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Relevant background | Summary | Themes | Tones
Imagery | Sound Effects

The Arrival of the Bee Box
Silvia Plath [1932-1963]

Relevant Background

  • Sylvia Plath was born in Boston USA and grew up in a comfortable middle-class home.
  • She went to university in Boston and Cambridge, England. Plath was an excellent student. She suffered a nervous breakdown in college. She recovered but depression remained a big problem for her.
  • At Cambridge University she met and married the British poet Ted Hughes. They settled in England and had two children. Then the marriage ended.
  • In 1962 Plath started bee keeping. Her father was a beekeeper and had written two books about bees.
  • Many of her poems are a terrifying record of her depression.
  • On one level ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’ seems to be about Plath’s reaction to the delivery of a bee box.
  • On a deeper level, you can regard the bee box as a symbol for her unhappy inner thoughts and feelings.
  • She committed suicide at the age of thirty in 1963.

Summary

In this poem, Sylvia Plath expresses a desire to be in control. She feels she has to deal with a dangerous situation. At first she is not in control. She panics. She has a debate with herself and then she makes a calm decision.
Silvia Plath wrote this poem in seven five-line stanzas followed by a single line.

On one level Plath is simply recalling a personal incident. The story of the poem concerns a task with a bee box. In the first stanza she states that it looks like ‘square’, like a midget’s coffin, heavy and noisy:
‘such a din in it’. The word ‘coffin’ suggests death. The overall description of the bee-box is strange and disturbing.
In the second stanza, the bee box both frightens and attracts Plath. She stares in at the bees through a little wire grid. The box is ‘locked’ because its contents are ‘dangerous’. Yet Plath ‘can’t keep away from it’. She examines the box and considers opening it. But she is faced with the threat that what is inside may injure her. Yet, she feels she has to 'to live with it overnight'.
In the third stanza, she regards the bees as angry slaves that seek release and revenge: ‘Black on black, angrily clambering’. Through the wire grid she sees darkness. She imagines the bees are like army divisions of blackness that she associates with ‘the swarmy feeling of African hands’. She is in a state of alarm.
In the fourth stanza, the buzzing noise puts her off releasing the bees. She fears their bee language and now regards them as an aggressive Roman mob. She describes their language as ‘unintelligible syllables’. Her exclamation, 'small, taken one by one, but my god together!' reveals a fear of being attacked by these 'minute' [tiny] creatures. The swarm terrifies her.
In the fifth stanza she sidesteps the problem: ‘I am not a Caesar’. She means she is not all-powerful. She also means that she doesn’t have to understand the bees’ ‘unintelligible syllables’, which she would have to if she were Caesar listening to a ‘Roman mob’. Then Plath introduces a new image for the bees. She imagines that the bees are maniacs and that she can send them back:
‘I have simply ordered a box of maniacs’.
As her nerves steady, she realises she can starve them to death and ignore them:
‘They can die, I need feed them nothing’.
Maniacs are not as bullying as a Roman mob. They are far less threatening than an army of vengeful African slaves. Plath’s imagery shows that her state of panic is gradually reducing. At the end of the fifth stanza, Plath begins to feel powerful again, in a negative sense: ‘I am the owner.’
In the sixth stanza Plath feels different. She imagines the bees are ‘hungry’ rather than ‘angrily clambering’. Now she can see herself undoing the locks.
She realises the bees will fly to where they will get honey and leave her alone. They will ignore her, especially if she stands there like a tree. They will fly towards flowering plants:
‘There is the laburnum, its blond colonnades,
and the petticoats of the cherry’.
In the seventh stanza Plath accepts her role as beekeeper. She realises she will wear her protective beekeeper’s ‘suit’ and ‘veil’. She seems to be coming to terms with her task. She decides she will release the bees, to allow them to find a source of honey. She also thinks they are likely to ignore her:
‘I am no source of honey so why should they turn on me?
Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free’.
By freeing the bees she will be a ‘sweet God’ or a kind person. By being ‘sweet’, she resembles the honey that the bees are after, since honey is sweet. Will her sweetness make her attractive to the bees after-all? This is a play on words known as a pun. Through this pun, she reveals that because she has a desire to release the bees she is now sweet. This sweetness or kindness puts her in danger of a bee attack. At the same time she expects that the bees will look for flowers rather than carry out such an attack.
In the final single line, she states that the box is ‘temporary’ because she will release the bees in the morning. She concludes that the bees will not stay locked in the box.


