Q. Critically analyse the poem Stings by Sylvia Plath.
Line by Line explanation of the poem Stings by Sylvia Plath
Bare-handed, I hand the combs.
The man in white smiles, bare-handed,
Our cheesecloth gauntlets neat and sweet,
The throats of our wrists brave lilies.
He and I
The poem “Stings” by Sylvia Plath starts with a robust and visual opening. The speaker says they handle the bee combs without gloves, showing a direct and fearless approach.
The “man in white,” who works without gloves, smiles. This man could be another beekeeper or a figure representing something more, possibly a partner or a counterpart in the speaker’s journey.
Their use of cheesecloth gloves, described as “neat and sweet,” contrasts with the danger of handling bees, suggesting a blend of delicacy and bravery.
The “throats of our wrists brave lilies” could mean that the vulnerable parts of their wrists are solid and beautiful despite the risk of bee stings.
This means not wearing gloves, which shows bravery or a close connection to their work despite the danger of bee stings.
In beekeeping, combs are the structures bees create from wax to hold their honey and larvae. Handling them is a delicate process.
The man in white
This could be another beekeeper or a symbolic figure. The colour white might suggest purity or professionalism.
While working without protection, the man’s smile suggests his experience in beekeeping.
Cheesecloth gauntlets neat and sweet
Cheesecloth is a thin, loose cotton cloth used to make light gloves (gauntlets). The description “neat and sweet” contrasts the protective nature of gloves with the gentle, careful handling of bees.
The throats of our wrists brave lilies
This poetic phrase combines several ideas. The “throat” usually refers to a narrow opening; here, it describes the part of the wrist, exposed to bee stings.
Comparing their wrists to “brave lilies” suggests beauty and resilience, showing a mix of vulnerability and strength.
Have a thousand clean cells between us,
Eight combs of yellow cups,
And the hive itself a teacup,
White with pink flowers on it,
With excessive love, I enamelled it
In Sylvia Plath’s “Stings,” the poem describes the speaker’s deep commitment to beekeeping, emphasizing her care and attention to the task.
The speaker mentions maintaining “a thousand clean cells” in the hive, highlighting their dedication to keeping the bee environment orderly and productive.
The reference to “eight combs of yellow cups” showcases the successful outcome of their work, with the hive full of honey. By comparing the hive to a decorated teacup, the poem conveys the speaker’s affection and pride for the hive.
It suggests that they see it as more than just a place for bees—it is something precious and well cared for. The statement about enamelling the hive “with excessive love” underlines the speaker’s emotional connection to beekeeping.
In beekeeping, cells refer to the tiny, hexagon-shaped compartments that make up a beehive’s combs. Bees use these cells to store honey and pollen and to nourish their young (larvae and pupae).
Bee combs are the structures within a hive. These combs contain the cells. Bees use the combs to store food (honey and pollen) and breed.
Teacup, White with pink flowers on it
This phrase is used metaphorically to describe the appearance of the hive. It suggests that the hive is functional but also beautiful and cherished, much like a delicately decorated teacup.
This phrase indicates a significant amount of love, suggesting that the speaker has a deep affection and care for the hive beyond what might be considered usual or necessary.
To enamel something means to coat it with a smooth, durable, glossy finish. Enamelling is a process that involves fusing powdered glass to a substrate (like metal or ceramics) by heating it to a high temperature.
In the poem, “enamel” is used metaphorically to describe the speaker’s act of lovingly caring for and beautifying the hive, suggesting a transformation of the hive into something precious and protected.
Thinking ‘Sweetness, sweetness.’
Brood cells gray as the fossils of shells
Terrify me, they seem so old.
What am I buying, wormy mahogany?
Is there any queen at all in it?
In this stanza of Sylvia Plath’s poem “Stings,” the speaker reflects on her thoughts and feelings about beekeeping. They think about the sweetness produced by the bees, likely referring to honey, which contrasts with their fear and uncertainty.
The term “brood cells gray as the fossils of shells” suggests the bee cells look old and remind the speaker of ancient fossils. This imagery makes the speaker feel scared because of how ancient and permanent it seems.
The speaker then questions what they are investing in, using “wormy mahogany” to describe something that might look valuable on the outside but is damaged or decayed on the inside.
This leads to a moment of doubt about the presence of a queen bee in the hive, which is crucial for the hive’s health and productivity. The queen bee’s presence or absence becomes a metaphor for the speaker’s uncertainties and the value of her efforts in beekeeping.
