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Bloom's Major Poets - Sylvia Plath

Bloom's Major Poets - Sylvia Plath

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Published by: RAMATI on Dec 23, 2011
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01/08/2016

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[Susan R.Van Dyne is a professor ofEnglish and women’s
studies at Smith College.She is coeditor ofWomen’s Place in
the Academy: Transforming the Liberal Arts Curriculum.In
this selection from her book on Plath,Van Dyne explains
that the bee box represents Plath’s own ambivalence about
following the lead ofher father,who himselfwas a bee-
keeper,and her disturbance at viewing herselfexclusively as
a biological being.]

In both “The Arrival ofthe Bee Box”and “Wintering”the powers of
creation represented by the bees threaten to become agents of
destruction.Ifthe regendered female body could become the corpo-
real ground ofher poetic intelligence,in Rich’s terms,the maternal
body continued to threaten the poet’s extinction.I read the entire
bee sequence as Plath’s struggle to bring forth an articulate,intelli-
gible selffrom the potential death box ofthe hive. ...

To take up beekeeping,and even more to write about it,was deeply
resonant for Plath.The bee poems participate in an extended autobio-
graphical narrative that had mythic status for Plath,involving as it did
her initiation into starkly polarized gender identities,forbidden
desires,and transgressive appropriations ofpower.They rework the
earlier psychodrama she had already reconstructed several times in the
1959 poem “Electra on Azalea Path,”in “The Beekeeper’s Daughter”
from Colossus,as well as in a prize-winning undergraduate poem
called “Lament,”and in her short story from the same period,“Among
the Bumblebees.”In setting up her own hive in Devon,Plath was self-
consciously imitating her father’s authority,a mastery she both desires
and disdains in “The Beekeeper’s Daughter.”Keeping bees also served
to validate and extend her sense ofher own reproductive health.Plath
enjoyed the neat parallel that the same woman,Winifred Davies,who
taught her beekeeping served as midwife at the birth ofNicholas.
Davies also provided significant material help to Plath by securing
nannies who would free a few hours a day for her poetry again in
October.Written out ofthe matrix ofthis layered experience,the bee
poems represent not only a revisionary history ofher role as daughter,
wife,and mother but a simultaneous search for an adequate shape in
which to reconstitute herselfas both a generative and an authoritative
poet. ...

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In “The Arrival ofthe Bee Box”the speaker experiences fright-
ening,uneasy intuitions ofa poetic pregnancy.The unknown inte-
rior harbors dreadful possibilities:“I would say it was the coffin ofa
midget / Or a square baby / Were there not such a din in it.”Like the
shrouded and ominous “awful baby”of“Tulips,”the dark,locked
box ofthe body contains archaic mysteries,primitive appetites,and
anarchic potential.The beekeeper’s doubts about her ability to con-
trol what threatens to feed on her mimics a woman’s experience of
pregnancy which,Kahane suggests,is an inherently Gothic scenario,
provoking apprehensions about her bodily integrity as it becomes
host to parasitic,alien inhabitants.The grasping,teeming life within
would overthrow the conventional,hierarchical authority the
speaker has allegedly acquired:

How can I let them out!
It is the noise that [terrifies] [appals] [alarms] [dismays]
appals me most ofall,
The unintelligible syllables.
It is like a Roman mob.
Small,taken one by one,But my god! together!

I [put] lay my ear to furious Latin.
I am not a Caesar,I am not a Caesar.

Much as she is worried about mothering in this poem,Plath is also
wittily experimenting with fathering.She reenacts,with a subversive
difference,the role her father played in “The Beekeeper’s Daughter.”In
the earlier poem,the mounting,pulsing sexuality ofthe female bees
threatens to overwhelm the father’s capacity to regulate it.The “mae-
stro”in a “frock coat”is an inadequate bridegroom for the queen bee,
but still he dominates.In “The Arrival ofthe Bee Box”the female
owner anxiously asserts and retreats from her mastery.When she
chooses to claim control,her tone is comically imperious:“They can
be sent back,/ They can die,I need feed them nothing,I am the
owner.”Her gestures are self-consciously unmaternal;she can starve or
reject these dependent beings rather than teach them speech.This
elaborate little dance around the bee box suggests at once Plath’s
ambivalence about following in her father’s footsteps and her
antipathy toward defining herselfexclusively in terms ofher biology.

—Susan R.Van Dyne,Revising Life: Sylvia Plath’s Ariel Poems(Chapel
Hill:University ofNorth Carolina Press,1993):pp.104–5,106–7.

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