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On "Stings"


Jeannine Dobbs

In "Stings" (Ariel), she identifies with both the drones and the queen, and reveals the conflict between her domestic and her poetic--her queenly--selves:

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 . . .

They thought death was worth it, but I
Have a self to recover, a queen.

But even had she wished it, the real children could not be folded back into her womb. They were there to contend with along with the daily, routine, household chores. Added to this was the frustration of being married to a poet, whose own poetry was getting written while she dusted, diapered, and served as his secretary.

From Modern Language Studies (1977)


Margaret Dickie

In "Stings," . . . she and a man in "white smiles" remove the honey cells from the hive. Once again the queen bee does not show herself; if she exists at all, she is old, "Poor and bare and unqueenly and even shameful." All that the speaker recognizes are "winged, unmiraculous women / Honeydrudgers," with whom she does not want to identify, although she wonders if "These women who only scurry" will hate her. In control now, she sees "A third person watching," who has nothing to do with the bee-seller and herself. He is "a great scapegoat," the person the bees attack. "They thought death was worth it," but the beekeeper refuses that death. "I / Have a self to recover, a queen," she admits, although again she does not find her but imagines her as a flying "red comet."

This curious choice between revenge on the man which means death and recovering a self which signifies life introduces a prophetic note into the poem.

From Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Copyright 1979 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.


Mary Lynn Broe

Central to Plath's developing consciousness, and visually central in the sequence, is "Stings." It seems that in the queen bee's double-bind situation, Plath identifies with the complexities of her institutional position as queen versus her experiences as mother. The young girl makes this stark discovery of kinship as early as the first poem, "Beekeeper's Daughter":

Here is a queenship no mother can contest--
A fruit that's death to taste: dark flesh, dark parings.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
set my eye to a hole-mouth and meet an eye
Round, green, disconsolate as a tear.

(We must remember that the apiary is a world of curiously inverted sexual principles. The queen, parthenogenic, can only produce idle male drones--"the blunt clumsy stumblers, the boors"--who will ruin the hive. Only the drone mate can contribute the female principle to the union.) One law, however, is central to the apiary. The queen, old and plushless, neither directs nor participates in any of her subjects' riches of cross-pollination, never sees daylight, has no bodily provisions for work. To her the virgin worker's world of activity is "death to the taste." She remains ill-fated, hidden, and otherwise useless in her singular mission of motherhood.

The paradoxical nature of the queen extends to other levels as well. The queen lives for one moment--a brief nuptial flight, blend of ecstasy and tragedy, life and death. Apiarists tell us that the mate of the queen--chosen from thousands of suitors who pursue her high-spiraling nuptial flight--lives for a single moment of delight. But in this instant of "dark pa(i)ring" as he impregnates the queen, his abdomen slits open, loosing the entrails which the queen then totes behind her as a kind of triumphal banner. Dispensable (his death required for propagation of the hive), the mate falls to earth as a carcass. The queen sports her murderous trophy, proof she has guaranteed the future of the hive.

Yet when required, the queen can be mistress of evasion, proving her cleverness by refusing to show herself in the smoking-out ritual (when the virgins are moved so they do not kill the old queen bee). "She is very clever./ She is old, old, old, she must live another year, and she knows it." Her power is in absence: refusing to show herself in duel with younger virgins or to escape some random fate from villagers. To her--and this is what Plath learns about power in a sequence where physical power is at least undermined, if not continually mocked--power is an attitude, a matter of perceiving life and death, the familiar and the terrible comprehensively, wholly. She manipulates the visible from the vantage point of isolation. Though physically her fate is in others' hands, imaginatively she remains untouched, "sealed in wax." Likewise the young girl speaker at the bee induction--exhausted from the tedium of ignorance, fear, and hosts of unanswered questions--chooses immobility. Despite outward conformity, she remains a "gullible head untouched by their [the bees'] animosity."

In "Stings" the speaker successively dons the roles of beekeeper, honey-drudge, and queen in a dramatic exploration of their various functions. "It is almost over./I am in control," she announces midway through the process of adopting and rejecting various forms of power. And indeed Plath is in control. She conducts us from the literal level of "sweet bargaining" for honey, through the mechanical collection of it by drudges, finally to the queen bee's controlling inactivity which is her last triumph.

In the final stanza, despite the imagined ritual deaths throughout the sequence, the elusive queen, at last visible, is a triumph of contradictions. She comprises images of illness, vulnerability (red scar, wings of glass) as well as those of vital resilience. Here--in fact, in the whole sequence--the authoritative mode is abandoned.

From Ariel Ascending: Writings about Sylvia Plath. Ed. Paul Alexander. Copyright 1985 by Paul Alexander.


