Sylvia Plath Forum

Poetry Analysis/ Discussion

The Bee Meeting

Who are these people at the bridge to meet me? They are the
The rector, the midwife, the sexton, the agent for bees.
In my sleeveless summery dress I have no protection,
And they are all gloved and covered, why did nobody tell me?
They are smiling and taking out veils tacked to ancient hats.

I am nude as a chicken neck, does nobody love me?
Yes, here is the secretary of bees with her white shop smock,
Buttoning the cuffs at my wrists and the slit from my neck to my knees.
Now I am milkweed silk, the bees will not notice.
Thev will not smell my fear, my fear, my fear.

Which is the rector now, is it that man in black?
Which is the midwife, is that her blue coat?
Everybody is nodding a square black head, they are knights in visors,
Breastplates of cheesecloth knotted under the armpits.
Their smiles and their voices are changing. I am led through a beanfield.

Strips of tinfoil winking like people,
Feather dusters fanning their hands in a sea of bean flowers,
Creamy bean flowers with black eyes and leaves like bored hearts.
Is it blood clots the tendrils are dragging up that string?
No, no, it is scarlet flowers that will one day be edible.

Now they are giving me a fashionable white straw Italian hat
And a black veil that molds to my face, they are making me one of them.
They are leading me to the shorn grove, the circle of hives.
Is it the hawthorn that smells so sick?
The barren body of hawthorn, etherizing its children.

Is it some operation that is taking place?
It is the surgeon my neighbors are waiting for,
This apparition in a green helmet,
Shining gloves and white suit.
Is it the butcher, the grocer, the postman, someone I know?

I cannot run, I am rooted, and the gorse hurts me
With its yellow purses, its spiky armory.
I could not run without having to run forever.
The white hive is snug as a virgin,
Sealing off her brood cells, her honey, and quietly humming.

Smoke rolls and scarves in the grove.
The mind of the hive thinks this is the end of everything.
Here they come, the outriders, on their hysterical elastics.
If I stand very still, they will think I am cow-parsley,
A gullible head untouched by their animosity,

Not even nodding, a personage in a hedgerow.
The villagers open the chambers, they are hunting the queen.
Is she hiding, is she eating honey? She is very clever.
She is old, old, old, she must live another year, and she knows it.
While in their fingerjoint cells the new virgins

Dream of a duel they will win inevitably,
A curtain of wax dividing them from the bride flight,
The upflight of the murderess into a heaven that loves her.
The villagers are moving the virgins, there will be no killing.
The old queen does not show herself, is she so ungrateful?

I am exhausted, I am exhausted -
Pillar of white in a blackout of knives.
I am the magician's girl who does not flinch.
The villagers are untying their disguises, they are shaking hands.
Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished,
          why am I cold.

3 October 1962

This poem, as with all Plath's works, is laden with layers of imagery and meaning. No doubt one could attempt to decipher and unpick those meanings and relate to her life events. However, on a personal level, I often find that individual lines and groupings of words and phrases jump out and astonish me; taken out of context of the rest of the poem they have a tremendous power and life of their own - and so it was with this poem. The lines I am referring to are:

The rector, the midwife, the sexton, the agent for bees.
In my sleeveless summery dress I have no protection,
And they are all gloved and covered, why did nobody tell me?
They are smiling and taking out veils tacked to ancient hats.

Everybody is nodding a square black head, they are knights in visors,
Breastplates of cheesecloth knotted under the armpits.
Who are these people at the bridge to meet me? They are the

These lines cut like a razor; who hasn't willingly gone into a situation, only to find they were completely unprepared, with everyone else knowing what to do, and feeling naked and foolish? It is the stuff of nightmares, and Plath captured this perfectly. Are there other layers of meaning, involving mythology, Hughes' infidelity, etc, etc? No doubt.

Chris Brady
Wakefield, UK
Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The poem can be essentially classified into two views, Plath's first time at a bee meeting or a life event. It is obvious to see that this poem can be about her first time at a bee meeting but at the end of the poem, the last stanza doesn't seem to fit in the poem.

