Scholars have pointed out that Whittier combines the custom of telling the bees about a death in the family with a description of his own family farm. He wrote the poem as a memorial tribute to his mother, Abigail Hussey Whittier, who died in December, 1857, three months before its publication. She had lived on the family farm most of her adult life. Whittier, who sometimes has been viewed by critics as artificially sentimental, here weaves details from his own life into a masterful evocation of grief and loss. His almost conversational tone, which contains very little “poetic” diction, helps the reader imagine the scene through which the narrator walks. He does not depict emotion, but rather draws the reader into the situation so skillfully that one feels something of the young man’s loss.
Whittier’s self-discipline, which allowed him to express his profound sorrow in a brief poem, also helped him make that poem powerful. Instead of pouring out the lamentation that might seem natural to a grieving person, Whittier kept direct expressions of emotion out of the poem, focusing instead on details of the physical world to suggest the emptiness which the bereaved feel. Further, by having the speaker reminisce a year later, Whittier was able to show someone who still mourned Mary but who could ponder his situation without the despair and confusion which would be associated with a more recent death.
Even though the poem was a tribute to his mother, Whittier chose not to make the lost loved one a mother, but rather a sweetheart (named for his elder sister, Mary Whittier Caldwell). By fictionalizing the loss in this way, the poet both kept his personal sadness private and made his perceptions more accessible for a wide range of readers. As innumerable songs, legends, and literary works attest, the fear of losing a lover is common. It is easy to imagine such a loss, which makes the shock accessible for a wide range of readers, young and old. In the ensuing years, as he continued to contemplate the death of his mother and later of his sister Mary, Whittier wrote many religious or inspirational verses. In “Telling the Bees,” however, he took a different approach, expressing sadness for lost joy in this world rather than hope for the next. Although it is not overtly about Abigail Whittier, “Telling the Bees” expresses the feelings her son experienced at the time of her death.
Critics generally consider “Telling the Bees” one of Whittier’s best works. Much of his poetry was occasional, written for specific situations, and it has not always been admired by later readers. Much of what is still well known, such as Whittier’s numerous religious poems, was similarly written for specific audiences. However, “Telling the Bees” relies upon such basic experiences as a beautiful spring day and the expectation of a happy reunion to emphasize the suddenness and absoluteness of death. By employing such universal events, the poem draws its force from the basic shock of the contrast of life and its end.