Karen Ford

The third poem of the Bee sequence, "Stings" (214-15) fulfills this prediction. Not only have the bees been set free (they now dwell in and around their hive) but the speaker, too, we learn in the first word of the poem, is "bare-handed." In some ways, "Stings" is another bee meeting, but this time the speaker and the bee seller are equals--working together and similarly attired for the job: "Bare-handed, I hand the combs. / The man in white smiles, bare-handed." The short fifth line, containing only the pronouns "he and I," and the stanza break that follows it with a gulf of white space, suggest the insularity and detachment of the two workers. The basis of their relationship appears to be the orderliness of their work. There is something sterile in their association yet also something undeniably tender:

Bare-handed, I hand the combs.
The man in white smiles, bare-handed,
Our cheesecloth gauntlets neat and sweet,
The throats of our wrists brave lilies.
He and I

Have a thousand clean cells between us,
Eight combs of yellow cups,
And the hive itself a teacup,
White with pink flowers on it,
With excessive love I enameled it

Thinking ‘Sweetness, sweetness’.

The imagery makes clear that there are no more battles, even parodic ones, as there were in "The Bee Meeting." Taking up an image of armor from that poem, "Breastplates of cheesecloth knotted under the armpits," "Stings" reworks it, infusing it with the tender tidiness that characterizes these opening stanzas, "Our cheesecloth gauntlets neat and sweet." Similarly, the ghastly image of feeling "nude as a chicken neck" finds its delicate counterpart here in "The throats of our wrists brave lilies." The inside and the outside of the hive alike exude domestic refinement and charm when they are compared to china teacups that are "yellow" and "white with pink flowers." Everything about this passage is "sweet"--the relationship between the workers, the honey, the hive, the paintings, and, most of all, the speaker’s former love.

"Stings" is so renowned for its ferocity that it is easy to forget this painfully tender opening. The aspects that are said to give it vehemence--the speaker’s refusal to remain a drudge (and the jealousy among the female figures this decision supposedly sets off), the drudges’ attack on the scapegoat, and the queen’s "violent" bride flight--are simply not enough to negate this gentle beginning. Plath drafted and finalized "Stings" on the backs of her husband’s own writing work sheets. She began the poem two months before the burst of writing in October that produced the Bee sequence when the pain of losing Hughes was probably sharpest. Further, the earliest drafts of the poem were written on the reverse sides of several Hughes’ poems about the birth of their first child (Van Dyne 159); these were pages that documented their lost happiness. Thus, she began the poem in a period of acute pain and on the very papers that could only serve to intensify her misery. The threat of stings in this passage comes less from the bees than from the evocation of the "excessive love" the speaker recalls as she performs her beekeeping tasks. The stings the scapegoat receives from the bees can be nothing compared to the stings the poet experiences in writing under these conditions or those the speaker evokes in remembering her former relation to the hive. At the very least, the sensitive opening must give another resonance to the title that readers of the poem seem reluctant to acknowledge.

Additionally, that resonance ought to inform the other aspects of the poem. For example, the speaker’s attitude toward other women, represented by the beekeeper’s relationship to the queen and the drudges, is not at all condescending or competitive. Though she makes the important disclaimer, "I am no drudge," she clearly has been acting the part of one for years. She is sympathetic with the "women who only scurry" and worries that they will hate her for refusing to continue scurrying herself. Virtually every critic who discusses the speaker’s relationship to the drudges quotes the paradoxical line that describes them but invariably misses the paradox (or avoids it by eliding part of the line). The speaker says, "I stand in a column // Of winged, unmiraculous women." At least half the quotations of this passage omit the word "winged"; the rest treat the line as though it read "wingless unmiraculous women." "Winged, unmiraculous women" is paradoxical because a woman with wings would be miraculous; "winged" suggests flight, transcendence, loftiness. The drudges, then, are not inherently ordinary; rather they represent women whose strangeness has evaporated in the service of others, here of the hive and the queen, elsewhere of husbands and children, women whose energies have been "pour[ed] . . . through the direction and force" of others. Their attack on the scapegoat verifies that they are not utterly servile. The speaker recognizes this.

Even the description of the scapegoat is affected by the tone of the opening. The key word from the first two stanzas, "sweet," unexpectedly appears again here: "He was sweet, // The sweat of his efforts a rain / Tugging the world to fruit." There is an initially negative connotation in the "sweat of his efforts," some sense that he has encouraged the world to fruit (probably best read as having fathered her children or more generally having made her blossom) and then left it in a state of vulnerability to suffer. Yet "sweet" and "sweat" associate themselves through sound for a much more positive effect and reveal that the speaker recalls him with tenderness.

