‘Stings’ by Sylvia Plath is a twelve stanza poem which is separated into sets of five lines, or quintains.While the poem does not conform to a consistent or patterned rhyme scheme, there are a few instances within the poem’s text in which the poet has chosen to repeat words or create isolated moments of rhyme.
One instance in which Plath has selected her words based on their similar endings is in the second stanza. The endings of the first three lines of this stanza(“us,” “cups” and “cup”) rhyme, or come close to rhyming. Additionally, the following two lines are the same, ending with “it.” A reader might also notice moments such as that in the sixth stanza in which the consonance in the words “sherry” and “cherry,” connect the phrase.
‘Sting’ is the third poem in a sequence of bee poems written by Plath. The first is ‘The Bee Meeting’ and the third is ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box.’ The poems chart a speaker’s progression from living a life of timidity and subjugation to one of bravery and control. The full poem can be read here.
Summary of Stings
‘Sting’ by Sylvia Plath describes the changes which come over a speaker as she contemplates the life of a queen bee inside an old hive.
The poem begins with the speaker describing an interaction between herself and a bee-seller. This man is painted as her equal. She is showing an amount of bravery by not wearing gloves when handling the bees. The speaker wants to be on the same level as the professionally regarded man.
The next section gives way to a bit of timidity. She is reminded of the fact that acting brave is not acting “sweet.” This brings a change in her demeanour. She begins to worry about the hive she has purchased. She sees its faults and wonders if there is even a queen inside it at all. If there is, she is very old. The speaker is clearly afraid of aging and becoming another “shawl” wearing woman.
She also presents another side of her life. There is worry within her that she will lose the “strange-ness” which makes her original and become like the worker bees. She knows she is “no drudge” but fears it all the same.
The poem progresses through the possibilities she faces in life until to comes to the point where she decides enough is enough. She will no longer fear the future and will instead embrace her own power as a human being. This change is signalled by the driving off of a “third person.”
This is a man who has been following her and watching her throughout her life. He represents the pressures of modern life. He finally leaves her side, driven off by the bees which sacrifice themselves by stinging his lips.
In the last section the she returns to her thoughts about the queen. She reiterates her concerns that the queen is not in the hive, but is quickly proven wrong when the bee bursts out and flies over the street. She is fully revealed in all her “red” glory. This movement represents the speaker’s own feelings in regards to her change in perspective. She too is escaping the “mausoleum” in which she has lived her whole life.
Analysis of Stings
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by describing an interaction she has with a bee-keeper. This man, who she speaks of as wearing all “white,” gives her a smile when she hands him “the combs.” She is “bare-handed” when she completes this act. One might feel a sense of discomfort at the thought of this unnecessary risk. The speaker emphasizes this fact by saying that the “throats of” their “wrists” were like “brave lilies.” They are completely bare and defenceless.
The narrative continues in the second stanza with the speaker describing how between the two of them there are “a thousand clean cells.” They are going through one “comb” made out of “yellow cups” at a time. The hive is as lovely and delicate as china cup. It is even…
White with pink flowers on it.
The hives have been cared for so lovingly that they are treated like teacups. The speaker even states the care given to the hives has been so instrumental one might as well have “enameled it” with flowers.
These first stanzas present an interesting contrast between the danger of a hive of bees and the delicate beauty of their structures. The speaker seems to be unafraid of being stung. She is far more concerned with acquiring a hive, without damaging it, than with injuring herself.
Plath’s speaker offers a number of contradictory statements throughout the poem. One of these falls in the first line of this stanza in which the speaker is repeating the word, “Sweetness” to herself. This is an odd addition to the text as so far in this poem the speaker has shown herself to be brave, throwing aside a traditional female role, and embracing the beehives as the man in white’s equal.
The next lines speak of the “Brood cells.” This is a reference to the cells in which the queen lays her eggs. They are “gray” because the larvae are themselves gray. The speaker continues on to state that “gray” eggs terrify her. They appear like fossils. It is the thought of aging and living a long and drawn out life which bothers the speaker in this moment. The hives are acting as representatives of every aspect of life, from birth to death.
She continues to analyze the hive she is holding and wonders if there is “any queen” inside it at all. Is this a good choice? she wonders. Should she really be making this purchase?
The speaker is bothered by her thoughts of the queen. On one hand, she isn’t even sure if the queen is in the hive, and on the other she knows that if the queen is there, “she is old.” The next lines take the reader through the speaker’s disturbing image of these female bee who has been trapped inside the hive for an indeterminate period of time.
