"Telling the Bees" by John Greenleaf Whittier tells the tragic story of a lost love. However, the subject is not immediately apparent upon first glace. Rather, the poem starts out with a lot of concrete imagery that creates a very peaceful agrarian setting: an old wall, stepping stones in a brook, and a house. The first hint of the true focus occurs with the description of the house, "with the gate red-barred." The color red traditionally suggests love or danger, or both. Whittier goes on to mention poplar trees, which are associated with the Greek god Hades, the Ruler of the Underworld and the Lord of the Dead. But again, this is a subtle nod to the tragic nature of the poem, and the poet quickly shifts the focus to a barn and cattle, as if to keep the reader from focusing too deeply, too quickly.
The third stanza introduces the beehives, finally giving the reader a glimpse at where the poem draws its name. The custom of "telling the bees" was popular in England and transferred into other parts of Europe and even New England. It is the practice of informing bees of important events that happened in the lives of their keepers. These could be births, marriages, deaths, or any other significant events. A superstition exists that suggests if the bees are not informed, and especially not "put into mourning," they might leave their hive, stop producing, or die. After giving us the first look at the hives, Whittier moves to focus on flowers, saying "And down by the brink/ Of the brook are her poor flowers, weed-o'errun,/ Pansy and daffodil, rose and pink." The is the first mention of a "her" as the focus of the poem; the pansies and daffodils are "hers," and they are overrun with weeds, which shows they have not been tended to in awhile. Also, as the setting is June, these two types of flowers would already be past their growing cycle for the year, and would therefore be dead even without the weeds choking them. Further, the pansy is symbolic of love and the daffodil is symbolic of new beginnings, so Whittier's juxtaposition of the two specific types of flowers with the weeds also represents the halting or hindrance of love and new beginnings. The narrator then reveals that a year has passed since he saw the flowers in this condition. He then uses a simile to describe the passing of that year: "as the tortoise goes,/ Heavy and slow." It seems everything has remained the same, from the roses to the sound of the brook, except the tending of the flowers. By the end of this stanza, the reader understands that a year has gone by since the event took place, and at that point the flowers had not been tended for a month. It is clear that something tragic has happened; now it is just a matter of seeing the narrator react to it.
In the next stanza, the narrator mentions "the same sweet clover-smell in the breeze;/ And the June sun warm/ Tangles his wings of fire in the trees/ Setting, as then, over Fernside farm." Once again the reader is given imagery that connotes a problem. The sun's wings are tangled in the trees as it sets over the farm. The setting sun suggests the end of the day and the approach of night, which is symbolic of death. The progress toward the inevitable realization is further reinforced.
In the sixth stanza, the narrator reminisces how he used to tidy his appearance "with a lover's care" beside this same brook, and then quickly tells the reader that "a month had passed," which felt like a year "to love" since he last visited this place and looked upon the house with the red gate. It is at this point that the narrative begins to reveal the tragedy of the scene. The narrator had been gone from his love for a month, and was excited to see her again. As the narrator leads the reader toward this hopeful reunion, he again reiterates how things seemed normal, including "the slantwise rain/ Of light through the leaves," the sun on her window, and the bloom of her roses under the eaves. Everything looks just as it did a month before, and the stanza ends with the narrator ends with the recollection that "[n]othing changed but the hives of bees" before moving into the difference in the hives, and what has happened since his last visit.
On that day a year ago, the narrator showed up to see his love, the "her" of the poem, and noticed a servant girl "[d]raping each hive with a shred of black." The black shrouds signify death, and the narrator immediately reacts, saying "the summer sun/ Had the chill of snow" because he understands the servant girl was informing the bees of someone's death. Immediately, the narrator begins to think that his love, Mary, is weeping for the loss of her grandfather who now "sleeps/ The fret and the pain of his age away." However, the narrator then recalls seeing the old man "on the doorway sill" while the servant continues to sing. Through her song, she reveals to the narrator what has truly happened. The song has continued to echo in the narrator's ear ever since, because the servant girl was not lamenting the loss of Mary's grandfather, but of Mary herself, saying "[s]tay at home, pretty bees, fly not hence!/ Mistress Mary is dead and gone!" This is the note on which the poem ends. Mary has died, her flowers are no longer being tended to, and a year after finding out, the narrator is still dealing with the loss. Mary's absence is accentuated by the fact that despite her death, nearly everything else has remained the same. Her loss has shaken the narrator greatly, and it is even more difficult to overcome because even though her life has gone, the life that was all around her continues, almost like the busy droning of the bees.