In my sleeveless summery dress I have no protection,
And they are all gloved and covered, why did nobody tell me?"

In actuality Sylvia did not have a jacket (protection), this is one of the quotations in this poem that make readers believe that the poem could be about her first time at a Bee Meeting or about a more deeper meaning, a life event. This could mean that she was not aware as a person who had just gone to a bee meeting that it requires gloves. But it could mean that she was not aware that Hughes was having an affair. This I believe is what the poem deeply means. "They" can be described as the villagers spoken of earlier.

I am nude as a chicken neck, does nobody love me?

This is linked to the quotation above. Plath compares her feelings of the unawareness of the situation to the metaphor "nude as a chicken" Stating that she feels empty and confused hence the question after.

And the slit from my neck to my knees

This could be an exaggeration to her emotional state.

. . . the bees wills not notice.
They will not smell my fear, my fear, my fear.

The bees refer to the people around her who agree with her about Hughes's affair. She says they will not notice, this refers to her sorrow and fears of Hughes leaving Plath. As she says "my fear," the emotion changes from highly energetic almost convincing herself to sorrow in which she thinks about her fear.

Monique Paynter
Warick , Bermuda
Friday, November 4, 2005

I just read an exerpt from one of Sylvia's notebooks, describing the events of the day of which the poem was written. The similarities between the real life scenario and the poem are striking.

"In my sleeveless summery dress I have no protection, And they are all gloved and covered, why did nobody tell me?"

In actuality Sylvia did not have a jacket (protection), she had not been told to bring one to visit the bee hives as excerpts from her notebook shows, "We felt very new and shy, I hugging my bare arms into the cool of the evening, for I had not thought to bring a sweater...Then I saw, on the grass, and in hands, everybody was holding a bee hat, some with netting of nylon, most with box screening, some with khaki round hats. I felt barer and barer. People became concerned. Have you no hat? Have you no coat?.... (the secretary) came back with a small white silk button down smock, the sort pharmacists assistants use. I put it on and buttoned it and felt more protected...."

As Ted Hughes puts it in the introduction of Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams ' prove that poems which seem often to be constructed of arbitrary surreal symbols are reall impassioned reorganizations of relevant fact.'

This is true with many other lines in the poem, and in the remainder of her poetry in the book Ariel.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

This may seem so obvious but I can imagine Plath in the field in Devon, looking at the bees as the doctors whom tried to shape her mind and manipulate her thoughts, and the members of society: her friends and acquaintances, for whom she believed she had to be something she was not. There is very strong visual imagery of these people, and the feelings that she experienced through acquaintance with these people. It's such a strong poem that you can't really give it a main theme, but that's what struck me the most.

Olivia Waldron
London, England
Saturday, October 26, 2002

The symbolism of white in this poem is very strong. The many white things in the poem (white hat,white box, white suit, white shop smock) could symbolise Plath's false purity that she herself likes to beleive that she is. The 'man in black' suddenly seems a danger when compared to the mass of 'white' things. Perhpas this man in black is here to take her purity which links back to what Stewart Clark said about the taking of her virginity. The repetition of 'white' in the poem lets the reader know that it is being over emphasised so we can actually tell it is false. Plath seems like she is trying to tell us that she is 'white' and not 'white' at the same time.

Kuala Lumpur, Malysia
Friday, March 23, 2001

"The Bee Meeting" seems to suggest a strange initiation into which Sylvia is brought into, to cover her fear and her sense of loneliness: "I am nude as a chicken neck, does nobody love me? Yes, here is the secretary of bees with her white shop smock..." The imagery of this iniation points to surgery, as if she is being transformed somehow, like the queen bee described in the poem: "The old queen does not show herself, is she so ungrateful?" As if Sylvia is placing herself this bee as her old self, unappreciative as to the change that has taken place. Her old self placed in the "long white box in the grove".

