‘Telling the Bees’ by Lizette Woodworth Reese is a three-stanza poem which is separated into sets of five lines, or quintets. These lines follow a specific and structured rhyme scheme which conforms to the pattern of abaab cacca eaeea. The poet has chosen to put an emphasis on unity in this piece with the repetition of the “—ees” end sound carrying through from the first line to the last.
It is also important to note that the poet begins the poem with a subheading, “A Colonial Custom.” She wants to make clear that the story she told is going to tell has historical precedent. It is not something she made up for the sake of the poem.
In the nineteenth century, when a close relative died, especially someone who spent time around a colony of bees, it was important to tell those bees about this person’s death. It was believed that it one did not complete this ritual there would be a price. The bees would stop producing honey or could even die.
Although the precise origin of this myth is unknown it could have spawned from the ancient belief that bees were a connection between the natural world and the afterlife. This practice was recorded in England, Ireland, mainland Europe, and the United States.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that everything she is about to recall comes from a “colonial custom.” The first lines describe how this particular speaker, who narrates the poem in the first person, watched as someone she is close with, Bathsheba, runs from the house with tears in her eyes.
Although it is not clear at first what has happened, it is later revealed that the speaker’s mother has died. Rather than going and informing the narrator of the loss they both have suffered, she immediately goes to tell “the bees.” See the introduction for more information about this custom.
The speaker runs to Bathsheba and listens to the name of the deceased. She is immediately heartbroken. She falls to her knees and looks up into Bathsheba’s eyes and to the cherry trees above them. The speaker describes this memory as being especially poignant and clear.
Analysis of Telling the Bees
A Colonial Custom
Bathsheba came out to the sun,
Out to our wallèd cherry-trees;
The tears adown her cheek did run,
Bathsheba standing in the sun,
Telling the bees.
It does not become clear until the second stanza, but this poem is going to be told in the first person. The speaker is an onlooker and participant in the actions she describes. In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by describing the actions of “Bathsheba.” This female character is introduced in mourning. She has just suffered a great loss, one which will be revealed as the poem progresses.
The woman, Bathsheba, is seen by the speaker leaving her house and coming out into “the sun.” It is a beautiful day but Bathsheba’s life emotions are in a bad place.
In the next line, the speaker describes how she came from the house out into the walled “cherry-trees.” From these lines a reader is able to come to the conclusion that the speaker is someone close to Bathsheba, perhaps a family member. She is at least someone who lives in the same house and can make a claim on the trees. One is able to discern that the family must be somewhat wealthy to have “cherry-trees” in their garden.
The speaker looks at Bathsheba more closely and sees that she is crying. There are tears running down her face. She is standing in the sun, “Telling the bees.” As was stated in the introduction, it was custom in some places in the nineteenth century to inform one’s bees about a death in the family. It seems like this was the first thing Bathsheba thought to do after finding out someone close to her has died.
My mother had that moment died;
Unknowing, sped I to the trees,
And plucked Bathsheba’s hand aside;
Then caught the name that there she cried
Telling the bees.
In the next set of five lines, it is revealed that it is the speaker’s mother who “had that moment died.” This makes clear that telling the bees really was the first thing Bathsheba did, even before telling the speaker what happened.
From Bathsheba’s tears and frantic actions, the speaker can tell that something is wrong. She follows Bathsheba to the trees and “pluck[s]” her hands from her mouth. It is at this moment that she “caught the name that there she cried.”
This is how the speaker discovered that her mother died, by listening in to the Bathsheba “Telling the bees.” As with the previous stanza, the poet has chosen to end this section with that simple phrase. The same will hold true for the third stanza as well.
Her look I never can forget,
I that held sobbing to her knees;
The cherry-boughs above us met;
I think I see Bathsheba yet
Telling the bees.
In the last set of five lines, the speaker concludes her narrative and chronicles her reaction to the news. There has been some passage of time since this event occurred and she is now able to think back on the moment she found out and remember Bathsheba’s “look.” It is the most poignant part of her memory.
The next moment she falls to her knees and looks up into Bathsheba’s face and the “cherry-boughs” above her. This memory is ingrained in her mind. It has merged with sorrow. She can still see “Bathsheba yet / Telling the bees” when she recalls the tragedy.