Sylvia Plath and a Summary of The Bee Meeting
The Bee Meeting is the first poem in the Bee Poems sequence, which are five poems Sylvia Plath wrote in October 1962.
The poems are seen as an exploration into identity via poetical metaphor, the hive as a mind, the bees as critical elements within society, the queen bee as speaker (as the poet herself) and the apiarists as common culture. Plath's role and progress as a poet is likewise reflected in the sequence.
Sylvia Plath was at a crossroads in her life around the time she wrote this poem. Separated from her husband, English poet Ted Hughes, and busy mother of two children, she had to find a way of expressing her inner anxieties and disturbed feelings.
Sylvia Plath's Life
Living in a small English village, North Tawton, Devon, in an ancient cottage she and Hughes had bought, her marriage seemed a relatively happy one. They had both settled into rural life with enthusiasm and had previously attended a beekeeping course together—the poem alludes to actual events from time to time.
This was, in a sense, familiar territory for Plath. Her German father Otto Emil Plath, academic biologist and bee expert, had written a classic scholarly textbook, Bumblebees and Their Ways, which was published by MacMillan 1934.
When Sylvia Plath was 10 years old, Otto died, leaving her emotionally bereft, an innocent victim of circumstance. Psychologically, she was hurt but was eventually able to transform these deeper, darker energies into poetry.
The Bee Meeting is one such poem, the start of a unique investigation into:
- mind, Sylvia Plath's many-faceted mind,
- body, her physicality,
- and her individual relationship to the wider, communal world.
Eleven stanzas, each with five lines, free verse with a first-person approach. Read through this poem and you'll feel the vulnerability of the speaker, fearful of the bees and their stings, unable to answer fully the many questions posed throughout, a speaker who is keenly observant, who becomes focused on the survival of the queen bee.
Look out for metaphor and simile, vivid imagery, fear and doubt, powerful descriptions of bee activity and above all, typically Plath, that inner voice running through on strong currents of uncertainty.
The narrative has a mythological feel to it in certain stanzas—some scholars parallel part of the story of the running Daphne, who is eventually turned into a laurel tree, with that of the speaker wanting to escape, feeling like a plant.
The poem first appeared in the book Ariel, published 1965, two years after her death.
'The Bee Meeting': Fear And Vulnerability in Each Stanza
The speaker in this poem is observant yet wary, with a cautious tale to tell relating feelings to the actions of the villagers and the bees. The hive is sometimes seen as a metaphor for the poet's mind, or creative mental processes, whilst the villagers represent outside influences, culture, popular knowledge and the functional life.
Reading through, it becomes apparent that Sylvia Plath uses typically plenty of language based on fear and vulnerability:
- First Stanza - no protection.
- Second Stanza - nobody love me?... my fear, my fear, my fear
- Third Stanza - a square black head nodding...smiles and voices changing
- Fourth Stanza - bored hearts....blood clots
- Fifth Stanza - smells so sick....etherizing its children
- Sixth Stanza - the surgeon...the butcher
- Seventh Stanza - gorse hurts me...spiky armory
- Eighth Stanza - end of everything....their animosity
- Ninth Stanza - hunting the queen....old,old,old
- Tenth Stanza - the murderess....will be no killing
- Eleventh Stanza - I am exhausted....blackout of knives....why am I cold.
'The Bee Meeting' by Sylvia Plath
Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis of 'The Bee Meeting'
There is a folkloric element to this poem, the way it begins quite innocently with a basic question about the villagers then moves on at a steady pace like a tale told from the perspective of someone not quite in the know, outside of the mainstream and traditional.
The practicalities of beekeeping mix with metaphor and symbolism and inner feelings yet essentially the narrative is straightforward—the villagers are meeting to work on the beehive. They're in the first stanza and the last.
The first line, a question, has the speaker, first person, joining the villagers near the bridge. Almost from the start there is a sense of the speaker being an outsider, uncertain of the role they are to play.
Everyone is in 'uniform' so to speak—except the speaker who feels at a loss because no one told her to dress properly for the occasion, but which she seems to already know will involve working with bees.
In the summer season here is the speaker in a summery dress, sleeveless, an innocent flower? She's meeting with those she needs, who have all the right gear for the job.
The lines are prose-like in this first stanza, quite long, descriptive with factual information. Yet the clear vulnerability is apparent.
Help is at hand in the form of a white smock which is fastened up by the secretary of the bees, one of the villagers. But the speaker is still fearful, so much so that the word is given in triple. Will the bees smell that fear?
The speaker felt loveless, nude as a chicken neck (red raw flesh imagery) until she was dressed. Now she is a milkweed (a flower that grows in North America, of the genus Asclepias) and hopes to fool the bees.
This increasingly feels like some sort of initiation ritual the speaker has to face. Specific members of the group are recognised—the rector, the midwife—symbolically representing a marriage and birth.