Martin Jack
Seaford, England
Sunday, July 30, 2000

"The Bee Meeting" is a brilliant work in that its controlling metaphor teeters on collapse.

Joseph Sullivan
Toledo, USA
Thursday, February 4, 1999

At one point, Sylvia Plath apparently planned to gather her magnificent bee poems under the title heading "Bees," envisioning a formal sequence that links it in my mind to her only other formal sequence, the then-unpublished, abandoned Roethke-esque "Poem for A Birthday," in which the controversial "I" of Plath's poetry is regressed to the primeval place of origin, dissolved and reassembled again (in "The Stones"), enacting the obsessive Plathian psychodrama of death and transfiguration. Here again, in "Bees," Plath sets out on a similar journey, and emerges triumphantly as a murderous queen bee. With the first poem, "The Bee Meeting," this redemptive conceit (and the grand plan of a sequence) seems, however, embryonic at best in the poet's mind -- she gives us instead a devastating portrayal of her situation (the dissolution of her marriage, her sense of abandonment, jealousy, isolation, guilt, and sexual obsolescence) and absorbs the reader in the relentless psychologic! al pull of her own desire for death.

As the poem begins, an unrevealed, mysterious catastrophe seems to have occurred, rendering "I" a veritable amnesiac who can only ask frightened, frantic questions (Who? Which? What? Why?); stripped, not only of knowledge, but of "protection" --- "nude as a chicken neck" in her "sleeveless summery dress." (We can surmise, from examining the poems Plath wrote immediately before this one --- "Words heard, by accident, over the phone", "Burning the Letters," "For a Fatherless Son," "The Detective," etc. --- that this catastrophe was Assia Wevill.) As in "Poem for a Birthday," "I" finds herself at a point of origin; here, at the foot of "the bridge" (spanning the primeval swamp? The longed-for waters of the womb/tomb? The bridge stands ready for the crossing or the jumping from, one is not sure which). "The bridge" offers transition, a direct passage from one shore to the next, and the contemplation of making the journey to that far shore is the hidden matter of the poem. I surmise that this "undiscovered country" falls into the same topography as Emily Dickinson's ambivalent "Immortality." Like Dante's pilgrim, however, "I" will be subjected to a radical detour before her destination can be reached (a detour that, in both cases, bequeathed to the world a classic work of Western literature.)

"Does nobody love me?" asks "I", one key to the mysterious cloud of threat that hangs over the poem - "my fear, my fear, my fear." Alvarez and others allude to pagan ritual, which revolved so keenly around the question of fertility. Fertility is indeed a primary issue at stake, burning in the consciousness of this poet so quick to label her own work "stillborn" and who is reeling in the aftermath of sexual betrayal. Abandonment, sexual competition, fertility/pollination -- these themes pulse throughout the poem as the amnesiac speaker finds herself curiously attuned, one woman telepathically linked to another, to the minds of the old queen bee ("she must live another year, and she knows it") and her virgin rivals. From an e-mail correspondence with Janice Green, a professional beekeeper:

A happy feminist utopia of communal egg laying does not seem to be in the cards for this old queen, "hunted" from within and without (Green suspects that the beekeepers are "looking for the old queen to replace her with a new queen . . . An old queen isn't very stable and is subject to being replaced"), in "hiding" as the virgins sharpen their knives like "King Lear's" bloodthirsty Regan and Goneril, dreaming "of a duel they will win inevitably," their encroaching coup d'etat.

Also utmost on the minds of the new virgins is the "bride flight,/ The upflight of the murderess into a heaven that loves her." Plath is syntactically fuzzy here as to whose blood they anticipate on their hands -- that of the old queen or that of the male drones, or both? Janice Green writes:

We are thrust with "I" into the sexual jungle of Nature, subject to the Darwinian law of tooth and claw. Like the old queen, Plath has found herself the victim of a similar collapse of an ancien regime -- abandoned by her husband for the triumphant Assia Wevill (whose name helplessly puts one in mind of the parasitic boll weevil), Plath stands like Lot's wife, transformed into "a pillar of white" salt for ruefully looking back at the apocalyptic destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (the dark, Plathian wit once again), in a drama which ends in a "blackout of knives."

