet. The two male figures, bee-seller and 3rd person (father and Ted Hughes) heighten the tension of the narrative.

In the summer of 1962 Sylvia Plath and fellow poet Ted Hughes were living in Devon, England and actually did take a course in beekeeping whilst living there. Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother in June:

'Today, guess what, we became beekeepers!'

She was looking forward to having some honey of her own eventually. By studying the local bee populations in Devon, Sylvia had consciously connected to the legacy of her father, Otto Plath, who died when Sylvia was only eight years old.

Otto Plath was an entomologist, an authority on bumble bees, and wrote a book about them in 1934, Bumble Bees and Their Ways, which is still regarded as a classic.

It's poignant to think that his daughter would follow a similar route and write a sequence of poems 'unique in all the literature about bees.'

As summer turned to autumn in 1962 Sylvia Plath's life began to unravel. She discovered that the love of her life, Ted Hughes, was having an affair with one Assia Wevill, wife of Canadian poet David Wevill, who were renting the London flat owned by Sylvia and Ted.

There's no doubting Sylvia Plath's need to translate life into poetry. At this point in time with her marriage in tatters she decided to move to London with her two children. All the time she was working on her poems, in addition to being a full-time mother.

She poured the emotional mix into some of the most profound poems over the next few months, with Stings in particular focusing on her relationships with men.

Using extended metaphor and a dream-like persona, she explores the world of the hive in an attempt to understand her own feminine identity. In the end she breaks out, becomes a queen, a burning red comet, miraculous in flight.

First published in the London magazine in April 1963, Stings appeared in Sylvia Plath's posthumous book of 1965, Ariel.

Stings

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 plush ----
Poor and bare and unqueenly and even shameful.
I stand in a column

Of winged, unmiraculous women,
Honey-drudgers.
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 scurry,
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.

Analysis of Stings Stanza 1

Stings is set in the immediate present, the reader being right there next to the first person speaker as the narrative begins. This present tense commentary is perfect for the act of delving into a bee-hive, an environment where you have to know what you're doing or risk upsetting the bees in their home.

This poem, on the surface, is about an exchange of honey for clean combs. There are two people in action, the speaker and a man in white who is smiling but without a name. Later on it becomes clear that he's the bee-seller.

The bare hands of both suggest that this is a delicate operation that leaves them vulnerable (cheese gauntlets notwithstanding) but the smile and the interaction means there is sufficient trust between them.

This is a positive start but note the curious fourth line, where wrists gain throats and become silken flowers. The speaker has noted the bare wrists and likened them to throats, exposed yet brave, smooth like the lily flower skin, flower of death and beauty.

So the speaker is hinting at something beyond sweetness - perhaps sacrifice - which the reader has to digest and hold on to.

The shortest line - He and I - must point to an important relationship in the poet's life, more than likely that of father and daughter. This is Sylvia Plath's father Otto Path represented by the bee-seller, the expert, the authority and such an influence on her psyche in real life.

Stanzas 2 and 3

Stanza 2

So the bee-seller is the father, Daddy, this time not someone to fear but someone to do business with, who is good. They're working together on the one hive, with many clean cells between them (worker bees clean out the old cells ready for the new), which implies they've been through a lot.

With enjambment taking the reader directly from the first stanza, the business of sweet exchange begins to take shape, numerically and figuratively. The eight combs may well stand for the eight years Sylvia Plath lived until her father died, when she lost something irretrievable.

The hive metaphorically is home and all things domesticated. In real life Sylvia Plath had painted her hive in the belief that her life (with Ted Hughes, as part of an ideal family) would be a home sweet home, full of good things.

Plath's commitment and passion were without doubt. She had so loved her father - he left early - she was so in love with Ted Hughes - he abandoned and wronged her.

Again, the second stanza flows into the third and this tender, cooperative opening is complete with a repeat of 'Sweetness'.

Stanza 3

Here the reader experiences a shift in the mood. The honey exchange is over and the speaker now concentrates on the brood cells, where the grubs and larvae grow, where either workers or drones emerge.

The first signs of foreboding appear. The speaker fears these cells. They're like fossils, old and without life. Could this be a reflection of Sylvia Plath's own mistrust of her self when it comes to reproduction and the giving of birth? Of her own questions of what it is to be a female, part of the collective brood?

That strange question of a 14th line...gone is the honey, gone are the cells...there's only in idea of mahogany gone wrong. Mahogany is a hard wood used for the best furniture. Beehives are made from the cheapest and lightest, often pine wood.

So the suggestion is that the bee-seller is trying to fob her off with rotten furniture. The bee-seller, her father, isn't all he's cracked up to be. The speaker is so suspicious because of her inner fears, she evens questions the presence of a queen.

Stanzas 4 and 5

Stanza 4

The speaker is uncertain but tentatively identifies with a queen who is old, beyond repair...Rubbed of its plush...plush is anything that is soft and fluffy....and certainly has fallen from grace.

There's no doubt that this image of the fallen queen is a disturbing reminder of Sylvia Plath's inner feelings in connection with her femininity and femaleness. Could it be that her excessive love for her children (she was known to be a highly doting mother) was offset by her darker insecurities and Electra complex?

