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On "Wintering"


Margaret Dickie

She is able, in "Wintering," to accept also the activities of women who "have got rid of the men,/ The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors." Knitting, tending the cradle, harboring life in her body-bulb, she will survive. The bee sequence tells of the search for a female identity in a world without men, without stings, without knives. It is "the room I have never been in," where the "black" is bunched "like a bat." The speaker now enters with her "torch," lighting "appalling objects," "Black asininity. Decay./ Possession." This open confrontation with the blackness at the center of her own existence, and not associated with some outside threat, is the source of her tentative recognition that she will survive. For once she is totally on her own -- a painful recognition which reflects Plath's own situation.

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


Karen Ford

In "Wintering" (217-19), the final poem of the sequence, the speaker has come to her last and most important confrontation--that with herself. With her work completed, and with no demands upon her from others, she is able to give herself to the natural rhythms that the seasons decree. "This is the easy time, there is nothing doing," she says in the first line of the poem in a colloquial manner that expresses her own ease and patience. A similar line later confirms that she views her wintering as a distinct phase, a certain kind of time: "This is the time of hanging on for the bees." Her recognition that wintering is one part of a larger cycle of time is important because it qualifies the images of hibernation--elements that lead many readers to assume this is a poem about passivity and death.

She shares the experience of wintering with her bees, and she will learn a great deal from them. Like them, she has put up her winter stores: "I have my honey, / Six jars of it, / Six cat’s eyes in the wine cellar." These jars of honey are clearly more than just pantry supplies, however. It is as though she has gathered that overwhelming "sweetness" of the earlier poems and stored it where it is available but also contained. In fact, the number of jars supports the notion that they serve a symbolic purpose: Plath was married for six years, and they may represent that period of memories and emotions that now must be put away. Moreover, "cat’s-eye" is the name of a semiprecious gem distinctive for its band of reflected light that shifts position as the stone is turned. Thus the jars contain treasures that have great value to her and great beauty. And finally, in their similarity to actual cats’ eyes, the jars suggest the power of their vision, especially the ability to see in the darkness she is facing.28

Though she considers her stores precious, she also understands that she cannot survive on memories (or past emotions or former accomplishments) alone. Proof of this comes when she sees that what is preserved in the jars now is not permanent; they may seem so at the moment, but others have been here before and discovered the transience of such things. She places her jars of honey "Next to the last tenant’s rancid jam / And the bottles of empty glitters-- / Sir So-and-so’s gin," evidence that even these domestic treasures spoil and evaporate.

The symbolic importance of the setting is further established through sound, repetition, and metaphors of the unconscious. The cellar parallels the core of the self, where normal perception fails her because she has never before been there.

Wintering in a dark without window
At the heart of the house . . .

This is the room I have never been in.
This is the room I could never breathe in.

The soft alliteration of w’s and h’s creates a tone of silent, solitary reflection, yet the sense of calm that these sounds convey does not completely offset the agitation she feels in such surroundings. The repeated, "This is the room," suggests how difficult it is for her to accept where she is. The gothic imagery, accompanied by the alliteration of the explosive b’s, incites her nervous dread: "The black bunched in there like a bat."

She enters the room with "No light / But the torch," a primitive, or again, gothic, source of illumination that is consistent with the atmosphere of imminent revelation. It is significant that she must supply her own light. Further, she is in another sense "carrying a torch" for her lost love, and that aspect of the light may contribute to the distortion of her vision. More important, though, is that she is looking into the room for the first time in "a dark" that receives no other illumination, and therefore she has trouble seeing. At first she distinguishes only "appalling objects"; but gradually her vision adjusts and she sees, in turn, "appalling objects," "Black asininity," "Decay," and finally "Possession." This may constitute a list of things she sees in the room (a psychological hoard of mementos from the past that she has relegated to her emotional "cellar") or shifting views of the same object, perceptual superimpositions, each one more accurate in perceiving the actual thing.

In either case, she describes a progression from lack of control (appalling objects) to control (possession). At the word "possession" the poem seems to pivot in another direction, away from the past and its emotional keepsakes that have previously "owned her," toward a present that distances itself from that past, paradoxically, by accepting it. The word "possession" triggers an ambiguous statement, "It is they who own me," a recognition of (or "owning up to") this new relation of present and past. Like the beekeeper, who possesses the bees and yet is possessed by them (because she must fulfill her responsibilities to them in order for them to survive), the speaker is possessed by the memories that she herself possesses. Thus, in acknowledging her reciprocal relation to the bees, she turns from the appalling objects of memory with a tacit understanding that they too are her possessions in this double sense: "This is the time of hanging on for the bees." The easy, accommodating tone of the line suggests an even deeper acceptance and understanding.