Further, she alludes to the Cinderella story in her description of his disappearance: "Here is his slipper, here is another, / And here is the square of white linen / He wore instead of a hat." These lines acknowledge his vulnerability by feminizing him; he is Cinderella who leaves behind her slipper or the coy woman who drops her hankie in an attention-seeking gesture. It is not surprising that such descriptions are followed by the conciliatory phrase, "He was sweet." It appears that she delegates revenge to the bees--"Molding onto his lips like lies, / Complicating his features"--yet this simile hints that his own evils are his undoing. The bees merely dramatize his crimes. His deceptions have complicated his features, have made him seem altered. However, even his change is qualified by the Cinderella allusion, another tale of personal transformation. Further confusing the purpose of the allusion is the speaker’s own implication in it; she, too, is a Cinderella figure: "for years I have eaten dust / And dried plates with my dense hair." (These lines are laden with other allusions as well. The serpent’s punishment for tempting Eve was to eat dust; Mary Magdalene washed Christ’s feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.) Finally, calling him "a great scapegoat" overtly acknowledges that she is transferring her own guilt to him. When he is chased off by the bees, he carries away her sins as well as his (we recall from "The Bee Meeting" that her black veil "mold[ed] to her face" like the bees here have molded to his); this is perhaps the source of the feminine imagery.25

Though some of these lines seem to establish a connection between the speaker and the scapegoat, the passage is framed by the speaker’s detachment. First she says, "A third person is watching. / He has nothing to do with the bee-seller or with me." After the bees sting him, an act which assures their death, she asserts, "They thought death was worth it, but I / Have a self to recover, a queen." Her detachment is clearly a much more significant victory for her than revenge would have been. If "Stings" is a vengeful poem, it is only ambiguously so.

The drafts of "Stings," however, disclose a much more brutal treatment of the scapegoat. The speaker’s self-possession in the final version is shown to be hard won as the scapegoat enters the poem a stanza earlier and cuts a quite different figure:

He was sweet,

The sweat of his efforts a rain
[On the world that grew under his belly]
Tugging the world to fruit.
Now he peers through a warped silver rain drop;
Seven lumps on his head
And a [great] big boss on his forehead,
Black as the devil, and vengeful.

                                (Original Drafts 14)

In this version, he begins to look more like the ominous male figure in "Daddy," a later poem that indulges its speaker’s resentment. That resentment surfaces here in the evidence that the scapegoat has been recently beaten--he has bumps on his head. The drafts confirm that Plath edited out a more vicious caricature of the scapegoat. Likewise, she deleted many elements from the drafts that added tension and hostility to the poem--gagging repetitions, the idea of desertion, and the specters of dead men. Noticeably, these are the kinds of elements that she emphasized in "The Bee Meeting." "Stings," then, is a poem that self-consciously suppresses excess; yet it is still a poem of tremendous energy and "terribleness."

Here the speaker, like the queen, is "more terrible than she ever was" because she confronts tenderness, loss, anger, resignation, and release bare-handed--as the first word of the poem asserts. And despite the way we generally read it, "Stings" is neither obsessed with maiming the male figure nor with the violence of the queen’s flight. She is, after all, a "red / Scar," not a bleeding gash; thus, she embodies a wound that has already begun to heal. And even the "red comet" that leaves such a fierce impression is nevertheless ambiguous--potentially (and historically) a sign of good luck. (Like the red meteor in The Scarlet Letter, this comet is susceptible to multiple readings, an intertextual resonance that Plath’s poem exploits.)

It would be foolish to deny that the lion-red queen is the precursor of a group of terrifying female images that Plath will create in the next few weeks and days. As the material miseries of her solitary life bear down on her, her anger justifiably explodes. In "Fever 103o" (231-32) the woman is the lantern "going up" as "The beads of hot metal fly, . . . a pure acetylene / Virgin / Attended by roses"; in "Ariel" 239-40) she is "the arrow, The dew that flies / Suicidal, at one with the drive / Into the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning"; in "Purdah" (242-44) she is "The lioness, / The shriek in the bath, / The cloak of holes"; and, most famously, in "Lady Lazarus" (244-47) she is the phoenix figure who rises "with [her] red hair / And . . . eat[s] men like air." Though these poems postdate the Bee sequence and may articulate Plath’s final emotional perspective, they cannot be considered her concluding poetic statement. Around Christmas 1962, after all the Ariel poems were written, Plath carefully arranged them for the book placing the Bee poems last. "Stings," with its contradictory emotional swings, is therefore a crucial part of her culminating poetic vision.

Finally, it is the sweetness that causes the sharpest pain in "Stings." Remembering lost tenderness and "excessive love," catching a glimpse of the man who "tugg[ed] the world to fruit," putting the hives in perfect order with another man, even standing with the honey-drudges, watching the honey-machine, and witnessing the queen’s ascension--each of these has an element of sweetness that she cannot ignore.

The breakthrough of "Stings" is that it is intensely personal in its themes yet not excessive in its final style. This new relationship between subject and style enables the poem to articulate complex and ambivalent emotions without attempting to depict them as monolithic and overwhelming. In this, it anticipates "Wintering," where the speaker adds resignation and hope to the emotional range she has been developing throughout the sequence. In "Wintering," the speaker faces the most difficult confrontation of all--that with herself. At this point, however, having assessed her relationship to the community in "The Bee Meeting"; to her art in "The Arrival of the Bee Box"; to her husband, children, other women, and her own contradictory fictional selves in "Stings"; she next addresses her relation to history in "The Swarm."

from Gender and The Poetics of Excess: Moments of Brocade. Copyright 1997 by University Press of Mississippi. Reprinted by permission of the author.


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