Themes

The poet shows how she is troubled in spirit because she feels drawn to something dangerous:
‘it [the bee box] is dangerous. I have to live with it overnight
And I can't keep away from it’.

In this poem Sylvia Plath expresses a desire to be in control:
‘Tomorrow I will be sweet God’.

The poet faces a problem she has to make a decision on [a dilemma poem]:
‘I wonder if they would forget me
If I just undid the locks and stood back’.

The poet portrays her various personality traits:
‘I have to live with it overnight
And I can't keep away from it’.
Her emotions are complex, feeling both dread and fascination at one time.

‘It is the noise that appals me most of all’.
Her nerves are at her and she can’t bear noise.

‘I am not a Caesar’.
She both desires power and denies wanting power.

‘They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner’.
She can appear cruel, uncaring, and power driven.

‘I am no source of honey
So why should they turn on me?’
She can be rational and without fear

‘Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free’.
She relishes her power and seems generous.

The poet gradually comes to terms with a task that at first caused her panic:
‘appals me most of all’.
Her great fear, ‘appals’, eases to ‘so why should they turn on me?’


Tones

Sometimes the tone is factual:
‘I ordered this, clean wood box…
I put my eye to the grid. It is dark’.

Sometimes the tone is humorous and weird, as with the word ‘midget’:
‘coffin of a midget or a square baby’.
There is also a weird feeling in her use of the words ‘coffin’ and ‘square here.

Sometimes the tone is terrified:
‘I have to live with it overnight’.

Sometimes the tone is fascinated:
‘And I can't keep away from it’.

Sometimes there is a tone of horror:
‘the swarmy feeling of African hands…
Black on black, angrily clambering’.

Sometimes the tone is empty and shows a lack of concern:
‘They can be sent back.
They can die, I need feed them nothing’.

Sometimes the tone is curious:
‘I wonder how hungry they are’.

Sometimes the tone is amazed:
‘but my god, together!’

Sometimes the tone is sinister or creepy:
‘In my moon suit and funeral veil’.
But you could also see a tone of confidence and even self-mockery in this quote.

Sometimes the tone appears to be pleased, calm and decisive:
‘Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.
The box is only temporary’.


The tone pattern in this poem shows a gradual calming down from panic to calm.


Imagery

There are many dramatic images of fear. There are also factual images of the bees and of nature. There are many contrasting [different] images of the bees.

In the first stanza, Plath simply states a fact with the image of the 'clean wood box'. Then she uses a simile in which she compares the box to a square chair:
'square as a chair'.
She then uses some unusual comparisons or metaphors for the box:
"I would say it was the coffin of a midget or a square baby…’
The wooden box is actually there. There may or may not be a square chair.
But there is no coffin, midget or square baby. These are comparison images to show her attitude to the bee box. The words ‘coffin’ and ‘square baby’ show that Plath looks at the bee box in a disturbed and disturbing way.

Plath uses three comparisons in stanzas three, four and five. She calls the bees black slaves, a Roman mob and maniacs.
[If you wish to, you can refer to these comparisons as analogies. Analogies are parallel images. These three analogies reveal Plath’s fears about the bee box. Without these analogies or comparisons, we would know a lot less about Plath’s feelings. Each comparison or analogy is an image for her fear.]
The first comparison is from American history:
The bee box reminds her of
‘the swarmy feeling of African hands minute and shrunk for export, black on black, angrily clambering’.
Here Plath plays the role of slave trader. The bees resent [dislike] their captivity and agitate or angrily stir up trouble. In this comparison, Plath feels that the bees are dangerous. They are angry worker slaves captured in Africa for sale in America. Her fear is at its highest here. To see bees as ‘shrunk’ black hands in a dense mass would give readers a shiver up their spine. It is a spooky comparison.
The second comparison is from Roman history:
‘It is like a Roman mob, small, taken one by one, but my god, together!’
The phrase ‘small, taken one by one’ shows the poet is beginning to get the measure of the bees. Then panic rises again: ‘but my God…’ Plath develops this comparison by imagining a Roman Emperor facing this mob as they protest angrily in Latin. But she suddenly drops the comparison. She cannot understand or control the mob of bees. This comparison is less terrifying than the previous comparison to angry, clambering African hands. She admits, ‘I am not Caesar’. For a moment, she was on a power trip, but decides that is pointless. Later, Plath rediscovers her sense of power over the bees in the final stanza with her image of herself as a ‘God’ in control of the bees.
The third comparison is with a hospital for the insane:
‘I have simply ordered a box of maniacs’.
This comparison is based on her personal experience of being in a mental asylum. She is feeling more comfortable now, as she can starve the ‘maniacs’. The word ‘simply’ shows her growing self-control. The bees are not such a threat anymore. Her debate with herself, using the images of slaves, a mob and maniacs, has calmed her down.