It is significant that this decisive line echoes the opening statement ("This is the easy time") since it signals the shift toward optimism in the poem. Turning her attention, now, away from the appalling objects, she considers the bees.

At first glance, these bees appear similar to those in "The Swarm." Both are compared to soldiers. In "The Swarm" they are clearly doomed, "Walking the plank . . . / Into a new mausoleum"; in "Wintering," however, they are survivors, "Filing like soldiers / To the syrup tin." And in both poems, the bees form a ball, yet the fisted hive in the earlier poem and the huddled hive in this one again have little in common. In the first poem "the swarm balls and deserts," the "bees argue in their black ball." On the other hand, the "Wintering" bees "ball in a mass" in order to concentrate their vitality against the cold and snow. Their unity is necessary for survival (and is proven efficacious in the last line where all the bees fly, not just the queen). No doubt there is something awesome about their wintering, "Black / Mind against all that white." The season of hibernation is clearly stark and extreme, black and white, and it requires stolid obstinacy ("black asininity" even) rather than the emotional self-indulgence of "The Bee Meeting."

The key to the survival of the bees is their willingness to accommodate their circumstances. As the speaker consents to their claims on her, they accept hers on them. She gives them Tate and Lyle syrup "To make up for the honey" she has harvested, and "They take it." It is no surprise to learn that "The bees are all women, / Maids and the long royal lady. / They have got rid of the men, // The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors." The sense of alliance and cooperation that the speaker and her bees share simply has no parallel in the world of gender difference glimpsed in the other poems (with the exception of the bee seller in "Stings," where the business relationships of the apiary are apparently modeled on the social practices of the bees). Some readers make an effort to extract from this passage a vindictive spirit toward men, but the tone is so obviously detached and humorous (the onomatopoeic "stumblers" playing on "bumble-bees," the idea that men are merely boors and not tyrants or attackers) that such an interpretation is unconvincing. Furthermore, the lovely, unperturbed portrait of the mother over the cradle immediately detracts attention away from the men who are not there and refocuses it on this female community: "The woman, still at her knitting, / At the cradle of Spanish walnut, / Her body a bulb in the cold and too dumb to think." The alliteration of w’s (winter, women, woman, walnut) recalls the opening tone where that sound has already been associated with forbearance and equanimity.

The poem has retreated inward, arriving at the image in the penultimate stanza of the woman’s body as "a bulb in the cold." That she is at the moment "too dumb to think" need not suggest stupefaction and passivity; rather, it represents the period of silence that is necessary to still the incessant questions of "The Bee Meeting" or the maniac metaphor-making of "The Arrival of the Bee Box." Plath’s drafts of "Wintering" reveal that this wordless, unthinking confidence in the renewal of spring is a difficult achievement:

What will they taste [like] of the Christmas roses?
Snow water? Corpses? [Thin, sweet Spring.]
    [A sweet Spring?] Spring?
    [Impossible spring?]
    [What sort of spring?]
    [O God, let them taste of spring.]
                                                            (Van Dyne 169)

Van Dyne observes that "Her final revision, when it comes, moves in the opposite direction from her changes in ‘The Bee Meeting.’ . . . she wills herself to assert a compelling prophecy, continuing to hope, as she has throughout the rest of the sequence, that saying would make it so" (169). Thus, the image of the woman as bulb is unquestionably one of renewal both in its similarity to the (implied) baby in the cradle and, of course, in the realization of the image in the final stanza, where the questions, at last, resolve:

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 of spring.

It is the lyric beauty of this passage that convinces--the long i’s once again suggesting the unity of the hive, the emotional, anticipatory line breaks, the promising "glad" in "gladiolas," the marvelous image of the bulb’s vitality as fire (bringing both warmth and color to the ending) and the rounded shape of the bulb redoubled in the verb "banking," the perfectly timed forthrightness of the third line, the Christmas roses that are themselves a symbol of renewal, and the three questions that blend into affirmation in the last line.

The speaker learns from the bees in "Wintering" that spring will follow this time of introspection and stillness, of uniting resources and waiting. The answer to her questions comes in the form of an act rather than in words and thus embodies certainty through enacting it. Only then is she certain that they actually "taste the spring" and have not been deceived by the early blossoms of the Christmas roses. She concludes Ariel on this rather simple and understated note of hope; its subtlety is a measure of its sureness. "Wintering" achieves a perspective Plath had advanced years before in her journals: there she promises to herself to write "without any moral other than growth is good. Faith too is good" (169). Here, at last, she seems to have listened to herself--a development only made possible by first recovering that self.

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


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