The Poem

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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 horns of the family’s cattle showing above a stone wall. He sees the beehives kept near the barn, the spring flowers by the brook, and describes the “sweet clover-smell in the breeze” from the meadows nearby. It is a beautiful spring day, much like the one he recalls from the previous year.

The speaker reminisces that a year before, he took a drink from the stream, admired the blossoms, and brushed off his coat, preparing to see Mary. However, as he drew near, he saw a servant girl draping the beehives in black and singing to the bees. Despite the sun’s warmth, he felt chilled, knowing that the crepe meant a death had occurred. He assumed that Mary’s frail grandfather had died, and he felt pity for the sadness she must feel. However, as the young man came closer to the house, he heard Mary’s dog whining from the house and saw her grandfather sitting on the porch, resting his chin on the end of his cane. At the same moment he finally made out the words the servant sang, and he realized that it was Mary who had died. The poem ends with this realization.

Forms and Devices

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Ballads, in general, are narrative poems modeled on English and Scottish folk songs. Such poems are generally more effective at depicting action than thought or feeling; emotions are typically shown through the depiction of situations and deeds rather than through a discussion of mental states. Accordingly, despite the first-person narration, Whittier relies on sensory details and setting to develop the emotion of “Telling the Bees.” The young man, going to see his beloved, mused happily on the scenery along the path. Everything was familiar, friendly, and warm; these details allow the reader to sense the speaker’s past joy, equating the bright day and fragrant vegetation with young love.

Similarly, the subsequent shock and grief are neither described nor portrayed. Instead, the reader is presented with the contrast of the living, pleasant colors (the hues of the flowers along the brook as...

(This entire section contains 502 words.)

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well as the red, green, brown, and white of the farm) with the somber black being draped about the beehives. The birds’ songs contrast with the sad voice of the hired girl. At that point, the narrator says, he felt cold, as if he were walking on a snowy day in winter (itself a contrast with the sunny June weather). Even here the narration dwells not upon the emotion but its physical manifestation, the chill and shiver that people feel as they anticipate bad news. The narrator regarded the loss of life as sad but not unexpected, for Mary’s grandfather was obviously unwell. Observed detail, rather than description, then communicates the final destruction of the speaker’s comfort, as if the reader can see through his eyes and hear through his ears the events leading to the realization. First, Mary’s dog cried for its owner, and then the grandfather appeared on the porch, staring into space as if heartbroken. Finally, the words of the dirge sung by the “chore-girl,” “Mistress Mary is dead and gone,” became audible. The young man’s emotions at the loss of his sweetheart, whom he expected to see after a month’s absence, strike the reader even though the feelings are never described.

Also effective in engaging the imagination is the use of detail. As with the colors, a few traits of the day are suggested, but most are omitted, allowing the mind’s eye to create the scenes more easily from individual experience. The pasture smells of clover, as do most meadows in the late spring; in this, and similar details, Whittier allows the reader to fill in the larger picture from memory. Such personalized scenes help the reader to experience vicariously the sadness of the young man. Everything else the speaker notices is unchanged—even the tumbled wall through which he walked many times before is still in the same state of disrepair, and the flowers near the brook are still overgrown with weeds; only Mary is missing. The sun is the same, the fields and cattle are the same, but the person who gave everything meaning for him is gone.


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Kribbs, Jayne K. Critical Essays on John Greenleaf Whittier. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980.

Leary, Lewis, and Sylvia Bowman. John Greenleaf Whittier. New York: Macmillan, 1983.

Pickard, John B. John Greenleaf Whittier: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961.

Pickard, Samuel T. Life and Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier. Reprint. New York: Haskell House, 1969.

Wagenknecht, Edward C. John Greenleaf Whittier: A Portrait in Paradox. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Woodwell, Roland H. John Greenleaf Whittier: A Biography. Haverhill, Mass.: Trustees of the Whittier Homestead, 1985.