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Emerson’s “The Humble-Bee” and Whittier’s “Telling the Bees”

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The English custom of telling the bees when there was a death in the family, and of covering the hives with black cloth to prevent them from leaving is what Whittier’s poem, “Telling the Bees” refers to. This same custom, or at least the same attitude towards this creature no doubt inspired Emerson’s poem, “The Humble-Bee.” While Whittier’s poem speaks of the custom itself, both poets treat the bee as a symbol of the innocence of the cycles of nature. If William Blake was correct in describing innocence as the opposite of experience, then the bumblebee is inherently innocent as a result of its lack of human experience.

We know that Emerson was experiencing a period of depression at the time that he composed “The Humble-Bee,” and that his brother passed away in Puerto Rico three years before its composition. Also, because he calls the bee an “animated torrid-zone” he apparently associated the bumblebee with tropical climates, such as the climate found in Puerto Rico, even though he was in New England (Line 6). Since we also know that Emerson viewed all things in nature as a means by which any person could behold the divine, and since the divine exists on a realm that is above earthly suffering, it is not surprising that he turns to an animal as a source of relief during a time of mourning and sadness.

Emerson was mourning the death of his brother as well as his own current state of depression. In the following lines of the poem he speaks of the bee as a means of escape.

Burly, dozing, humble-bee,

Where thou art is clime for me.

Let them sail for Porto Rique,

Far-off heats through seas to seek;

I will follow thee alone,

Thou animated torrid-zone (Lines 1-6).

Emerson is saying that other people can go to foreign lands in search of warmer climates if they want to, but that he seeks relief in the nature that surrounds him because the bumblebee is a “torrid-zone,” or a tropical climate in and of itself. This is a good example of why Emerson was called a “transcendentalist.” He is attempting to transcend his current state by looking to the innocent and unknowing bumblebee for deliverance. Even the prosody of the poem evokes a sense of innocence and escape. His use of couplets adds a happier, musical tone to the poem even though he shifts from optimism to despair.

Though he is taking the bee and making it into a means of escape from sorrow, Emerson still returns to a sorrowful tone in the final lines of the poem. “Want and woe, which torture us,/ Thy sleep makes ridiculous” (Lines 62-63). Emerson implies that he is jealous of the bee because it is exempt from human suffering. “Wiser far than human seer,/ Yellow-breeched philosopher!/ Seeing only what is fair,/ Sipping only what is sweet,/ Thou dost mock at fate and care” (Lines 52-56). He is temporarily overcoming his own sad state by looking at this creature that is immune to, those kinds of problems. It is the bee’s innocence that makes it immune. The bumblebee only sees the good, or “what is fair,” and it “mocks” at human concerns. Emerson also says that the bee is wiser than humans, so the bee’s innocent state is more desirable than the ability to know and experience “fate and care.”

Whittier’s poem, “Telling the Bees” is less optimistic than Emerson’s. Although Whittier’s poem speaks directly to the custom itself, he too treats the bee as a symbol of innocence. The person lost in Whittier’s poem is called Mary, and we know this character is fictitious. Mary is the most famous mother figure in Christian culture, and the mention of the name evokes thoughts about purity and virginity, which are qualities of the innocent. Although he uses a fictional character Whittier may have written this poem in response to the loss of his mother, which would further explain his decision to call the woman Mary.

Whittier begins by describing the landscape of the house where the beehives are. The significance of this is that he is remembering what life was like before his loss. He marvels at how the landscape is the same while his life has been changed drastically, and that everything in the world continues to move forward when you expect it to stop.

Lines 9-12 talk about the continuance of nature’s processes. “There are the beehives ranged in the sun/ And down by the brink/ Of the brook are her poor flowers, weed-o’errun,/ Pansy and daffodil, rose and pink” (Lines 9-12). The pansies and daffodils are symbols of growth and new life, and are contrasted by the image of the weeds which are now choking them out. The fourth stanza reveals that one year has now passed since the death of Mary, and the fifth stanza tells us that he is describing the scenery of the farm as it would be in the month of June. “A year has gone, as the tortoise goes,/ Heavy and slow;/ And the same rose blows, and the same sun glows,/ And the same brook sings of a year ago” (Lines 13-16). June is associated with spring and early summer. This is supposed to be a time of new beginnings, when the climate is warm and everything in nature is thriving. If exactly one year has passed, then nature has made one full cycle of seasons, and with the occasion of the anniversary of this death the poet observes that the world goes on and nature continues regardless of human experiences.

The first part of Whittier’s poem is establishing that nature is immune to human problems, and he leads to the larger significance of the bees in lines 33-36. “Just the same as a month before–/ The house and the trees,/ The barn’s brown gable, the vine by the door–/ Nothing changed but the hives of bees” (Lines 33-36). The cycles that take place around him have continued, but the bee hives are somehow changed, which implies that they are linked more closely to the family than the other parts of the landscape in the yard. When he describes his reaction to the sound of the chore-girl “drearily singing” the bad news to the bees, Whittier is also acknowledging death’s place in the cycle and coming to grips with his own morality.

“Trembling, I listened: the summer sun/ Had the chill of snow;/ For I knew she was telling the bees of one/ Gone on the journey we all must go” (Lines 41-44). The summer sun “had the chill of snow” because of winter’s association with death and Whittier’s memory of summer as a time of death, but the chill he describes is more a result of his realization that death is inevitable for everyone.

Death is one step in the cycle of nature, and the bees are part of nature itself. Though the bees themselves are also mortal creatures, these two poems treat them as parts of nature rather than as mortal animals. They are innocent because though they experience death they are ignorant of the processes of nature that they are a part of. The mourning process raises the reality of the inevitability of death for both poets, and both Emerson and Whittier observe the eternal cycle of nature as the reason death has to occur while treating the bees, which are a part of nature, as symbols of its immunity to the pain of human experience.

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