Unable to root out the old queen, the beekeepers elect to extend her life by removing the new queen cells in order to prevent "swarming." ("Faulty beekeeper logic," says Janice Green, and indeed a few poems later we have a "Swarm" in full force). The queen's reaction (she "does not show herself") is ambivalent - "is she so ungrateful?" An almost disappointed air of impending obsolescence and mortality hangs over the old queen's coffin-like hive (and over "I" herself) as the poem comes to an end.

"Strange, upsetting," writes Alvarez in "The Savage God" concerning "The Bee Meeting." Like so many of Plath's greatest poems, the poem has the quality of nightmare or a painting by Magritte, in which the smallest object seems fraught with hidden significance, vaguely reminding the reader of something else. Often, after reading Plath, I experience the disturbing sensation of trying to recall a name "on the tip of my tongue." Whether consciously or not, she often laces her work with clever clues to the cipher of her poetic cryptograms. The "The Bee Meeting" is an extraordinary case in point.

Heir to the peculiar New England strain of daemonic Coleridgian Romanticism typified by Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville (see Camille Paglia, "Sexual Personae") and extending in a debased form to such authors as Shirley Jackson (whose classic 1948 New Yorker story "The Lottery" I suspect was a minor influence on this poem) and Stephen King, Plath pays witty homage to Hawthorne throughout the poem:

As the astrological victim of an unfortunate Sun/Saturn Square (in Freudian terms, the "guilt complex," Oedipal or otherwise), it is not surprising that Plath reveals an affinity to Hawthorne, the American Bard of Guilt -- particularly of "secret guilt," the "terrible secret." The vague echo of something unnamed that "upsets" us in "The Bee Meeting" is quite akin to this quality of Hawthornian guilt. Whether Plath was consciously aware of it or not, the poem uses source material in Hawthorne (among others, no doubt) to identify and enact an extremely unsettling but central myth in the Plathian poetic universe, that of ritualized incest.

I find the crucial influence of at least four Hawthorne "tales" in "The Bee Meeting"-"Young Goodman Brown," "The Wedding Knell," "The Minister's Black Veil," and "Rappaccini's Daughter." The most blatant allusions to these works occur in stanzas 4 and 5, but their subliminal fragrance pervades the poem.

In "Rappaccini's Daughter," a mad botanist, who plays Adam to a beautiful garden of poisonous plants, performs a diabolical experiment. In an effort to render his daughter immortal, he transforms her into the human equivalent of a poisonous flower, "nourished with poisons from her birth upward, until her whole nature was so imbued with them that she herself had become the deadliest poison in existence. Poison was her element of life. With that rich perfume of her breath she blasted the very air. Her love would have been poison--her embrace death." "I", wandering through this baneful beanfield in her Italian hat (the beehives placed nearby to bring about pollination of the crop), is the mad scientist's daughter, or perhaps in this case the mad "beekeeper's daughter", whose breath means contagion -- in Hawthorne, the girl's "terrible secret." (Cf. "The Bee Keeper's Daughter", with its own "terrible secret", humming with incestuous vibrations.) The daughter is doomed, of course, to remain forever in her father's bower - "I would fain have been loved, not feared," she cries to Rappaccini as she dies at the feet of the mortal lover who attempts to steal her away from her father with an antidote that proves sadly fatal. In view of her veiled allusion to it in "The Bee Meeting," it is interesting to speculate as to the importance of this particular Hawthorne story to Plath, particularly if one contemplates the incessant recurrence in her poetry of "malignant" flora. The implicit reference to the story in the poem suggests a keen identification on Plath's part with the doomed girl of Hawthorne's tale ("the magician's girl who does not flinch"), in whom a father's "devilish science" has fundamentally altered her very genetic makeup, making her the bearer of doom and death; it suggests as well that the poet may have been contemplating her own contribution to the marital situation in which she found herself.