In this context, sweetness likely refers to honey, symbolizing the rewards or positive outcomes of beekeeping.
These are the compartments within a bee comb where the queen bee lays eggs and larvae develop into bees. They are essential for the growth of the bee population in the hive.
Gray as the fossils of shells
This comparison suggests that the brood cells appear ancient and lifeless, similar to fossilized shells. Fossils are the remains or impressions of ancient organisms preserved in rock.
To cause fear or anxiety. The speaker feels scared by the ancient appearance of the brood cells.
Mahogany is a type of high-quality wood known for its durability and beauty. Describing it as wormy suggests it is infested with worms, which would damage the wood, making it less valuable.
This phrase metaphorically expresses concern about the value of what the speaker is investing in or working on, fearing it might be internally flawed or damaged.
In a bee hive, the queen bee is the only breeding female and is crucial for the hive’s survival. She lays all the eggs from which the hive’s population is produced
If there is, she is old,
Her wings torn shawls, her long body
Rubbed of its plush —-
Poor and bare and unqueenly and even shameful.
I stand in a column
In this part of Sylvia Plath’s poem, the speaker talks about the queen bee in a way that suggests she is not in good condition. The description “she is old, her wings torn shawls, her long body rubbed off its plush” paints a picture of the queen bee as worn out and not as majestic as one might expect.
The words “torn shawls” and “rubbed off its plush” suggest that the queen bee has lost the smooth, soft covering that might signify her royal status, making her appear “poor and bare and unqueenly and even shameful.”
This imagery shows the queen bee in a state of decline, lacking the grandeur associated with her role. The speaker reacts to this sight by “standing in a column,” meaning they are standing still, possibly in surprise or contemplation, as they observe the queen bee’s condition.
Refers to being in an advanced stage of life or existence, often associated with physical decline or reduced function.
Wings torn shawls
This phrase compares the queen bee’s damaged wings to shawls (a type of fabric worn for warmth or decoration) that are torn, suggesting fragility and wear.
Long body rubbed off its plush
“Plush” usually refers to a rich, soft fabric. Here, it metaphorically describes the queen bee’s once smooth and perhaps velvety body, now worn down to a state lacking its former softness or richness.
Not fitting the dignity or status expected of a queen, suggesting a loss of majesty or royal bearing.
A vertical structure or formation. In the context of the poem, it might refer to the speaker’s posture or position, suggesting a stance of observation or reflection.
Of winged, unmiraculous women,
I am no drudge
Though for years I have eaten dust
And dried plates with my dense hair.
In this stanza, the speaker talks about women who work hard in a way that’s not seen as unique or deserving of praise.
She uses the phrase “winged, unmiraculous women, Honey-drudgers” to describe these women as being busy and valuable, like bees who make honey.
However, their hard work is considered normal and not unique. The speaker then clarifies that she does not see herself as a hard worker with no unique qualities, saying, “I am no drudge.”
This means she needs to do more than tedious or challenging work without thinking about it. However, the speaker then shares her experiences with hard work, saying she has “eaten dust” and “dried plates with my dense hair” for years.
This shows that, even though she does not want to be seen as just another worker, she has done many challenging and unglamorous work herself. By saying this, the speaker is pointing out a kind of contradiction.
She wants to be seen as more than just her work, but at the same time, she acknowledges that she has been deeply involved in this kind of hard work, too.
This term typically refers to having wings or being capable of flight. In the context of the poem, it metaphorically suggests movement or labour but without the miraculous or extraordinary connotation often associated with winged beings like angels or birds.
This word combines “un,” meaning not, with “miraculous,” which means extraordinary, wonderous, or supernatural. So, “unmiraculous” means not particular or lacking in wonder, indicating that the work done by these women is seen as ordinary or expected.
This compound noun pairs “honey,” which bees collect, with “drudgers,” referring to people who perform tedious, hard labour. It suggests that these women work hard like bees collecting honey, but their labour is monotonous and uncelebrated.
A drudge is someone who does tedious, complex, and continuous work. The speaker asserts she is not a drudge, indicating she does not view herself as someone resigned to monotonous labour.
This phrase means to experience defeat or hardship, often in silence. In this context, it suggests the speaker has faced challenging conditions or menial tasks.
Dried plates with my dense hair
This imagery conveys the idea of performing menial tasks to the point of using one’s hair to dry dishes, symbolizing extreme dedication or the absorption of laborious tasks into one’s identity.
