I remember reading Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mushrooms’ back in 1991. At the time, I did not know anything about her, even though I knew who Ted Hughes was at that time. It was taught to us as a sort of ‘meek inheriting the earth’-themed work. I think that may be true for that poem, but when I read some of her other poems, I find a conflict between triumph and destruction. There is this desire to overcome, to triumph, but it is limited by mortality.
Plath wrote three connected poems which when literally read, involve the practice of beekeeping. In her poem, ‘Stings,’ the tone exudes magnificence not only among the new colony of bees, but also with the beekeeper and the speaker. Their exposed skin is described with a floral delicacy (‘The throats of our wrists brave lilies’). The coating of the combs is compared to a piece of china (the pink teacup, being a common sight in the UK). The speaker is uncertain of just how she impacts the lives of the bees. She compares herself with the workers, as the worker bees are female (males are drones). She does not identify herself as one of them (drudge), but she acknowledges her own times of drudging.
She also identifies the beehive as a work of art, with the teacup reference, a emotionless machine, and finally a tomb for the queen bee, which flies around the hive as an angry poltergeist (as the speaker mentions the ‘engine that killed her’).
The females in this poem are the ones who fight, and the ones who die due to their fighting. The only one who physically survives stinging is the queen, as her stinger has no barb on it. Her death, as metioned in the last stanza, becomes a symbolic death, in that as her colony dies on account of protecting her, she becomes less and less of a queen, having less under her rule.
The theme in this poem would be one of defiance, but it is not a defiance that ends in victory. The bees and the queen are still full of fight at the end of the poem, but with the workers dying attacking the male beekeeper. I don’t think Plath would have endorsed the idea of running from the fight for the sake of self-preservation, just from what I remember from her other work. But also, the bees can not go against their nature and cooperate, as they are instinctively bound to protect the queen.
It is a little chilling, to think that the bees are going on a path that leads to a sort of suicide, based on what happened to Plath in real life. But, this is a recurrence in Plath’s work, where in the poem, a moment comes where the speaker or the character in the poem decides to put an end to what is happening, be it either the last line in ‘Daddy,’ or the bees dying in their defence of the queen.