Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Sylvia Plath's poem "The Bee-Meeting"

Introduction

Giving us the prevalent atmosphere of the poem, Robert Phillips says, “The Bee Meeting opens with a vivid imaging of the poet’s vulnerability before the hive. In the poem, all the villagers but her are protected from the bees, and she equates this partial nudity with her condition of being unloved. In the symbolic marriage ceremony which follows, a rector, a midwife, and she herself—a bride clad in black—appear. She seems to remember that even the arrows which Eros used to shoot into the ground to create new life were poisoned darts.

And just as her search for a Divine Father was tempered by her fear there was none—that God would be nothing more than, say, the Wizard of Oz, a little man with a big wind machine—so, too, her search for consolation from her earthly father creates an intensity of consciousness in which she no longer has any guarantee of security. Eros for her is ever accompanied by the imminence of death. Certainly every mythology relates the sex act to death, perhaps most clearly in the tale of Tristan and Iseult. In nature, the connection is even more explicit: Always the male bee dies after inseminating the Queen. Plath’s personal mythology anticipates this.

If the central figure of authority, the Queen, is her father, then the daughter/worker must die after the incestuous act, as she does at the conclusion of “The Bee Meeting” and as Plath did at the conclusion of her suicide attempts. The long white box in the grove is in fact her own coffin, only in this light can the poem’s protagonist answer her own questions. “What have they accomplished, why am I cold.”


CRITICAL APPROACHES

I

Plath increasingly finds ways of connecting what I have called the ‘oracular’ or ‘transferential’ drama of her poems with a larger historical process. The 1962 sequence which has become known as the ‘Bee Poems ‘attempts to excavate the traces of this process within the familiar scenario of the daughter’s initiation into the mysteries of writing by a father whose power she both desires and repudiates. Beekeeping is associated with the childhood image of the all-powerful father in ‘Among the Bumblebees’, ‘Lament’, and ‘The Beekeeper’s Daughter’. It is also associated with female fertility and reproductive power. In ‘The Beekeeper’s Daughter’, for example, the father is the ‘maestro of the bees’ who ‘move[s] hieratical . . . amongst the many-breasted hives’, in a garden of overwhelming lushness. In the Bee Poems, the relation between artistic creativity and power is inscribed as at once personal and political, drawing not only on the association of bees with Otto Plath but also on Plath’s own experience of beekeeping in Devon. Beekeeping becomes an analogy for the writing of poetry, which, while playing on the Platonic figure of the bee-poet possessed by divine insanity, as described in the Ion, implies a craft, a specialized practical skill or expertize.

The Bee Poems are often read as a parable of female self-assertion or narrative rite of rebirth, affirming the integrity of the creative self, and thus furnishing an alternative, more hopeful ending for Plath’s career. Yet if on one level the poems can be seen as forging a personal mythology of survival, on another their dreamlike logic of displacement and condensation resists narratives of self-realization anchored in a stable notion of the subject. This alternative narrative logic manifests itself through a mobility of identification, which generates various uncanny effects. In particular, the scapegoating or sacrificial trope undergoes a number of psychic and narrative permutations. Although the speaker is initially seen as at once pupil and sacrificial victim of a surgeon-priest performing an operation (‘The’ Bee Meeting’), she subsequently receives a box of bees with which to begin her own hive (‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’). In ‘Stings’ it is the father-beekeeper who is stung by the bees; in ‘The Swarm’, he becomes a dictator who uses the bees as instruments of imperialist self-aggrandizement. In the final poem of the sequence, he disappears, leaving the speaker alone, ‘wintering in a dark without a window’, with the ambivalent harvest of her beekeeping.