And seen my strangeness evaporate,
Blue dew from dangerous skin.
Will they hate me,
These women who only scurry,
Whose news is the open cherry, the open clover?
She mentions her “strangeness evaporate, Blue dew from dangerous skin.” It suggests that her unique or unusual parts are disappearing as morning dew vanishes from the skin.
The word “dangerous” might mean that her uniqueness is seen as a threat or something to be wary of.
The speaker then questions whether these other women, who she describes as busy with their simple, everyday tasks (“who only scurry”), will hate her.
She uses “whose news is the open cherry, the open clover” to describe these women’s concerns with simple, natural, or perhaps trivial matters, in contrast to her deeper or more complex experiences.
Dew is moisture that forms as tiny drops on cool surfaces at night. Using “blue” might symbolize the dew’s rare or unusual quality, making it poetic to describe the speaker’s unique traits.
This phrase suggests that others could see something about the speaker’s nature or identity as risky or threatening. It is not about physical danger but the risk of not fitting in.
This means to move quickly with short, hurried movements. It is used here to describe other women busy with daily tasks, emphasizing immediate, simple activities.
In this context, “news” refers to what is of interest or importance to these women, which the speaker perceives as mundane or ordinary.
Open cherry, the open clover
These are images of simple, natural beauty or everyday aspects of nature. They symbolize the straightforward concerns or pleasures of the other women, contrasting with the speaker’s complexities or the depth of her experiences.
It is almost over.
I am in control.
Here is my honey-machine,
It will work without thinking,
Opening, in spring, like an industrious
In this part of the poem, the speaker is nearing the end of a process or experience, indicating, “It is almost over.”
The speaker refers to her “honey machine,” which likely represents a tool or part of herself that efficiently produces results (like honey). She explains that this machine works automatically, without the need for her to think about it or manually operate it.
It starts working in spring, showing it is productive and active, similar to how bees become active in spring to collect nectar and make honey.
The word “industrious” describes the machine as hardworking and diligent, much like bees.
To scour the creaming crests
As the moon, for its ivory powders, scours the sea.
A third person is watching.
He has nothing to do with the bee-seller or with me.
Now he is gone
In this poem section, the speaker talks about actively searching or working hard to gather the best parts of something, likening it to “scouring the creaming crests.”
This phrase suggests looking carefully through the top or best portions, similar to how one might skim the cream from milk. The comparison to the moon searching the sea for “its ivory powders” adds an image of searching for something valuable in a vast space.
The speaker then introduces a third person observing the scene but is not involved with either the speaker or the bee-seller, indicating an outsider’s presence.
However, this observer does not play a role in the activities or the relationship between the speaker and the bee-seller and eventually leaves (“Now he is gone”).
To scour means to search thoroughly or vigorously. It is used here to describe an intense search or examination, similar to how one scrubbed a surface to clean it.
This phrase likely refers to the frothy tops of waves in the sea, which can look like cream. In the poem’s context, it suggests looking through or gathering from the best or most valuable parts.
The moon represents something that searches or influences vast areas, like the sea.
A poetic way to describe something valuable or sought after, possibly referring to the light or essence the moon might seek in the sea. Ivory here symbolizes purity or beauty.
Scours the sea
This continues the idea of searching thoroughly, with the sea representing a vast area to explore or gather from. Using “scours” emphasizes the thoroughness and intensity of the search.
A third person
Refers to someone observing the situation or the actions of the speaker and the bee-seller but who is not involved in their interaction.
In eight great bounds, a great scapegoat.
Here is his slipper, here is another,
And here the square of white linen
He wore instead of a hat.
He was sweet,
In this part of the poem, the speaker describes someone who moves quickly, using “eight great bounds” to show how fast and powerfully the person is moving. The term “great scapegoat” suggests this person might be blamed for things that are not their fault, as a scapegoat is unfairly made to take the blame for others.
The speaker then points out items left behind by this person: a slipper, another slipper, and a square of white linen used as a head covering instead of a traditional hat. These details give us a glimpse into the person’s unique character or habits, especially the unconventional choice of wearing linen on the head.
The mention that “He was sweet” indicates that this person was kind or pleasant despite being viewed as a scapegoat or having unusual habits. This brief description portrays an individual who is both held responsible for certain things and remembered fondly for their kindness.
