Re-Dreaming Sylvia Plath as Queen Bee, Sean Borodale
Hazel Press, 2021 £10.00
Sylvia Plath and bees
A commission from the Hazel Press, this prose essay is a unique reading of Sylvia Plath. Drawing on his own knowledge and experience of bee-keeping, poet Sean Borodale considers how deeply connected her work is to bees, making unusual links between family, death, nature, and poetry.
Borodale begins by recounting his purchase of Bumblebees and Their Ways , written by Plath’s father, Otto. This book, he writes, ‘was to become instrumental to my re-reading of the writings and poems of Sylvia Plath’. He charts the profound influence on her of her father’s work as scientist and bumblebee expert, and how this enables a ‘re-dreaming’ of her work:
one which places at its centre the bee. Shattered across Plath’s writings, via such re-dreaming, can be discerned the shattered, glimmering images of this bee [...] its broken, repeating, reconstructed cycles of life and death.
From this perspective, Borodale analyses certain poems, including,‘The Beekeeper’s Daughter’ (Otto is described as ‘maestro of bees’), the posthumous collection Ariel, and Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar. The longest section of the essay focuses on Ariel, which he describes as ‘a departure from everything she had written before, and in many ways a departure from what most readers could expect from poetry’.
Borodale points out that Ted Hughes (in his volume of collected prose, Winter Pollen) ‘does not mention bees, nor does he mention the significance of the occupation of Plath’s father to the inner substance of much of her poetry’.
Conversely, Borodale goes on to cite convincing evidence for this bee connection in readings of several Ariel poems (‘The Stones’, ‘Lady Lazarus’, ‘Medusa’, ‘Nick and The Candlestick’, and ‘Tulips’), blending bee facts and literary context.
Overall, with the exception of Borodale’s overly cultish take on Plath’s suicide (‘Oddly, my own first bees and their queen had died on the 10th February, the eve of Plath’s suicide’), I’d say this essay is essential reading for fans of Plath and Hughes, as well as those interested in ecological readings of poetry.