The Awful Din Within

The eerie silence and isolation that permeates many of Sylvia Plath’s poems in Ariel are suddenly broken by the unbearable din of bees with “The Arrival of the Bee Box.” The number of poems in Ariel devoted to the bees and their sharp contrast with other poems makes it clear they were an important symbol to Plath. I’m not sure I entirely understand the symbolism of the bees,but if I only dealt with what I understood in life, life would be a lot duller than it is.

The bees that Plath introduces in “The Bee Meeting” are a fascinating, rich symbol. Though must people think of bees as benevolent producers of honey, they are anything but benevolent in Plath’s poems. Futhermore, they seem linked to specific kinds of people:
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.

It’s a rather ordinary group she meets here, one that seem to represent traditional roles of power in society with their “veils tacked to ancient hats.” A rector is the traditional head of a Catholic or Episcopal religious community, overseeing the religious life of the community, while the midwife and the sexton seem to represent the beginning and ending of life. The narrator, though, is apprehensive about these people, feeling “naked” before them. Perversely, they try to make her one of them: “Now they are giving me a fashionable white straw Italian hat/ And a black veil that moulds to my face, they are making me one of them.” It almost seems like a scene out of The Stepford Wives. The narrator desperately seems to wants to avoid this conversion, but she says, “I could not run without having to run forever.” In the end of the poem it almost seems as if the poet has been buried alive by the villagers: “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?”

In other poems Plath sheds further light on the symbolism behind the bees. In “Stings” she says, “I stand in a column/ Of winged, unmiraculous women,/ Honey-drudgers. I am no drudge / Though for years I have eaten dust/And dried plates with my dense hair./ And seen my strangeness evaporate,/ Blue dew from dangerous skin.” Apparently, Plath identifies with their “drudgery” , perhaps the drudgery of being a housewife, though later in the poem she says, “I Have a self to recover, a queen,” not a royal queen, but, rather, a frayed bee queen who lasts but one season.

To me, the critical poem in the sequence is “The Arrival of the Bee Box,” though that may be because it’s my favorite poem in the sequence, the one I most identify with.

THE ARRIVAL OF THE BEE BOX

I ordered this, this clean wood box
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.

The box is locked, it is dangerous.
I have to live with it overnight
And I can't keep away from it.
There are no windows, so I can't see what is in there.
There is only a little grid, no exit.

I put my eye to the grid.
It is dark, dark,
With the swarmy feeling of African hands
Minute and shrunk for export,
Black on black, angrily clambering.

How can I let them out?
It is the noise that appals me most of all,
The unintelligible syllables.
It is like a Roman mob,
Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!

I lay my ear to furious Latin.
I am not a Caesar.
I have simply ordered a box of maniacs.
They can be sent back.
They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner.

I wonder how hungry they are.
I wonder if they would forget me
If I just undid the locks and stood back and turned into a tree.
There is the laburnum, its blond colonnades,
And the petticoats of the cherry.

They might ignore me immediately
In my moon suit and funeral veil.
I am no source of honey
So why should they turn on me?
Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.

The box is only temporary

Why order a box of bees when it reminds you of “the coffin of a midget/ Or a square baby?” What is there that fascinates her with the bees? Is it simply that the hive “is dangerous” and she “can't keep away from it?” When directly confronted with the hive, though, she seems terrified, unable to deal with it. [Though anyone who has taught five periods a day of freshman English would certainly understand this fear J]:

It is the noise that appals me most of all,
The unintelligible syllables.
It is like a Roman mob,
Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!

Perhaps you don’t even have to have been a teacher. Perhaps all you need to identify with these lines is to have heard multiple voices inside your head telling you what to do or telling you that you’re nobody. One person’s advice or criticism may be welcome. When everyone tells you what to think or how to behave it becomes unbearable. It’s even more intolerable if all those voices are trapped inside your head.

Does Plath really think the noise will stop if she sets the bees free? Or does she feel they will free her by killing her? Isn’t that why she is wearing a “moon suit and funeral veil?” Does she really think that they’ll ignore her because her life is so bitter, “I am no source of honey?”

For me, though, the line “The box is only temporary” is the most emphatic line in the poem. It alludes to the same “long white box” at the end of “The Bee Meeting”. Frighteningly, it either implies that Plath feels that the grave is only “temporary” or that no matter what she does the bees will descend on her.

One thought on “The Awful Din Within

  1. The Bee’s In Many Of Plath’s Poems Does In Some Way Represent Her Relationship With Her Father, I Believe. In Any Case I Believe The Bee’s Also Represent Something Dangerous, Which Shows She Has Trouble In Spirit As She Is Drawn To Dangerous Things Represented By The Bees. Although This Is only In my opinion

What do you think?