In the Bee Poems, the governing metaphor of beekeeping inserts the dynamics of the father-daughter transference into a social and historical continuum. The beehive is a classical figure of the polis as hierarchically ordered, industrious collectivity, in which the common and private good are as one. Bees were, of course, the academic specialism of Otto Plath, author of Bumblebees and Their Ways, and of a treatise on ‘Insect Societies’ for A Handbook of Social Psychology. With its highly structured division of labour, the hive seems to fulfill all the requirements of the ideally ‘adjusted’ or technocratic society, a smoothly functioning social organism devoid of conflict. Yet it is also a rich source of paradox and contradiction. For example, it is a matriarchal society of female producers, a detail which is crucial to Plath’s reflection on power. It is, also, of course, an authoritarian society. The hive allows the poet to assume multiple and constantly changing points of identification—including those of beekeeper, queen, and worker-drudge—in a psychic theatre, signalled by a pervasive imagery of clothing. For example, the villagers’ protective beekeeping gear turns them into participants in a sinister scapegoating rite:

Who are these people at the bridge to meet me? They are

the villagers—

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.

The speaker’s lack of ‘protection’ casts her in the role of sacrificial initiate-victim or patient in a surgical ‘operation’. She identifies herself with the scapegoat, the Queen Bee who is in the process of being moved to another hive by the villagers to prevent the virgins from killing her. Yet at the same time she becomes a performer, ‘the magician’s girl who does not flinch’. The rhetoric of innocence, naivety, and vulnerable nakedness is a masquerade which allows her to assume the central role in the drama. Poetic authority is inscribed as a function of the speaker’s highly subjective and willed reinvention of herself, which renders the boundary between inner and outer worlds radically fluid and permeable. In ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’, the speaker is a Pandora figure, who hovers on the brink of assuming her ownership of the potential hive, torn between terror of its ‘dangerous’ powers and fantasies of absolute control. The box of bees becomes a metaphor of the unconscious itself, whose dark, ‘primitive’ forces are linked with the threat of racial and class otherness (‘the swarmy feeling of African hands
Minute and shrunk for export,
Black on black, angrily clambering’, the ‘Roman mob’). Moreover, this trope of the ‘primitive’ unconscious is acted out in linguistic terms. The ‘unintelligible syllables’ of the bees threaten the speaker with loss of sovereign control over meaning. She oscillates between the positions of master and slave, oppressor and victim; between fantasies of despotic power which mimic and caricature the authority of a ‘Caesar’ (‘They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner’) and of escape from vengeful forces through metamorphosis and disguise, assuming the ‘petticoats of the cherry’ or a ‘moon suit and funeral veil’.

Throughout these poems, the speaker is alternately attracted and repelled by the implications of being ‘in control’ (‘Stings’). In ‘Stings’ she is again cast as the beekeeper’s apprentice, learning how to operate the ‘honey machine’ which will ‘work without thinking
Opening in spring, like an industrious virgin’. Here, however, the threat emanates less from the emblematic male figure than from the female, domestic collectivity of the worker bees or ‘winged, unmiraculous women’, who would turn the speaker into a ‘drudge’. The dreamlike logic of ‘Stings’ produces a splitting of the father-beekeeper figure; it pits beekeeper and female apprentice as equivocal allies against an intrusive ‘third person’, a false beekeeper and ‘scapegoat’ who provokes the fury of the bees. This surrealist triangulation is inscribed within a logic of wish fulfillment or fantasized revenge. The punitive stinging of the interloper is followed by the climactic revelation of the Queen Bee:

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.

