In the fall of 1962, just one year before her death by suicide, Sylvia Plath experienced a heady flash of foresight. The poetry collection she was working in pre-breakfast, 4 a.m. sprints, she foretold, would make her famous. As she giddily wrote her mother in the midst of her creative blitz, “I am writing the best poems of my life. They will make my name.”
Plath was writing the best poetry of her life, many of which would indeed make her name. Her work on the poems that would comprise her 1965 collection Ariel, which would go on to sell 15,000 copies in 10 months and launch her work into the mainstream, had never been so original or idiosyncratically her. “Sylvia Plath becomes herself,” is how poet Robert Lowell introduced Ariel in 1965, going on to call the collection a work that immortalized her as one of the “great classical heroines.”
Yet Plath, who would have turned 82 today, never could have anticipated that becoming herself would be a condition of her death. That was because the Ariel that was published was not her Ariel. After her death, Plath's husband Ted Hughes rearranged her manuscript to reflect his wife’s biographical arc: Placing her strongest, most outwardly masochistic poems ("Ariel") at the beginning, Hughes filled the middle in with optimistic work, then punched up the end with poems about female death and a writer’s obsession ("Contusion," "Edge," and "Words"). After his editorial contributions, the oven was the logical conclusion to the collection’s tale of downward spiral, the final defeat in its losing battle.
Plath's original arrangement of Ariel and Other Poems, on the other hand, embraced life. Plath chose to end her Ariel with four of the five-poem sequence Hughes buried in the middle, the so-called "bee poems." Including "The Bee Meeting," "The Arrival of the Bees," "Stings," "The Swarm," and "Wintering," the bee poems portray the poet briefly freed from her bell jar, her eye of the tornado. It chronicles a few months in which the poet takes care of a hive, nurturing its residents in spite of their proclivity to sting and swarm her, and collects their honey in winter. It shows Plath at her most grounded, her concerns about the well being of the bees and her unshielded skin a welcome relief from her more existentially preoccupied verse.
This life-nurturing narrator was not merely an excuse to write a characteristic extended metaphor: Bees were personal to Plath. Her father Otto, a professor of German and entomology at Boston University, was an authority on bumblebees (he wrote the ultimate guide in 1934, Bumblebees and Their Ways). Though before his early death, Plath supposedly felt (at eight years old) as if she were existing in his shadow (or his shoe), her interest in his object of study persisted. In 1962, the poet reprised beekeeping to pass the time in Devon, where she and Hughes lived while she wrote poems that would appear in Ariel and attempted to keep her marriage and family life afloat.
In April 1963, just two months after Plath's death on Feburary 11, The Atlantic published two of the bee poems. "The Arrival of the Bee Box" and "Wintering" would, at the time of release, likely have been judged by the reader on their own merits: This was four months before The New Yorker published Plath, and two years before Ariel. Obituaries of Plath were nearly nonexistent, since suicide was considered shameful; those that did told of the death of “Sylvia Hughes.” It was a brief period in which Plath's work was virtually freed from the circumstances of her death, even in its very wake.
These sharp, unintroduced poems express a style that is distinctly Plath, if with a bit more levity. "The Arrival of the Bee Box" presents Plath as an outsider through her character as a first-time beekeeper: She complains about the noise (“I have simply ordered a box of maniacs”), is plagued with purchaser doubt (“They can be sent back”), then, upon the prospect of actually turning them loose, turns sentimental (“I wonder if they would forget me”). There are shades of Esther Greenwood from The Bell Jar as she ends on a rebellious note—why not avoid all these caretaking headaches and just set them free?
But Plath does not set them free, and in fulfilling her duty she ponders the role of women. It’s hard not to take her musing in "Wintering" on the queen bee and the hive’s female-dominated society as a wishful fantasy in a time when Plath was balancing a precarious life as a poet and a housewife. “They have got rid of men,” she writes, “Winter is for women.” She concludes the bees’ sluggishness means they are holding out to “taste” spring. Plath herself would not live long enough to taste it. But the Plath of the poem, the character she wanted remembered, looked ahead with delicious anticipation.