Many people know about Sylvia Plath’s writing, her relationship with Ted Hughes, and her battle with mental illness. A little known fact about Plath, however, was her passion for beekeeping.
Her love for bees began with her father, Otto Plath, who was a bumble bee expert. Otto Plath’s book Bumblebees and Their Ways was published in 1934 and is still used today. Plath’s father grew up in Germany where he gained the nickname Beinen-Konig, meaning King of the Bees. Boston University recognised his knowledge and passion, giving him a place on their academic staff as the Professor of Entomology.
Sylvia was born in Boston on the 27th of October in 1932 and lived there with her family until her brother was born and they moved to Jamaica Plain in Massachusetts. Sadly, shortly after Sylvia’s 8th birthday, her beloved father died, and his death affected her greatly. Heartbroken, she reportedly told her mother “I’ll never speak to God again!”
Her early childhood was defined by her father’s death and Plath later wrote how the first nine years of her life, “sealed themselves off like a ship in a bottle—beautiful inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white flying myth”.
Plath wrote a collection of poems about bees in October 1962 while her marriage to Hughes was falling apart. The poems are full of vivid and sensual imagery, drawing upon aspects of her life at the time, and her tenderness towards the natural world. Themes of fertility, sexuality entwine with Plath’s imaginative examination of the lives of bees, creating some highly evocative poetry.
The poems are not an easy study but they are a wonderful insight into how Plath was feeling at that point in her life. Extracts of letters from Path to her mother, Aurelia, give some clues as to her life at the time of writing the poetry.
“June 15th, 1962
…Today, guess what, we became beekeepers! … Ted had only put a handkerchief over his head where the hat should go in the bee-mask, and the bees crawled into his hair, and he flew off with half-a-dozen stings. I didn’t get stung at all, and when I went back to the hive later, I was delighted to see bees entering with pollen sacs full and leaving with them empty at least I think that’s what they were doing. I feel very ignorant, but shall try to read up and learn all I can. If we’re lucky, we’ll have our own honey, too! Lots of people are really big keepers in town with a dozen to twenty hives, so we shall not be short of advice. When we have our first honey, I think we shall get half a dozen hens…”
“9th October, 1962
Everything is breaking: my dinner set is breaking in half, the health inspector says the cottage should be demolished there is no hope for it, Even my beloved bees set upon me today when I numbly knocked aside their sugar feeder, and I am all over stings…”
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