The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Originally published as “The Bees of Fernside,” “Telling the Bees” is a poem of fourteen quatrains, or stanzas of four lines each. Each stanza displays abab rhyming, which means that the first line rhymes with the third and the second line with the fourth, a typical pattern for a ballad. A note written by John Greenleaf Whittier precedes the poem, informing readers that on farms in Essex County, Massachusetts (Whittier’s home), a custom dating from colonial times was long observed: When a death occurred in the family, someone would “tell the bees” kept on the farm about the death and drape the hive with black crepe to allow the insects to mourn for the deceased. At one time people believed that not doing so would cause the bees to leave, frightened by a death they did not understand.

This poem uses a first-person narrator, a young man who is distinct from Whittier. He is reminiscing a year after the events he describes, walking down the same path he took the previous June. Twelve months earlier, he was going to see his sweetheart, Mary, after being away a month, which, he adds, seemed to be a year without her. The young man’s remark ironically suggests the year of grief which began on the day he recalls. As he walks, he describes the earlier trip. He steps through an opening in a tumbled wall and crosses a brook. He comes within sight of Fernside, Mary’s farm, and notices the red gate, tall poplar trees, brown barn, and white...

(The entire section is 459 words.)