Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.
'The Arrival Of The Bee Box' Analysis
'The Arrival Of The Bee Box' is one of five poems Sylvia Plath wrote from October 3rd to October 10th, 1962, following her traumatic break up with husband Ted Hughes, fellow poet and father of her two children.
They had been living in a rural cottage in Devon, southwest England, from September 1961. During this time they both took up beekeeping as a hobby, joining a local group to learn the ins and outs.
Sylvia Plath had a particular interest in bees. Her father Otto, as an entomologist, studied bumble bees in his native Germany. He wrote an authoritative book about them, Bumblebees and Their Ways, published in 1934.
When he died prematurely in 1940, Sylvia Plath, aged 8, never quite got over it. Later on, she would write powerful poems about her 'Daddy', attempting to express the deep-seated emotions she experienced as a child.
- So, whilst 'The Arrival Of The Bee Box' is ostensibly about the reality of keeping bees, the poem acts as an extended metaphor for the poet's emotional and creative energies. What is inside the box is dangerous, the speaker desires control but is in an unpredictable, shifting environment.
- Whilst the basic theme is a search for control of the creative female self there are elements within the poem relating to her father Otto Plank, her husband Ted Hughes and society generally.
- There are dream-like scenes, shifts of perspective and human figures. The 'African hands' relate to freedom, anger and control, as does a reference to the 'Roman mob'.
- Questions go unanswered, creating mystery and fear.
- The poem is set in the present but hints strongly at what will happen in the future. Shifts in time and space reflect a surreal quality.
'The Arrival of the Bee Box' is the second in a sequence of five, starting with The Bee Meeting and going through Stings, The Swarm and finally Wintering. All were included in her final book, Ariel, originally published in 1965, two years after her death.
The full, authentic poem is shared here, taken from The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath, a book every true lover of her poetry should possess.
Stanza By Stanza Critical Analysis
'The Arrival Of The Bee Box' is a free verse poem of 8 stanzas, 7 of which have five lines with the final stanza being a single line. Some have noted that this unusual ending is almost like an afterthought, breaking away from the norm, the poem unable to hold it.
There is no rhyme scheme and the meter (metre in British English) varies from line to line, reflecting a certain unpredictability within a tight structure.
The overall form gives the impression of a system of extremes: looseness, long lines, reigned in by controlling short lines. The long lines contain from 11 to 16 syllables, the short ones from 4 to 8.
So the reader needs to carefully negotiate this unusual syntax. On the one hand, there's the feeling of being taken out, far away into a metrically stretched state, then abruptly returning.
Let's be clear, the speaker is in control from the very start because they ordered the box, and they must take responsibility. The box is clean and square as a chair, a familiar enough object that provides comfort and stability.
The rhyme square/chair adds to the feeling of regularity, whilst the box is weighty. This down-to-earth beginning is as straightforward as anyone could wish for- the speaker is in first person and a bee box made of wood has arrived.
The third line completely washes away any notion of this being an ordinary appraisal of a bee box.
- I would / say it / was the cof / fin of / a midget
A loose trochaic pentameter with 12 syllables gives the reader enough to chew on metrically but the tone and language are darkly humorous, introducing images of death and deformity (a midget being a small person, a dwarf).
The next line is much shorter and compliments the previous one, maintaining the sense and deepening the dark. The speaker suggests that the bee box is a coffin for a square baby, such a strange offering, again inducing thoughts of death and burial.
But these are only passing thoughts for the last line in this opening stanza assures the reader that the box is no coffin holding the dead - there's a din in it (din is an old English word for a loud unpleasant noise)so something is alive in there.
Already the tone of the poem is becoming clear. It will be a mix of the real and the surreal, suffused with darkness.
The reader is told the box is locked and dangerous. A lock on a box means that whatever is inside is precious to someone; someone has put a lock on or turned a key so as not to let any Tom, Dick or Harry share the contents.
Presumably, the speaker has foreknowledge about the box and the danger that comes with it. She hasn't looked inside yet but already she knows it is dangerous. How come?
The only explanation is the noise, the din, which brings a sense of danger. Anticipation is building for the reader. Here is the noisy box, heavy, inducing dark thoughts.
- The next two lines are crucial to an understanding of the whole poem. The speaker's sense of helplessness or compulsion comes through, as does the idea that the relationship between the bees and the speaker isn't going to last.
- She is drawn irresistibly to the dangerous box; she lives with it, that is, she shares the same space, sleeps and dreams with it.
- If the bees are the content and the content is a metaphor for the poet's creative energies as a female writer, and that content is dangerous, then the conclusion must be that here is anger in a raw form which in some way has to be faced and expressed.
The following line is another long line, 13 syllables, the reader having to follow again out into the thought patterns of the speaker. She wants to see into the box, but there's only a little grid. This grid (or metal grill?) takes us back to the real world of the actual bee box again. There is no way light can enter the box so how can she see what is inside?
The speaker gets close to the box and the bees and their noise, peers in through the grid. This tells the reader that the speaker is facing the danger - wanting to know it better.
It is typical of Sylvia Plath to repeat words to reinforce feeling. Here that word is dark, appropriate enough for a box with no window. But here we are talking about a metaphorical world - this is the speaker's repressed emotion.
