I've always been incredibly fascinated with Plath's bee poems, and “The Arrival of the Bee Box” is one of my favorites. Plath's ability to instill these small insects with so much richness and complexity beyond the surface narrative tells us much about her vast poetic talent. There’s a lot going on here to work with. There’s certainly some racial tension at work in this poem with the repetition of “black” and the juxtaposition of “Caesar” and “African hands” (ll. 15, 22, 13). On another level, the poem also seems to operate as an extended metaphor for the speaker’s conflicted sense of maternity. The personification of the bees, coupled with the speaker’s anxieties regarding their dependence and independence (from her) produces a specific relationship in the poem which resembles (an admittedly dysfunctional) relationship between a mother and her children.
The bees are not only personified in this poem, they are personified as children. In the first stanza, the speaker compares the box to the “coffin of a midget / or a square baby,” (ll. 3-4) but quickly refutes the notion that the inhabitants are dead with the realization of the noise they create. Their noise is further examined and personified in the following stanzas. In stanza four, “the unintelligible syllables” are closer to an infant’s babbling than the buzzing of bees one would expect. “Syllables” especially, evokes the sense of a human noise.
Such personification is further informed by the speaker’s strange desire to both care for these insects and be free of such a responsibility. The white space between stanzas five and six becomes an intense place of meditation between these two extremes. In the final line of stanza five, the speaker realizes her authority over the creatures as she declares that “They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner” (l. 25). In the first line of stanza six, however, she questions the basic needs of the bees, and in doing so, asserts her own responsibility as nurturer: “I wonder how hungry they are” (l. 26).
The ultimate product of such tension is the speaker’s decision to “set them free” as she acknowledges her inability to provide for them: “I am no source of honey” (ll. 35, 33). The final foreboding line, “The box is only temporary,” distills the speaker’s dark realization into an equally dark and vaguely suicidal resolution (l. 36).
Thanks for reading,
The Arrival of the Bee Box
I ordered 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 appalls 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.
Plath, Sylvia. “The Arrival of the Bee Box.” Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. 531. Print