This is the easy time, there is nothing doing.
I have whirled the midwife’s extractor,
I have my honey,
Six jars of it,
Six cat’s eyes in the wine cellar,
Wintering in a dark without window
At the heart of the house
Next to the last tenant’s rancid jam
and the bottles of empty glitters —-
Sir So-and-so’s gin.
This is the room I have never been in
This is the room I could never breathe in.
The black bunched in there like a bat,
But the torch and its faint
Chinese yellow on appalling objects —-
Black asininity. Decay.
It is they who own me.
Neither cruel nor indifferent,
This is the time of hanging on for the bees–the bees
So slow I hardly know them,
Filing like soldiers
To the syrup tin
To make up for the honey I’ve taken.
Tate and Lyle keeps them going,
The refined snow.
It is Tate and Lyle they live on, instead of flowers.
They take it. The cold sets in.
Now they ball in a mass,
Mind against all that white.
The smile of the snow is white.
It spreads itself out, a mile-long body of Meissen,
Into which, on warm days,
They can only carry their dead.
The bees are all women,
Maids and the long royal lady.
They have got rid of the men,
The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors.
Winter is for women —-
The woman, still at her knitting,
At the cradle of Spanis walnut,
Her body a bulb in the cold and too dumb to think.
Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas
Succeed in banking their fires
To enter another year?
What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?
The bees are flying. They taste the spring.
Sylvia Path (1932 -1963) 9 October 1962
This is the last poem in the SP ‘Ariel’ sequence of poems. It was written in October 1962 a most productive time of writing for SP and while she was living in a flat in London after the breakup of her marriage with Ted Hughes and moving from Devon. SP had been involved in bee keeping in Devon. The following comments look behind the literal to the symbolism and in relation to the personal life of SP.
S1 … well now that SP has finished the ‘Ariel’ poems maybe it is a season of ease and just as the bees are hibernating so perhaps SP has alloted poetry-space before new writing. The bees have produced honey just as she has produced poems. She has referred to her poems as her babies so the midwife extraction could be seen in this light. But we do know she had been involved in bees at the cottage in Devon and so she is actually referring to the six jars in the cellar the liquid gold radiating like ‘cat’s eyes’. but more than that she has been married for six years, so this can be seen as the product – the precious store, from her marriage life which of course included poems.
S2 … The details of the cellar are described in relation to what has happened to other people’s projects. SP may be contemplating what will happen to her work. Of course her work has not been lost over the years and is very much alive today!
S3, S4 … The cellar is a very emotive object in the life of SP for it is the place associated with her attempted suicide when she spent three days in a cellar before being discovered. But in this instant I think she is using the cellar to represent herself – she has never been there – never quite found who she is and felt a stranger to life. The Chinese yellow implying that her insight to herself is from a foreign light. The cellar is dark damp and foreboding akin to her depressive nature. It is as though these appalling cellar objects have taken possession of her – as though she has no control – no control over her depressive state.
S5, S6 … It is the season of hibernation and the bees are given sugar so that they survive … she does not recognise them … they are not in worker mode … just as she is not in worker mode, in transition. She is not really living … not creating poems … so she has to exist on other means of keeping alive just as the bees have to live on the sugar from ‘Tate and Lyle’.
S7, S8 …The bees congregate in mass in order to survive the cold conditions. They are the survivors seen in the sugar like Meissen – porcelain, precious. SP identifies with survival like the bees. Only the women survive the men hopeless, identifying with the liberating force of femininity much needed in her days. Her father died at the age of eight and she showed her angst against him for such an act in her poem ‘Daddy’. Ted Hughes has left her so it is all up to her now a survivor and a woman.
S9 … Winter is associated with women because it is the death time. Women live in the male dominant culture of 1963, and perhaps she is slating those around her who are just content to knit rather than being proactive for change. Such women are seen as being more interested in their appearance than dealing with the ‘cold’ of their every-day life. The body is shown as a bulb showing the warmth the body generates and the link to the joy of birth that only a woman can know – so at least women can get joy this way.
S10 … Will the bees survive? Will SP survive? Will there be something at Christmas to give help? Will there be an inbuilt feeling for the future, for the spring? The last line gives that great positive statement of hope – ‘The bees are flying. They taste the spring’.
Unfortunately SP did not taste the spring – she commited suicide on 11 February 1963. Today (27/9/2018) is the day of her birthday and she would have been 86 years old.