This term refers to leaps or jumps. When saying “eight great bounds,” it describes significant, forceful jumps, indicating rapid or robust movement.
A scapegoat is someone who is unfairly blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others. It is a person made to bear the blame for others’ actions or to suffer in their place.
A slipper is a light, comfortable shoe for wearing indoors. Mentioning his slipper twice emphasizes personal belongings left behind or aspects of his daily life.
Square of white linen
Linen is a fabric made from the fibres of the flax plant. Describing a “square of white linen” used instead of a hat suggests an unconventional choice for headwear, highlighting the individual’s unique or unconventional nature.
In this context, “sweet” describes the person’s temperament or personality, indicating they were kind, pleasant, or endearing in their behaviour or manner.
The sweat of his efforts a rain
Tugging the world to fruit.
The bees found him out,
Molding onto his lips like lies,
Complicating his features.
In this part of the text, the speaker talks about someone working very hard, so much that his sweat is compared to rain, which helps plants grow fruit.
This suggests his work is not only challenging but also fruitful or productive. The phrase “The bees found him out” means bees were attracted to him, possibly because of his sweat or the fruits of his labour.
The bees “moulding onto his lips like lies” create an image of bees closely covering his mouth. It might mean the bees’ presence hides or changes his words or expressions.
This could suggest that while his work brings positive results, it makes it hard to see or understand him clearly. “Complicating his features” means the bees on his face make it difficult to see his true expression or feelings.
Pulling hard. When used metaphorically, as in “tugging the world to fruit,” it suggests exerting influence or making a solid effort to produce results, like causing plants to bear fruit.
Shaping or forming. “Moulding onto his lips like lies,” suggests they are clinging to or covering his mouth in a way that might alter or hide his speech or expressions.
False statements are made with the intent to deceive. The comparison of bees to lies could symbolize a distortion or complication of the truth or how the person is perceived.
Making something more challenging to understand. “Complicating his features” means that bees on his face make it hard to see his true expression or feelings, adding complexity to his appearance or the situation.
They thought death was worth it, but I
Have a self to recover, a queen.
Is she dead? Is she sleeping?
Where has she been,
With her lion-red body, her wings of glass?
The speaker mentions that some people believe dying for a cause is valuable. However, the speaker disagrees because she has an identity to find and protect, which she calls “a queen.”
This queen symbolizes an integral part of the speaker’s identity or a goal they are trying to achieve. The speaker then questions the status of this queen, wondering if she is dead or just inactive (“sleeping”), and asks about her whereabouts.
The description of the queen with “a lion-red body” and “wings of glass” paints a picture of strength and fragility. The “lion-red body” suggests power and vitality, while the “wings of glass” imply beauty and a risk of being easily damaged.
This phrase combines the strength and majesty associated with a lion and the colour red, which often symbolizes passion, power, or vitality. It describes the queen in a way that emphasizes her robust and vibrant nature.
Wings of glass
Wings suggest freedom or the ability to rise above, while glass implies beauty, fragility, and vulnerability. This description of the queen portrays her as capable of outstanding achievements or elegance but also susceptible to harm or damage.
Now she is flying
More terrible than she ever was, red
Scar in the sky, red comet
Over the engine that killed her —-
The mausoleum, the wax house.
In this stanza, the speaker talks about the “queen” as if she has returned to life and is now in the sky.
“Red scar in the sky, red comet” suggests she is very visible and striking, with red possibly indicating her strength or anger.
The phrase “over the engine that killed her” implies that she is flying above something responsible for her demise or a significant struggle in her past.
“Mausoleum” and “wax house” refer to places associated with death and preservation. A mausoleum is a large tomb, and a wax house could suggest a place where things are kept unchanged, like wax figures in a museum.
Scar in the sky
A scar typically forms on the skin once a wound heals. When used to describe something in the sky, it suggests a visible, lasting impact or presence.
A comet is a celestial object consisting of a nucleus of ice and dust and, when near the sun, a “tail” of gas and dust particles pointing away from the sun.
Describing it as red emphasizes its striking appearance and possibly its significance or ominous nature.
Typically, this refers to a machine with moving parts that convert power into motion. Here, it metaphorically links to the cause of the queen’s demise or struggle.
Used here metaphorically to refer to the end or significant transformation of something.
A large, stately building or tomb. It suggests a place of death, memory, and perhaps the weight of the past.
People often link wax with preservation (such as wax figures), which may imply a location or condition where something remains unchanged, commemorated, or captured.