These lines have often been read as announcing a moment of mythic rebirth, and the triumphant flight of the Queen Bee, escaping from her enclosure in ‘the mausoleum, the wax house’ , does indeed recall the apocalyptic-destructive power of other iconic female apparitions in Plath’s work: the Clytemnestra figure in ‘Purdah’, the red- haired avenging demon of ‘Lady Lazarus’, and ‘God’s lioness’ in ‘Ariel’. Yet the ‘terrible’ power of the Queen Bee is deceptive; in spite of her ‘lion-red body’, her flight relies on the fragile mechanism of ‘wings of glass’, and the image of the ‘red / Scar in the sky’ suggests the vulnerability of a wounded, stigmatic ‘I’ rather than a triumphant affirmation of selfhood. The Queen Bee is in any case a highly equivocal totem of female power; she is a mere instrument of the hive’s survival, and to that extent reinforces a mythic view of femininity as grounded in unchanging laws of nature. It is a masculine figure, the beekeeper, who exploits and regulates the labour and raw materials of the hive, and the fertility of the Queen Bee, for the production of a commodity. In ‘The Swarm’, the beekeeper who manoeuvres the bees into a new hive is likened to Napoleon, the prototypical dictator; the bees become armies which undergo self-immolation at his command:

How instructive this is!

The dumb, banded bodies

Walking the plank draped with Mother France’s

upholstery

Into a new mausoleum,

An ivory palace, a crotch pine.

The myth of maternity, like that of charismatic leadership, is enlisted in the service of nationalist and imperial ideology; Through such myths, the poem implies, the totalitarian state entwines itself with the affective life of its subjects and becomes ‘the honeycomb of their dream’. Napoleon, whose imperial motif was the bee, and who kept bees during his exile at St Helena, is a figure who holds an ambiguous fascination for the speaker; in a draft of the poem, he is addressed as ‘My Napoleon’. Although she ridicules the totalitarian dream which sees the world as mere plunder (‘O Europe! O ton of honey!’), her schadenfreude implicates her in Napoleon’s will for power.

In the Bee Poems, equivocal attempts to imagine a female collectivity are intercut with fantasies of individual martyrdom, usurpation, and revenge. The last poem of the sequence, ‘Wintering’, celebrates the female hive’s powers of survival and its expulsion of ‘the blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors’ when they have performed their limited function. But the dimension of protofeminist allegory announced by the trope of the matriarchal community remains essentially tentative and undeveloped, less a conclusion than a question. Rather, Plath’s use of beekeeping as the unifying metaphor of the sequence insists on the materiality of writing as social practice. The text appears as the product of social as well as individual energies. In an ironic rewriting of her New Critical apprenticeship (which saw the poem as self-referring verbal microcosm or autotelic object), what emerges from the Bee Poems is a view of the poetic text as at once psychically and historically overdetermined. Plath’s earlier rewriting of de Chirico’s ‘metaphysical’ style represented a key moment in her theatre of mourning.

While the Bee Poems also draw on the resources of surrealism, they resist the psychological determinism of the earlier de Chiricoesque landscapes for a more dynamic vision of the relation between the psychic and the figurative. Their emphasis is less on the fatalistic daughter-in-mourning scenario of ‘The Colossus’, ‘Electra’, and ‘The Beekeeper’s Daughter’, than on the rhetorical manipulation and reinvention of such transferential scenarios as a means of imagining the possibilities of change and metamorphosis.

At the same time, all myths of power, whether individual or collective, are seen as fissured by internal contradictions and therefore as ultimately self-defeating.

The Bee Poems represent the most complex and sustained instance of the oracular metaphor through which, as we have seen, Plath explores the technical resources of her craft and the range of possibilities available to her as a poetic initiate. The encounter with the ‘oracle’, in its various guises, combines a mythic return to the origins of poetic voice with the seductions of a pre-existent law or tradition, as in the fantasy of power gained through sacrificial victimhood. Yet Plath’s struggle for poetic authority, and her revision of her modernist precursors, cannot be seen as a teleological movement culminating in a mythic moment of self-realization. Although the oracle is always linked with scenes of instruction and discipleship, its burden, from the outset, is the return of the repressed.

The social, psychic, and above all linguistic energies which sustain the pedagogical transmission of authority are also capable of overwhelming or interrupting it. For Plath, the very terms of selfhood remain, as I shall argue in the next chapter, entangled with a figurative ‘other’.

