‘Fame is a bee’ is short in structure but wide in its poetic range. Generally, we find such brevity in haiku poems. To be specific, it is not a haiku. This poem is just a simple and intellectual verse of American Literature. If we are reading the poem for the first time, the structure of the poem may seem to deceive to us. A superficial reading of ‘Fame is a bee’ is not enough. We have to wait and think over a line before moving to the next one.
Why did Emily Dickinson choose the “bee” instead of any other insects? Dive deep into the analysis, you can definitely find the answer.
In the poem ‘Fame is a bee’, the poetess Emily Dickinson does not use many words to make her idea clear to the readers. She uses just four short and simple lines to illustrate her definition of fame. According to the poetess, fame is like “a bee”. It has “a song”, “a sting” and “a wing”.
The poetess is very specific while choosing the mentioned qualities of the bee. She does not use all the ideas associated with the insect. Hence we should follow the directions Dickinson has shown us in her poem. We should keep in mind that Dickinson is discussing fame not the qualities of a bee. The symbols used in the poem are meant for exemplifying the abstract idea to the readers.
The meaning of the poem ‘Fame is a bee’ by Emily Dickinson is not too hard to understand. The poetess visualizes “fame” as a “bee” in the first line of the poem. In the second line, she means that the buzzing sound of the followers is always there around a popular figure. Readers can interpret the word “song” in their own way. They can refer to the meanings of the word to get an idea of the vastness of Dickinson’s imagination. Each meaning unfolds a distinct way to imagine what fame actually is.
In the third line, Dickinson says that fame has a “sting”. Here the poetess means that this bee named fame stings the soul of a person. In the last and most important line of the poem, Dickinson refers to the fleeting nature of fame. Fame is not constant; it is like a bee. It never stays permanently in a person’s life. When the nectar of a renowned person’s life ceases, the fame-bee flies away in search of a new flower.
‘Fame is a bee’ by Emily Dickinson is a four-line poem. It contains only 17 syllables. Readers should not confuse themselves with the poem being a haiku. It’s not. If readers consider the rhyme scheme of the poem, they can find that the last two lines have a perfect rhyme. If we take the second line into count, it also rhymes with the last two lines. The last consonant sound in these three lines rhymes altogether.
After scanning the poem metrically, readers can find that the poem is written in iambic dimeter. There are a few variations as there are only four lines in the poem. In line 1 the first foot is trochaic. It is natural that the stress falls on “Fame”. The last line is in iambic trimeter since there are three feet. Another interesting point to mention here that the poem only contains monosyllabic words. It is significant in reference to the subject matter of the poem. Dickinson does not leave the metrical construction out of the poem’s context. She invests the idea of transience even in her word choice and in the composition of the text.
Literary Devices, Line by Line
‘Fame is a bee’ by Emily Dickinson does not contain too many poetic devices or figurative language. The major ones are metaphor, metonymy, irony, and anaphora. Each of these literary devices has an integral part in the theme and literary meaning of the poem. Let us have a look at the poetic devices used in each line of the poem.
Fame is a bee.
In the first line of the poem, Dickinson compares fame to a bee. Here the bee is a metaphor. The poetess implicitly refers to the idea of impermanence. A bee has an average lifespan of only six weeks. Fame is also a temporary aspect of anyone’s life. A bee cannot live more than its biological time limit. Like that fame cannot last long. It is like the scent of a flower. It lasts until the flower is alive.
Readers can find the rhetorical device called zoomorphism in this line. When an abstract idea is endowed with the features of an animal or insect, it is called zoomorphism. Here the poetess invests “fame” with some specific characteristics of a bee. The bee is again a symbol of transience. So readers can take it as a use of metonymy too.
It has a song—
Dickinson uses a metaphor in the second line of the poem. Here the “song” of the bee is a reference to the praise which a person receives after being popular. There is another comparison in the line too. Like a song gives us pleasure, fame also brings pleasurable moments in a person’s worldly life. The second and third line of the poem begins in a similar manner. It is called anaphora.
It has a sting—
In the next line, the poetess refers to the “sting” of the bee in a metaphorical way. This “sting” is a reference to the negative aspects of fame. Through this word, the poetess also signals to the effect by using the cause. She uses the word as a metonym for the spiritual wound.
Let us make the explanation of the poem more interesting. If we treat the word “fame” in the first line as a synecdoche, the overall meaning of the poem changes in no time. Dickinson might be pointing to a famous person. Then in the third line, “sting” symbolizes the temporary nature of fame. The reason is quite simple. A bee dies after stinging. A famous person’s public stature also gets destroyed if he uses his verbal “sting” by mistake. An unmindful mistake can lead to his downfall instantly.
Ah, too, it has a wing.
In the last line of the poem “wing” is a symbol. It symbolizes the fleeting nature of fame. There is no need to confuse ourselves by thinking over the use of “a” before “wing”. Dickinson writes “a wing” for the sake of the rhythmic flow of the poem. There is another literary device in this line. It is an irony.
Tone and Mood
The tone of the poem ‘Fame is a bee’ by Emily Dickinson is direct and ironic. There is no beating around the bush. The poetess makes use of a few literary devices. She does not flood the readers’ minds with a variety of ideas. In this poem, she introduces only one idea in each line. She writes less but the words in the poem tells something more to the readers. A reader can find the justification of the saying, “less is more” in this poem.