Stanza 5

Once more the last line of a stanza is enjambed. The speaker stands with other unmiraculous women who are dull (drudges), almost slaves to the hive production.

Here the language is a bizarre mix of domestic and imagined life. The speaker relates to all those women who have sacrificed their lives for the good of the family, working hard to make life sweet.

Stanzas 6 and 7

Stanza 6

Although the speaker is aware of her presence within this realm of the unmiraculous women, the female society at large, she dreads it all, the soul-destroying existence as the sacrificial mother.

Her strangeness has to be her oddball creativity, her personality, her energy, her eccentricity; the blue dew could be the blood running under her dangerous skin.

Sylvia Plath had a thing about skin; it crops up in her poems, novels and letters and seems to signify both life and death. She was also keenly aware that her mundane life as housewife and mother somehow was incompatible with her desire to make a name for herself through her writings.

So she questioned if she would be hated by those ordinary mothers - the bees who have to go out foraging on cherry and clover flowers.

Stanza 7

A definite turn occurs in this stanza, the speaker declaring herself in control. Of what exactly? Is this control over the domestic issues? Her marital problems? Her muse? Her inner decisions? her fears?

Perhaps all of these things she's going to put behind her and produce her own honey quite by instinct. She will start afresh. She is no mere worker. No longer is she prepared to be a victim but will now use her femininity, through art and creativity.

Some powerful images in this stanza spill over into stanza 8.

Stanzas 8 and 9

Stanzas 8 and 9

Half way through this stanza another person enters the scene. It's a male who is not connected to the speaker or bee-seller. It's as if he has been dismissed or has been caught in a compromising situation.

This male then is Ted Hughes, (some critics also see this 3rd person as a sort of Christ figure) who in real life hurt Sylvia Plath with his extra-marital affair. The image is slightly bizarre - part fairy tale, part real-life - of a man bounding (striding) away - echoes of the father in the second stanza - leaving his slippers and white handkerchief behind as reminders of a former blissful domestic life.

The handkerchief is taken from real life. When he and Sylvia were learning the art of beekeeping, Hughes had forgotten to put on a hat and instead placed the white linen handkerchief on his head. The bees managed to get in under this and actually sting him. Sylvia with her proper hat on, continued unscathed.

That word scapegoat is both prophetic - Ted Hughes would be blamed by many following Sylvia Plath's suicide some months after this poem was written - and apt, for the goat is a creature of potency and virility.

Stanzas 10, 11 and 12

Stanzas 10, 11 and 12

Stanza 10 continues with the description of the male onlooker (Hughes) who must have put so much effort into getting results. What results are these? The two children they had together? Or his poetical efforts? It's true, they were great literary rivals for a time.

The echo of sweet comes through in sweat, so there is positivity here. But once the bees get hold of the male's lips there is no relenting. They sting him and die in the process. This is the fate of the honey bee once it uses its sting.

The speaker though is not like these suicidal bees - she is in control at this point - intent on becoming the queen and forming her true identity.

They're onto his lips like lies and distort his face, turning him into a very different kind of human.

With this male onlooker out of the way, the speaker is nearing the climax of this unusually fraught narrative. First the self has to be recovered. Questions arise, as in the third and sixth stanzas. There is uncertainty, but the image is crystal clear - that lion-red body and wings of glass, strength and fragility, a see through blood.

And in the twelfth stanza this queen, this new self, finally rises and flies. It's the high point of the whole Bee Sequence - the queen lives but in living has to die - despite flying regally over the system (machine) that put her there in the first place.

Further Analysis of Stings

Stings has more than a fair share of internal rhyme, both near and full. This interlocking of sounds throughout the poem brings rewards for the reader and sets up resonances and echoes, helping to fuse the stanzas together.

For example, look at these related words and phrases:

cheesecloth...neat and sweet/clean...between/Sweetness, sweetness/queen/unqueenly/eaten/seen/These/sea/bee-seller/me/he/creaming/sea/features/sleeping.

combs/throats/combs/so old/old/no/Though/only/open/open/over/control/Opening/scapegoat/Molding/Over


More Analysis of Stings

Stings is a free verse poem having 12 stanzas each of 5 lines, making a total of 60 lines of varying length.

There is no set rhyme scheme and the meter (metre in British English) varies from line to line.

Several poetic devices are used. Both alliteration and assonance create interesting sound patterns for the reader.

Alliteration

When similar consonants are close together, bringing texture and interest to the sounds, as in -

comb of yellow cups

excessive love I enameled

at all

dried plates with my dense

dew from dangerous

woman who

Here is my money

will work without

creaming crests

scours the sea

lips like lies

Scar in the sky.

Assonance

When vowels sound similar and are close together, in stressed syllables, as with:

white smiles

cheesecloth gauntlets neat and sweet

clean.. between

torn shawls

rubbed...plush

Blue dew

with...without thinking

Opening in spring

industrialised virgin

bee-seller..me

sweat...efforts

his lips.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Andrew Spacey

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