II

“The Bee Meeting,” is a dream sequence in which the poet finds herself a victim, unprotected in her “sleeveless summery dress” from the “gloved,” “covered,” and veiled presences of the villagers. In the initiation ritual that now takes place, there are two dreaded male figures: the “man in black” (cf. the “fat black heart” in “Daddy”) and the “surgeon my neighbors are waiting for, / This apparition in a green helmet. / Shining gloves and white suit.” Neither the black man nor his white counterpart are named: indeed, the poet asks: “Is it the butcher, the grocer, the postman, someone I know?” She cannot, in any case, run away:

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.

The virginal white hive now becomes the source of new life for the poet, identifying, as she does, with the queen bee: “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.” “Exhausted,” she can finally contemplate the “long white box in the grove” which is both coffin and hive. She is “the magician’s girl who does not flinch.”

In the next poem, “The Arrival of the Bee Box,” the “dangerous” box of bees becomes a challenge that is desired: “I have to live with it overnight / And I can’t keep away from it.” The poet is now tapping her own subconscious powers; at the end of “Stings” we read:

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.

“I have a self to recover, a queen”: here is the lioness of “Purdah,” the avenging goddess, triumphing “Over the engine that killed her,” just as the “swarm” in the next poem must evade “The smile of a man of business, intensely practical,” a man “with grey hands” that would have killed me.” In the final poem, “Wintering,” this male figure is no longer present. “Daddy,” the man in black, the rector, the surgeon--all have disappeared:

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.

With this parable of hibernation, a hibernation that makes way for rebirth and continuity (“The bees are flying”), Ariel was to have inevitability of death is everywhere foregrounded. No longer does the poet look forward to the “Years”; her thoughts turn on “greenness, darkness so pure / They freeze and are.” In “Paralytic,” “all / Wants, desire [are] Falling from me like rings / Hugging their lights”; in “Contusion,” “The heart shuts, / The sea slides back, / The mirrors are sheeted.” Finally, in “Edge” (dated 5 February 1963, six days before her suicide), Plath imagines herself in death:

The woman is perfected.

Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,

The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,

Her bare

Feet seem to be saying;

We have come so far, it is over.

And the final poem, “Words” (1 February, 1963), is despairing in its sense that the poet’s “words” become “dry and riderless,” that they are no longer connected to the poet who gave them birth. The connection between self and language has been severed: there is only fate in the form of the “fixed stars” that “From the bottom of the pool ... Govern a life.”

One can argue, of course, that Hughes is simply completing Plath’s own story, carrying it to its final conclusion, where “Each dead child coiled, a white serpent” has been folded back into the woman’s body, where the “Words” are entirely cut off from the poet who created them. But it is also possible that, in taking advantage of a brief spell of depression and despair, when death seemed the only solution, Hughes makes the motif of inevitability larger than it really is. “The woman is perfected” in more ways than one.

In any collection of poems, ordering is significant, but surely Ariel presents us with an especially problematic case. For two decades we have been reading it as a text in which, as Charles Newman puts it, “expression and extinction [are] indivisible.” A text that culminates in the almost peaceful resignation of’ “Years” or “Edge.” The poems of Ariel culminate in a sense of finality, all passion spent.

Ariel establishes quite different perimeters. Plath’s arrangement emphasizes, not death, but struggle and revenge, the outrage that follows the recognition that the beloved is also the betrayer, that the shrine at which one worships is also the tomb. Indeed, one could argue that the very poems Hughes dismissed as being too “personally aggressive” are, in an odd way, more “mainstream,” that is to say more broadly based, than such “headline” poems as “The Munich Mannequins” or “Totem,” with its “butcher’s guillotine that whispers: ‘How’s this, how’s this?’” For, as long as the poet can struggle, as long as she still tries to defy her fate, as she does in “The Jailer” or “The Other” or “Purdah,” the reader identifies with her situation: the “Cut thumb” is not only Plath’s but ours.