The mood of the poem is not too sober or too light. It lies somewhere in the middle. The lines are humorous enough to incite a mental smile into readers. With a smile, it comes up with a poetic “sting” too. It pricks unconsciously and starts to destabilize our thinking of being popular. The poem is very similar to the physical attributes of a bee. There is no doubt Emily Dickinson was a master of wordplay. She had a deep poetic wit too.
The major theme of the poem, ‘Fame is a bee’ by Emily Dickinson is already clear to the readers. It is fame or popularity. Another theme that is closely associated with the main theme is impermanence. In this poem, Dickinson uses some specific characteristics of a bee to enlighten her readers about fame. Fame brings momentary pleasure to a person but it can also be a cause of his spiritual downfall. It comes unknowingly and fades away without giving us any notice.
Analysis, Line by Line
Fame is a bee.
‘Fame is a bee’ by Emily Dickinson is so short that each and every word, even the punctuation marks become important while writing the explanation of the text. Readers have to stop and brood over what they have read in a line. Let’s take the first line of the poem as an example. This line is a type of assertion. The full stop at the end of the line tells readers to wait for a while. This line is the essence of the poem. So it needs some special attention.
Dickinson says that “fame” is similar to a bee metaphorically as well as ironically. A bee cannot live more than one and a half months. In its short life, it tries to work as much as it can. Thereafter it dies while protecting its hive or naturally when the time comes. The phase of fame in a person’s life is also short-lived. Apart from that this line contains a paradox too. There were some great personalities in the world whose fame lasts till date. But Dickinson is not talking about the positive aspects of fame in the poem. She shows readers the opposite side of the coin and points out the impermanent nature of fame.
It has a song—
In the second line of the poem, readers can find another paradox. Dickinson says that fame has a song. What does this metaphorical “song” actually mean? The literal meaning of the song is, a short poem or a short musical composition. Here again, the poetess adheres to the theme transience.
According to the poetess a song gives us pleasure but it cannot last long. The same idea is vibrant in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ by John Keats. Like a song, fame also gives us pleasure. After being famous people start to enjoy their lives in every manner. They feel satisfied when others respect them and become their followers. But Dickinson says that like a song, fame cannot last long. She reiterates the adage, “This too shall pass” here.
It has a sting—
In the third line of the poem, Emily Dickinson uses “sting” in a symbolic way. Sting is a symbol of protection as well as death. Whenever a bee senses any kind threat to its hive, it uses the sting for protecting the hive. A bee usually does not sting when it is far away from the hive. If someone steps over it or handles it roughly, it stings the person. What happens to the bee after stinging? It dies. With the sting, the lower portion of the bee gets detached. Naturally, it cannot live with the upper half of the body.
Now the biological reference written above supplies a bunch of ideas to the readers. Fame creates an aura around a person. At the end of the day, it is also responsible for the person’s spiritual downfall. Fame is like that sting which appears to be a shield of protection. Actually it pollutes the purity of the soul.
Ah, too, it has a wing.
The last line is a perfect example of irony. The use of “too” at the beginning makes it an ironic statement. Dickinson puts emphasis on the line for bringing attention to the line. Here the poetess uses the imagery of a bee’s flight. The wing is the organ which symbolizes the act of flying.
If the readers have ever seen the flight of a bee, they can understand the concept more easily. Bees fly in an innovative manner. It is meant for internal communication among the other members of the hive. It is hard enough to guess where they are moving while in flight. They fly in a zigzag manner and it is quite deceiving for us. In the end the poetess welcomes the theme of uncertainty in the poem. According to the poetess, a person cannot predict when he is going to lose his stature. Thus the uncertain nature of fame is the crux of this line.
‘Fame is a bee’ by Emily Dickinson belongs to the poetry collection, “The Poems of Emily Dickinson” edited by R. W. Franklin. It was published in 1999. The poem might be written during the period of 1861–1865. It was the most promising phase of Dickinson’s literary career. At that time she composed a variety of works and the main themes of her literary works developed in that period.
Dickinson was not able to capture her literary fame but she had seen her father’s popularity. Her father Edward Dickinson was a renowned person at that time. She might have understood the nature of fame by being a close observer of her father’s life. Apart from that Emily had a keen interest in botany. She had a liking towards gardening and loved flowers. The concept of bee might have appeared in her mind while she was roaming one day around her garden and noticed a bee sitting on a beautiful flower.
Readers can find the following poems somehow similar to the theme and overall idea of the poem, ‘Fame is a bee’ by Emily Dickinson.
- Famous by Naomi Shihab Nye – This poem by Naomi provides a different perspective of “fame” to the readers. It helps us to understand the concept of fame better after reading Dickinson’s poem.
- Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats – This poem by Keats is one of the famous poems of Romantic Literature. In this poem, Keats depicts the theme of transience by the use of the nightingale’s beautiful song. What Emily illustrates in her poem implicitly, is explicitly elaborated in Keats’ poem.
- A Bird came down the Walk by Emily Dickinson – In this poem, Dickinson focuses on the theme of impermanence. The same theme is an integral part of ‘Fame is a bee’. The comparative study of both of the texts helps us to understand her ideas better.
- Hope is the thing with feathers by Emily Dickinson – Emily had a special skill in using natural metaphors to emphasize complex abstract ideas. For appreciating her choice of metaphors in her works, both of the poems are of great use to the readers.
You can read about 10 of the best Emily Dickinson Poems here.