All the villagers are changing. They're nodding in a slightly sinister way, with black heads. The ancient hats with veils turn them into knights (from medieval England?), and they wear protective cheesecloth which are breastplates, again part of the knight's armour.
They lead the speaker across a beanfield. There's a certainly a sense of trepidation, of the unknown, of slight danger.
As they progress the imagery intensifies. Here is tinfoil winking—the sun catching the shiny surface of the foil, put there to scare away birds and wildlife so that the beans will not be eaten.
And the beans themselves have leaves like bored hearts. Is this to do with the shape of the leaves, or is this related to the village tradition of growing beans year after year no matter what?
Broad beans have creamy flowers, runner beans have scarlet flowers and tendrils. The language becomes visceral . . . blood clot, dragging . . . to follow the idea of the hearts. The flowers will be visited by bees then beans will set and grow.
The speaker is given a special hat and veil. The villagers want her to become one of them—there is no resistance. Again, the speaker is the passive one, she is led to the hive, she is compelled to conform.
Hawthorn blossom can be overpowering; it has a sweet, creamy cloying scent which on certain warmer days and evenings especially is nauseating. Here the speaker suggests it is etherizing children, that is, making them unconscious, sending them to sleep.
This is all sounding quite pagan-like. Donning white suits, crossing fields, being part of a specific group heading for the grove where the magic circle lies, where the ritual will take place.
More questions. Uncertainty grows as the speaker is led deeper into the unknown by unknown people. Are these villagers about to become involved in an operation, a surgical operation? Is the surgeon now arriving, dressed in green hat?
Confusion reigns. There is no recognisable person here, only figures dressed in white who are slightly threatening because of their anonymity.
The idea of stasis sets in, the speaker is stuck, rooted to the spot, and the gorse, a strong spiky bush that often grows in big clumps, is dangerous. If running was possible it could go on forever, an endless escape from those who would cause harm. This immediately creates a new sense of tension; wanting never to stop, unable to go.
But the white hive is snug, as a virgin, pure and ready to seal off the brood cells, to stop any new births.
Here we have the mind of the poet merging with the innocent hive-mind.
Smoke is used by beekeepers to make bees produce honey and quieten them down, so they cannot communicate with each other. It's emergency behaviour; they act as if their world is about to collapse.
The outliers are bees that look as if they're on elastic bands, they shoot off from the colony only for instinctive force to pull them back in. It may look comical and high-strung but its a survival technique.
The speaker is standing still. Perhaps the bees will take her for a plant, cow parsley (an umbellifer, with radial wide flower stems), because she feels gullible close to all that dynamic buzzing.
The first line is a leftover from the previous stanza, the speaker a plant in a hedgerow, not nodding unlike the other villagers at the beginning.
the speaker thinks the villagers are trying to find the queen, hunting for her, a rather unusual word to use in the context of beekeeping, but this is Sylvia Plath, and she is still the outsider, the uncertain questioning one.
So how come then next the reader learns that the queen, clever thing, is old but will live another year, despite the presence of the new virgins, the virgin queens? Isn't it the old queen's job to lay eggs in special cells before she dies naturally so that these special larvae will be fed royal jelly? The first born will then sting to death the rest of the would-be queens in order to 'reign' supreme?
Is the old queen the poet herself? Elusive, not quite ready for the hive eternal? Plath does relate to the queen bee in the final poem Wintering.
The villagers move the virgins. There will be no queen's flight, no climax of killing just yet. The old queen doesn't show and has no thanks for those who have looked after her—such a situation for a creator who needs the hive and the villagers but who must stay aloof.
More vivid imagery and metaphor as the speaker turns into a pillar, almost mythological, then becomes a magician's assistant as the black knives (the bees? the knives used by the villagers? the knives are out?) fly around.
The speaker finds it all exhausting, repeated, as the villagers peel off their disguises and congratulate themselves, for what? They seem to have triumphed with their smoke and collective objectives.
All the speaker sees is a white box, a coffin? or another different hive? The reader is left with a feeling of dread. Exhausted, the speaker is also cold. Is this the cold of death, the cold that brings the end for a bee.
- "Exploring the 'Mind of the Hive': Embodied Cognition in Sylvia Plath's Bee Poems" on JSTOR
- Poetry Foundation
- Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
- The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Andrew Spacey
Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on April 28, 2021:
Grateful for the visit and comment. Thank you.
Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on April 28, 2021:
Excellent and in-depth analysis of the poem, The Bee Meeting! I enjoyed going through!
Thank you for sharing!
Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on April 28, 2021:
Appreciate your visit and comment Jamie. Take care of your poems and your good self.
Jamie Lee Hamann from Reno NV on April 26, 2021:
Well done an enjoyable read about Plath and one of my favorite of her poems. Jamie