Perhaps Sylvia Plath’s publishers will eventually give us the original Ariel. But it is not likely, given the publication of the Collected Poems, which now becomes our definitive text. How ironic, in any case, that the publication of Plath’s poems has depended, and continues to depend, on the very man who is, in one guise or another, their subject. In a poem not included in Ariel called “Burning the Letters,” the poet decides to do away with the hated love letters, with “the eyes and times of the postmarks”:

here is an end to the writing,

The spry hooks that bend and cringe, and the smiles.

And at least it will be a good place now, the attic.

But the attic was soon invaded, the dangerous notebooks were destroyed, and the poems that were permitted to enter the literary world had to get past the Censor. The words of the dead woman, to paraphrase W. H. Auden, were modified in the guts of the living. Only now, some twenty-five years after her death, can we begin to assess her oeuvre. But then, as Plath herself put it in a poem written during the last week of her life:

The blood jet is poetry,

There is no stopping it.

III

Given the problematic quality of both personal and collective existence, the persona moves toward death amid attempts to evade it. In “The Bee Meeting,” she tries to evade a social milieu that moves in on her relentlessly. Her flight takes the form first of social disguise and then of stasis. The poem introduces us to villager-beekeepers who present a frightening picture of social sham:

Who are these people at the bridge to meet me? they

are the villagers—

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.

In contrast to the heavily veiled, protective disguises of the villagers, the persona wears only a sleeveless dress, and her separation from them is emphasized by the juxtaposition of “I” and “they”: “I have no protection—they are all gloved and covered”; “why did nobody tell me?—They are smiling.” The repetition of sibilants—”sleeveless,” “summery,” “smiling,” “hats”—in a diction with clearly wholesome connotations gives us an eerie, nightmarish feeling and a sense of something thing familiar gone awry.

The persona’s dominant impulse is to resist her exposure to an expansive and threatening milieu that encompasses the natural world as well.

The secretary of bees tries to turn her into an officially costumed beekeeper, but this attempt only increases the persona’s terror. She assumes the disguise of “milkweed silk,” an inanimate and consequently a safer means of evading both the rigidity of village social life and the aggressive power of the bees. Yet even in such evasions reversals of order augment her sense of nightmare. One reversal involves the menacing animation of inanimate objects: the winking tinfoil, feather dusters with hands, black-eyed bean-flowers, and “leaves like bored hearts.” Another reversal occurs in the violation of the bees’ natural domestic pattern when the villagers smoke the bees out of the snug hive:

The bees react hysterically and become the “outriders” of such poems as “Stings” and “The Swarm,” while the speaker disguises herself as a passive vegetable—”cow parsley.” Plath reinforces this resistance to exposure in the depiction of the old queen bee for whom the villagers are searching:

Although she identifies with the queen, the persona differs in a fundamental respect. Despite the fact that she must inevitably be supplanted by a new queen, the old bee remains secure in the pattern of the hive; her role within the natural hierarchy defines her being. The persona’s terror, on the other hand, cannot be assuaged in the ritual of nature and her surreal ceremonial interplay with the villagers only whittles away at a nebulous sense of identity. Her sole recourse lies in yet another disguise, ultimately that of the “magician’s girl who does not flinch” from the shower of knives that threatens her with extinction

“The Bee Meeting”‘s questions are really ontological ones, reaffirmed through link verbs such as “They are,” “I am,” “it is,” and “is it?” For Plath “being” and “female being” are virtually the same, and for the persona, to be female is to be manipulated by nature, history, and inevitably by contemporary politics—and either openly or more obliquely to be threatened with death. To succumb to the terror of extinction means self-annihilation. To resist it makes for the dramatic tension that permeates the poems. The persona constantly resists the impulse to flee or to retreat into psychic stasis. Given the state of extremity in the poems, she resists in three basic ways: through flight, through counter-aggression that is both sexual and political, and through a stoic endurance of horror.

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1 comments:

Anonymous said...

nice.........

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