There are three dramatic images of fear:
‘The box is locked, it is dangerous…
Black on black, angrily clambering...
It is the noise that appals me most of all’.

Eight images relate directly to bees and bee keeping:
‘this clean wood box …
such a din in it…
There is only a little grid, no exit.
swarmy feeling …
There is the laburnum…
…the cherry…
in my … veil.
… source of honey’.

There are other poetic images:
‘furious Latin...’
This is a metaphor for the buzzing and mumbling sound of the bees. It is exaggerated expression to emphasise a point.
‘a Caesar…’
This is a metaphor for power and control. It is exaggerated expression to emphasise a point.
‘In my moon suit and funeral veil...’
This is a metaphor for the beekeepers suit and veil. It compares the beekeeper to an astronaut and to a mourner at a funeral.
‘I will be sweet God…’
This is a metaphor for power and kindness.


Sound effects

Alliteration [the repetition of first letters]:
‘Black on black’.
The ‘b’ sound here shows alliteration. This alliteration emphasises the fear and danger the poet feels.

Consonance [the repetition of a consonant sound]:
Note the ‘l’ and ‘ll’ sounds in particular here.
‘It is the noise that appals me most of all,
The unintelligible syllables.’

Sibilance and Onomatopoeia:
T he sound here cleverly imitates the buzzing Plath hears in the bee box:
‘It is the noise that appals me most of all,
The unintelligible syllables.’
The ‘s’ sounds create a buzz saw effect, like a buzzing swarm of bees. Therefore these two lines are also an example of Sibilance [repetition of ‘s’ sounds].
The last two words sound just like a humming swarm of bees. The ‘ll’, ‘n’ and ‘s’ sounds create a sound effect of thousands of bees humming together. When the sound of the words echoes meaning, it is called ‘Onomatopoeia’.

Assonance [repetition of vowels]:
Note the bee humming sound created by the three short ‘i’s of
‘din in it’.
Note the ‘a’ sound repeated three times in
‘swarmy feeling of African hands’.
Note the mournful ‘oo’, ‘ui’ and ‘u’ sounds in
‘moon suit and funeral’.
These sounds are revealing. The long ‘u’ sounds show despair. Even though the poet is calm at the end of the poem, she is sorrowful.

Rhyming:
There is no regular rhyming pattern. Note the ‘t’ at the end of lines two, three and five in the first stanza, and lines seven, eight and ten of the second stanza. There is no rhyme then in the third stanza. There are faint line rhymes in some of the later stanzas. The ragged nature of the line rhyming shows the poet’s feelings of being broken up inside with fears.

Internal Rhyme [a word or sound rhyming within a line]
Note the ‘are’ and ‘air’ sounds repeated in this quote:
‘Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift’.

Internal Rhyme:
‘It is dark, dark’.

Cross Rhyme [a word or sound rhyming across two or more lines]:
Note the way ‘are’ and ‘air’ of the first line are repeated in the third and fourth line of the quote.
‘Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift.
I would say it was the coffin of a midget
Or a square baby
Were there not such a din in it’.
Note ‘grid’ in these two lines:
‘There is only a little grid, no exit.
I put my eye to the grid’.
Find more examples yourself.

Rhythm:
The rhythm has a natural feeling with the run on lines and simple conversational words. The poem feels like a personal story, naturally addressed to the reader. This is reinforced by the lack of formal rhyming.

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