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 and a Summary of 'Wintering'
'Wintering' is Sylvia Plath's last poem in her Bee Sequence poems written in the early days of October 1962.
She wrote all of these five poems in a state of turmoil and anger. Her marriage to English poet Ted Hughes had failed following his affair, and she had two children to look after—as well as plan her move away from the cottage in the sleepy village of Tawton in rural Devon county to an apartment in London.
In a letter to her mother dated 9 October 1962 she writes:
Everything is breaking: my dinner set is breaking in half, the health inspector says the cottage should be demolished there is no hope for it, Even my beloved bees set upon me today when I numbly knocked aside their sugar feeder, and I am all over stings…
'Wintering' has 10 stanzas, each of five lines of varying length, and focuses on the slow time of year when the hive, empty of honey, recuperates and the bees are fed commercial sugar, that of Tate & Lyle, an old English sugar company.
Metaphorically, the speaker is facing transformation—out of the doldrums of winter and into the rebirth of spring. Fear and isolation become hope and renewed life, into the sunlight away from the past.
In first-person, the speaker (Plath essentially) guides the reader through the process of storing honey, feeding the bees, observing the strength of the female bees and the queen, and the demise of the males. Basically, it is a timeline from autumn (fall) through winter and on to the start of spring.
- The theme is that of survival—will the hive get through the cold of winter, will the bees get to taste the season of spring?
- The hive is Plath's creativity metaphorically speaking, her will to live above all. She has harvested the sweetness (honey) and gotten rid of the male influences (Hughes and Father Otto?), but will she be able to feed on it if it's kept in a room she's never been in and can't breathe in?
- Will Plath's creative spirit last into the spring? She had a strong interest in immortality and a lasting name as a writer. She owned a personal copy of Dante's The Divine Comedy, which is heavily annotated. There are several studies showing parallels between the bee poems (and her book Ariel) and Dante's classic journey to God.
This poem first appeared in the book Ariel, published 1965.
'Wintering' by Sylvia Plath
This is the easy time, there is nothing doing.
I have whirled the midwife’s extractor,
I have my honey,
Six jars of it,
Six cat’s eyes in the wine cellar,
Wintering in a dark without window
At the heart of the house
Next to the last tenant’s rancid jam
and the bottles of empty glitters —-
Sir So-and-so’s gin.
This is the room I have never been in
This is the room I could never breathe in.
The black bunched in there like a bat,
But the torch and its faint
Chinese yellow on appalling objects —-
Black asininity. Decay.
It is they who own me.
Neither cruel nor indifferent,
This is the time of hanging on for the bees–the bees
So slow I hardly know them,
Filing like soldiers
To the syrup tin
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To make up for the honey I’ve taken.
Tate and Lyle keeps them going,
The refined snow.
It is Tate and Lyle they live on, instead of flowers.
They take it. The cold sets in.
Now they ball in a mass,
Mind against all that white.
The smile of the snow is white.
It spreads itself out, a mile-long body of Meissen,
Into which, on warm days,
They can only carry their dead.
The bees are all women,
Maids and the long royal lady.
They have got rid of the men,
The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors.
Winter is for women —-
The woman, still at her knitting,
At the cradle of Spanish walnut,
Her body a bulb in the cold and too dumb to think.
Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas
Succeed in banking their fires
To enter another year?
What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?
The bees are flying. They taste the spring.
Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis of 'Wintering'
Ten stanzas form a kind of timeline of events, from winter through to spring. From dormancy and inactivity through to revival and hope. Sylvia Plath faces her creative spirit, her poetic self.
Ultimately, this poem is all about survival, for the bees, the hive—the poet and her work. Beekeeping terms mix with commercial—Tate & Lyle, Meissen—and domestic activities. And always the idea that her father Otto, bumblebee expert and profound emotional influence, hovers somewhere among the stanzas
The speaker seems to be observing anxiously what's going on with the hive, her own internal feelings, the season, the environment, and the domestic atmosphere. All is wrapped in a mythological/fairytale-like narrative.
First and Second Stanza
Joined by punctuation, a comma, the first two stanzas find the speaker with stored honey, the product of the hive, the sweetness. Six jars.
It is winter, there's not much going on. Honey has been collected from the hive and stored in jars. Sweet vital product ready to share in the cold weather, part of the seasonal cycle, the passive state.