This is Plath's most direct allusion to Hawthorne. In "The Minister's Black Veil," a Puritan minister appears one morning to his parishioners with a startling addition to his wardrobe: a mysterious black veil, obscuring his face, which creates a sensation among the villagers similar to the speaker's (and the reader's) reaction to the mysterious personages of "The Bee Meeting."

In Hawthorne's story, the veil symbolizes "secret sin, and those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest, and would fain conceal from our own consciousness, even forgetting that the Omniscient can detect them." Again, the allusion in the poem to a secret guilt (not entirely conscious, I think, on Plath's part) prods the reader to delve far below the surface level of the piece into the subterranean realm of psychological drives, desires, and dreams. Hawthorne's Mr. Hooper, I suspect, is emblematic to Plath of her own psychological problems:

And yet the metaphor of the "veil" suggests a growing sense in Plath of her true poetic vocation:

Plath is beginning to see herself, in her role as an artist, as a "minister" of sorts, a notion which will later appear fully voiced in her famous letter to Aurelia Plath of October 21, 1962, written nine days later, as the "swarm" of the Ariel poems burst forth from within her:

If "Rappaccini's Daughter" and "The Minister's Black Veil" offer the reader some insight into Plath's self-image at the writing of "The Bee Meeting," two other Hawthorne tales take us straight to the marrow of the poem's dramatic action: "Young Goodman Brown" and "The Wedding Knell."

Before "I" can set foot on "the bridge", she finds herself intercepted. These sinister, smiling villagers, "gloved and covered," wearing "veils tacked to ancient hats" ("ancient hats" which link them to the old world of folklore, myth, and pagan ritual) are resonant with an archetypal power that extends from today's rampant alien abduction scenarios back to the legendary tales of capture by witches, ghouls, goblins, and fairies. They are Other, and they seek to make the speaker "one of them." "I" finds herself a distant cousin to Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown, who undergoes his own satanic ritual initiation in the woods at the hands of the pillars of Puritan Salem (cf. "The rector, the midwife [an ancient practice long vulnerable to associations with witchcraft], the sexton . . . the butcher, the grocer, the postman."):

With his young wife, whom Hawthorne unsubtly dubs "Faith," Brown is inducted by the Devil himself into the massive coven, in a scene resembling a diabolical wedding.

Another diabolical wedding occurs in Hawthorne's "The Wedding Knell." An aged woman, after jilting her lover in youth and having widowed two other husbands, at last consents to marry her original suitor. He, having been driven mad over the intervening years with grief and longing, frighteningly transforms their wedding into a funeral rite:

The bride, under the sway of a sudden "irresistible" yearning for the grave, replies:

At a pitch too high to hear with human ear, both wedding and funeral bells are ringing throughout "The Bee Meeting," with its preponderance of white (white smock, white hat, white flowers, white suit, white hive, white pillar, white box), black, and the overwhelming presence of clergy. Plath coyly mistakes Hughes ("that man in black") for the sexton, and indeed on one level "The Bee Meeting" presents us with the scenario of one husband officiating, through his desertion, at the marriage of his wife to another; the result, as Hawthorne puts it in "The Wedding Knell", of a previous engagement:

Like the satanic Figure presiding over Goodman Brown's evil nuptials (cf. "Daddy": "You stand at the blackboard, daddy, In the picture I have of you, / A cleft in your chin instead of your foot/ But no less a devil for that"), the "surgeon" presiding at this "operation" appears indistinctly, an "apparition in a green helmet/ Shining gloves and white suit." The Lord of the Flies becomes the Lord of the Bees, or the "Beinen-Konig" as Otto Plath was dubbed by his schoolmates (Alexander, "Rough Magic", p. 13).

