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
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 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...
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