The imagery here is startling, the allusion a shock.
With the swarmy feeling of African hands
Minute and shrunk for export,
Black on black, angrily clambering.
This can only be a reference to the slave trade, to the idea of desperate entrapment, domination and masculine power. Taken further, a male dominated political system ensures enslavement; a poetical structuring might ensure a kind of freedom for the female writer.
And note the assonance in the last three lines of this stanza, with the sharp a prominent in African hands/Black on black, angrily clambering.
After looking through the grid into the dark the speaker now questions the bee's release. She is in effect welcoming the potential danger. This rhetorical question isn't answered. Instead, she focuses on the noise.
Another long line takes the reader further, this time into feeling reaction. The speaker does not like the noise the entrapped bees make. The noise doesn't make sense.
- But note the mention of unintelligible syllables which suggests that there is some sort of language involved or at least a primitive form of communication.
- Here we have the poet Sylvia Plath using a persona, the speaker, who is totally put off by the noise inside the box, inside her head, her mind, her soul. There is dangerous chaos reminding the speaker of a Roman mob, collectively quite a force to deal with.
So, first the metaphor of African hands...angrily clambering and now the simile like a Roman mob with unintelligible syllables both implying potential disorder and repressed emotion.
This stanza is unlike any other syntactically. It consists of five end-stopped lines, statements direct and concise. For the reader, this is a big change. No flowing enjambment, just a full stop.
She listens to the furious latin related to the mob, which implies that she can at least make out the language but she still has no control over it because she is not Caesar, the absolute ruler of the mob.
A second metaphor appears...a box of maniacs...connecting the noise to mental disturbance, something very real in Sylvia Plath's personal life. And she is responsible because she ordered the box in the first place.
- So no more allusion to Africa and Rome. The contents are simply hers to do with as she pleases. She can send them back or even let them die. She is the owner - which tells the reader something unknown before this revelation.
- This is the poem's turning point, the speaker admitting that the bees, the noise, the dark energy, her own repressed emotion with that long history of male dominance, is hers.
Questions follow; rhetorical, loose-ended and curious. If the bees are emotions deep-seated, and their noise dangerous, then feeding them would perhaps not be recommended despite their hunger.
The speaker seems uncertain as if she's talking to herself, wondering about the repercussions if she unlocked the box and turned into a tree.
A tree. How odd. An image straight out of the Greek myth of Daphne (who was actually turned into a tree by her father. Being pursued by amorous Apollo, she asked to be transformed so that she could keep her virginity. She became a laurel tree).
And how could the bees forget the speaker? They must have remembrance of her...indeed, they're a part of her. This is quite a surreal dream-like part of the poem, akin to myth.
The laburnum and the cherry trees seem already to be females transformed.
Appearances again - her subconscious (the box and its contents) might not impact her because she's a new person now, dressed in an unfamiliar yet disturbing outfit. A moon suit, a symbol of the feminine, and a funeral veil signify a death and mourning.
She needs to be protected, hence the appearance in typical beekeeping garb. She reassures herself that, because she is not the nourishing type or useful source, there's no reason for a dangerous attack.
Looking ahead one day, when things will be different tomorrow - the bees will be released because they won't do harm when they're freed.
The single line breaks free from the poem's main structure like the bees. This last line echoes with the second line of the second stanza....overnight...temporary...as if she is saying to herself one of two things:
- I will have to live with these deep-seated dark energies but not for long. And anyway, I may not open the box.
- These dangerous repressed emotions I own will be free to do what they must do and I shall contain them within the structures of my poems.
What Are the Literary/Poetic Devices?
When words that are close together in a line start with the same consonant, producing a textured sound for the reader:
need feed them nothing...how hungry..appalls me most...turned into a tree...my moon suit...
Repeat of words or phrases at beginning of a clause to reinforce meaning:
There are no windows/There is only...
It is the noise/It is like...
They can be sent back/They can die
I wonder how hungry/I wonder if they...
When words are close together in a line and have similar-sounding vowels:
Square as a chair...din in it....live with it...little grid, no exit....African hands....angrily clambering...I need feed...blond colonnades...petticoats of the cherry...suit and funeral.
A pause in a line, often mid-way, caused by punctuation usually. For example:
Black on black, angrily clambering.
Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!
When one line runs on into the next with no punctuation, carrying the sense on and causing a gain in momentum. As in the first stanza:
I would say it was the coffin of a midget
Or a square baby
Were there not such a din in it.
Rhyme both full and slant that occurs within and between the lines of the poem. Look out for these:
Square as a chair...din in it...coffin/din in...say/baby...overnight/it/exit...appals me most of all/unintelligible syllables...ear/Caesar...maniacs/back...sweet God...set them free/temporary.
Substituting one thing for another to deepen meaning, add interest:
The bee box itself is a metaphor for repressed emotional and poetic content.
The African hands - metaphor for the sound/noise the contents make.
The maniacs - yet another metaphor for the sound/noise.
Repeat words help reinforce meaning, as with:
It is dark, dark....Black on black.....
When two things are compared, as in reference to the noise in the box:
It is like a Roman mob,
The Poetry handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005
© 2019 Andrew Spacey