The bee’s “wings” are like “torn shawls.” This depiction brings to mind images of older women in tattered clothing. These are thoughts of a life the speaker does not want to have. She is bothered by the thought of having…
her long body
Rubbed of its plush—
Poor and bare
The bee is to her a future image of herself she is not interested in experiencing. She does not want to be “unqueenly and even shameful.”
The fifth stanza takes the speaker from relating to the queen to finding common ground between her own experience and that of the “Honey-drudgers,” or worker bees. They are the “unmiraculous women.” She also experiences a fear in living a normal, unremarkable life, explicitly stating she is “no drudge.”
The following lines add onto this statement. Although she has “eaten dust” for a number of years and used her “dense hair” to dry “plates,” she is not worth less than anyone else. These two references come straight from the Bible. The first, refers to the serpent which is made to crawl on the ground in the dust and the second to Mary Magdalene drying Jesus’ feet with her own hair.
At the halfway point of this piece the speaker continues to describe the fearful similarities she sees between herself and the bees. She is worried about her “strangeness evaporat[ing]” and leaving her to live a life-like every other woman.
She projects herself into the future when her “strangeness” is gone and worries over the fact that the other women…
…who only scurry
Whose news is the open cherry…
Will hate her and be unwilling to accept her into their groups. At the same time, she doesn’t want to be a part of a world consumed with trivial gossip.
As the poem moves into its second half the text takes a turn. There is something to which the speaker refers as being “almost over.” She is slowly regaining her composure from her moments of panic in the preceding stanzas. The speaker is now “in control. ”
She motions down to her “honey-machine” and speaks of its operations. It is as fertile and productive as “an industrious virgin.” With all of the previous comparisons between the speaker and her bees, it is impossible to ignore the sexual connotations these lines bring to mind. She is reminding herself she is young and able to control her body’s sexuality.
The speaker is now prepared, as the bees are, to “scour the creaming crests” of the flowers. She will move with a slow precision just as the moon does when it “scours the sea.” These lines are drawn out and composed of a series of longer vowels. This verse has been written in this particular way to mimic the movements which are being described.
The following lines introduce and dismiss a third character into the narrative. It is a man who is only referred to as “A third person.” The man is “watching” the speaker interact with the “bee-seller.” She states that although he is there he has “nothing to do with” either of them. He disappeared in the final line.
It is unclear who this man is supposed to be, but he is described in greater detail in the next two stanzas.
The man left the scene in “eight great bounds,” he has power beyond that of a normal human. She speaks of him as being a “great scapegoat,” the person on whom everything is blamed.
Looking around the scene she sees “his slipper” and the “square of white linen” which he “wore instead of a hat.” The man was covered with a makeshift white veil which hid his face. This has been removed as he fled the scene.
This change and unveiling references the speaker’s own transformation. She is uncovered, no longer worrying, and ready to confront the world. The man who was watching as been driven off by her change and will no longer haunt her.
In the next set of five lines the speaker states that the man’s “sweat” rains down on the world…
Tugging the world to fruit.
His presence is what encourages change in those who reside on earth. He makes people change as the rain makes flowers bloom. The final three lines of this stanza reveal what it was which drove the man off. The bees have been shown the way to the man and they “Mold[ed]” themselves to “his lips like lies.” They show him for what he is, “Complicating” his once clear “features.”
The bees saw the man for what he was and decided it was worth dying over to drive him off. This refers to the fact that honey bees die after stinging.
The speaker has finished devoting time to the man and to the problems which he is, or is not, responsible for. She knows she needs to re-devote herself to her own “recover[y].” The text returns to speculating on whether or not the queen is within the hive. She wonders whether the queen is dead or sleeping.
Plath’s speaker also asks herself where the queen could be. She longs to see the “lion-red body” and the wings made of “glass.” This is a majestic image of the small creature and a way for the speaker to talk up her own power and presence.
In the last stanza the queen has finally revealed herself. She is “flying” from the hive. She is…
More terrible than she ever was, red
Scar in the sky.
The bee’s red body is a “red comet” on the blue expanse of the sky. She flies from the hive and moves “over the engine that killed her.” The speaker sees herself in the bee. She too is escaping from her past life. She will no longer reside in…
The mausoleum, the wax house.
She is done being the prefect image of a woman who everyone expects to see. The timidity she showed in the first couple stanzas has been driven off, along with the “third person” who is largely responsible for how she felt in the first place.
The speaker is ready to live a new life which is not hampered by the constraints of her world. She will no longer spend time worrying over aging or losing her strangeness. It will now be her goal to embrace the “white” lily-like nature of her own skin and face the dangers of the world head on.