Are these six jars the six years of marriage/memories/past work, of the poet and mother? And the cat's eyes—precious stones and/or guidance, as with the reflective cat's eyes in the middle of British roads?
The honey is kept in the dark heart of the house, the wine cellar. The last tenant's preserves and alcohol are still there. Old forgotten things from the last who lived there. But the past can't be relied upon. Things are left, become a drag. Is the cellar the metaphorical unconscious?
Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Stanzas
But the speaker has never been in this room, this dark underworld. She can't breathe in there. Plath used breathlessness and asphyxiation several times throughout her work. It seems to surface metaphorically whenever emotional energy is suppressed by a dominant male.
Perhaps she's been on the threshold but never ventured in. In which case, who deposited the honey? She produced the work over the years but did she ever really know how the process of poetry-making worked?
The unconscious is a spooky place; so dark, yet a torch (flashlight) shines Chinese yellow, implying that the speaker has looked in on these appalling objects. Asininity is stupidity. This dark place brings a sense of trepidation.
The speaker feels 'owned'. Perhaps the cellar is the speaker's self (Plath suggesting she has a dark place full of things that own her). Her past. Repeated fears, repeated acts, mistakes...This...This...
They have no judgement value in life, they do not know her, these things. The bees are clinging on—her future—unknown. They're slow to feed from the syrup tin. Yet, her past and her work do own her, and she them. Like the beekeeper, like any parent with offspring, they need to be possessed, are possessed.
Tate & Lyle is a British sugar manufacturer and it is this commercial sugar that the bees are fed on. It is white. Like snow in cold winter.
Seventh, Eighth, Ninth Stanzas
Contrast the black ball of bees as they mass and the white snow. This is stark. Black mind? Is the daughter's dark side contrasting with her German DNA? Meissen is a world famous German porcelain.
Dead bees are cleared from the hive by undertaker bees. Male bees. Is this tongue in cheek narrative? Only female bees are left, plus the queen. The men have gone. Women have power. Figuratively, the men are now useless, they've expired.
The men are crude, it is the women who survive the winter. Undertaker bees do exist, they remove dead or dying bees and know exactly what their job is. They're specialists.
The woman knits, minds the cradle. She is a bulb, a physical thing, destined to grow. This must be an image of the poet, Plath herself, content, creative, latent.
Questions of survival, for the hive and the gladiolas. Mind and spiritual food, but of what taste? Spring is imminent, rouses the bees.
Plath is here looking forward, wondering if her work will survive into the future.
“I want to taste and glory in each day, and never be afraid to experience pain; and never shut myself up in a numb core of nonfeeling, or stop questioning and criticizing life and take the easy way out. To learn and think: to think and live; to live and learn: this always, with new insight, new understanding, and new love.”
Sylvia Plath, Unabridged Journal.
The speaker witnesses the bees flying, so hope rises and is carried by these survivors out into the world of light. Honey will be made in the future, from the flower, the sweetness of the word in evidence as poetry is made.
The Last Line
Sylvia Plath worked hard to reach the last line of this final bee poem. She went through several versions before deciding on the final one, which has a stronger presence syntactically.
Snow water? Corpses? (Thin, sweet Spring.)
(A sweet Spring?) Spring?
(What sort of spring?)
(O God, let them taste of spring.)
Susan R. Van Dyne, ‘More Terrible Than She Ever Was’, ‘The Manuscripts of Sylvia Plath’s Bee Poems’ in Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath, ed. Linda W. Wagner (Boston, G. K. Hall and co., 1984), pp. 154–170.
- 'RECOVERING THE COMPLEX SELF: SYLVIA PLATH'S BEELINE' on JSTOR Mary Lynn Broe.
- Poetry Foundation
- 'Sylvia Plath and the Bees' – DublinBees
- 'Immortality of the Author: Sylvia Plath Lives On' – Magnificat (marymount.edu)
- 'Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Survival' – Literary Theory and Criticism (literariness.org)
© 2021 Andrew Spacey
Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on May 12, 2021:
Appreciate the visit Audrey, thank you. Plath's Bee poems allow a fascinating insight into her creative spirit.
Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on May 11, 2021:
The will to survive is strong in each of us as it was in Sylvia Path. Thank you, Andrew, for this analysis. This enables me to appreciate this poem on a deeper level.