Three days before writing "The Bee Meeting," Plath composed the famous "A Birthday Present" (providing the psychological "bridge" between "Poem for a Birthday" and the "Bees" sequence). In it, Plath reveals that she, like the Virgin Mary, is slated for an "annunciation" -- a mystical insemination -- and that the unwrapped, mysterious "birthday present" is, ideally, her own death. Here, in "The Bee Meeting," like Mia Farrow in Roman Polanski's classic 1968 film "Rosemary's Baby" (based on the Ira Levin novel, which owes its own debt to "Young Goodman Brown"), the innocent "I", with "(her) fear, (her) fear, (her) fear", becomes an apprehensive virgin being led to the deadly conjugal bed itself. Surrounded by "blood clots," those "scarlet flowers," defloration is in the air. A "blackout" occurs, and the speaker returns to consciousness "exhausted . . exhausted" (reminiscent again of contemporary accounts of alien abduction, with their "lost time" phenomenon, and medieval encounters with the faeries). With its distinctly malevolent subtext of pollination and insemination, and with an "annunciation" heralded by Plath not three days before, it seems clear that, at the deepest level, the central meaning of the poem is this: in the process of "The Bee Meeting," the speaker is subjected to a ritualized, incestuous form of coitus with her daemon, her father, "The Bee God" (see Ted Hughes' "Birthday Letters") and is now carrying their dark child in her womb.

Following the "operation," like Hawthorne's (and Levin's) coven of witches, the villagers "are untying their disguises, they are shaking hands" over a job well done. The eerie closing lines give the remarkable suggestion of "I"struggling to orient herself in the aftermath of a rape: "Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold." "The Bee Meeting" closes with the "white box" of the hive doubling as both coffin and cradle. Is the promised "child" Plath's suicide (her "rebirth") or the Ariel poems themselves? (cf. "Thalidomide," with its monstrous embryo.). It might be argued that the "Bees" sequence, with its "arrival" of a womb-like "box" full of murderous bees, is not concerned with the rebirth of Sylvia Plath in any literal sense, but with the carrying to term of the collection of poems (a swarm of words, stings, axes - cf. "Words") that would ultimately bring about the poet's "Immortality." In the poet's own words: " I am writing the poems of my life. They will make my name."

Stewart Clarke
Wednesday, October 14, 1998

Since I seem to be leading off, I'll put in a little background. The actual bee meeting in North Tawton, Devon took place at 6:30 pm on Thursday, 7th June 1962 -- hence 4 months earlier than Wednesday, 3rd October, when this poem was supposedly written.

According to Janice Markey, "'The Bee Meeting' (CP, pp.211-12)... is about what on the surface seems a very routine event: the moving of a swarm of bees from one hive to another. The female speaker/protagonist, however, sees herself to be identified with the old queen with whom the new virgins dream of fighting a duel which they will win. When the swarm is moved, the speaker feels that it is her own death which is portended: 'Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold.' The routine event becomes a nightmare" ("A Journey into the Red Eye," p. 116).

Is this to be, as Alvarez and others have suggested, a deadly ritual in which she is the sacrificed virgin? - a fantasy of joining her beloved father? Sinister images support that idea: the apparition of the surgeon, or perhaps the butcher - the villagers, smiling like sadistic torturers - the white hive, the speaker "exhausted--/Pillar of white in a blackout of knives." And she is "the magician's girl who does not flinch." Back we go to the inhumane surgeon, the hospital operating room, the maimed victim theme that we have seen in a number of earlier poems, in my mind juxtaposed against the electroshock victim scene in The Bell Jar and "The Hanging Man."

The color white dominates the scene - white the color of deception, of hidden violence and cruelty, Markey says. I'm reminded of Joyce's Stephen Daedalus staring with revulsion at a plate of cold white pudding, symbol of the bland lifelessness, of the anti-life forces oppressing him - forces diametrically opposed to art, imagination, creativity.

And yet for Sylvia the bees are eventually to represent her queenly resumption of power, her renewal of flesh and spirit after the "Wintering."

Well, this much blather should set the quick wits in motion!

Jack Folsom
Sharon, Vermont, US
Tuesday, October 6th, 1998

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