I ordered this, clean wood box
Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift.
I would say it was the coffin of a midget
Or a square baby
Were there not such a din in it.
The box is locked, it is dangerous.
I have to live with it overnight
And I can’t keep away from it.
There are no windows, so I can’t see what is in there.
There is only a little grid, no exit.
I put my eye to the grid.
It is dark, dark,
With the swarmy feeling of African hands
Minute and shrunk for export,
Black on black, angrily clambering.
How can I let them out?
It is the noise that appalls me most of all,
The unintelligible syllables.
It is like a Roman mob,
Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!
I lay my ear to furious Latin.
I am not a Caesar.
I have simply ordered a box of maniacs.
They can be sent back.
They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner.
I wonder how hungry they are.
I wonder if they would forget me
If I just undid the locks and stood back and turned into a tree.
There is the laburnum, its blond colonnades,
And the petticoats of the cherry.
They might ignore me immediately
In my moon suit and funeral veil.
I am no source of honey
So why should they turn on me?
Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.
The box is only temporary.
The poem appears to allude to the speaker’s mixed sentiments towards a bee box that she had just received. Upon closer analysis, we find that the imagery and literary techniques applied seem to detail the speaker’s journey of finding a way to assume a form of authority and assert her identity in society.
The speaker begins by putting herself in an authoritative position, being the owner of the box that she had ‘ordered’. She establishes herself as having power over the bees in the box; as she describes her possession, however, the imagery she likens the box to be hint at some bizarreness in nature. The box being a ‘coffin of a midget’ is one of the many instances that Plath uses death imagery in her poems; here, it suggests that the speaker is in a roundabout manner ordering her death by ordering the bee box. That the speaker calls it a ‘square baby’ represents the unnaturalness of the box to her, as the fresh innocent nature of a baby is sharply contrasted against the angular rigidity brought to mind by a ‘square’. The unnatural imagery used can be interpreted that the speaker views her authority over the bees as unnatural as well, thus questioning the true extent of any authority she might have.
Acknowledging the danger of the bees, there is an underlying tone of fear when the speaker remarks ‘I have to live with it overnight’. Even so, she continues with the admission ‘(she) can’t keep away from it’. This could imply that the speaker has an unnatural attraction to fatality or death, as seen from the death imagery in the previous stanza. It could also imply that the speaker is so desperate about holding on to her authority that she does not deem to be stable, that she is unwillingly to remove herself from the box’s presence even for a night.
Attempts to surround herself over the physical manifestation of her authority remain futile. As the box ‘(have) no windows’, the speaker looks through the tiny grid where there was nothing but darkness, emphasized by the alliteration of ‘dark, dark’. The imagery used here, of African labourers ‘minute and shrunk for export’, is that of power, of the exporter shipping the angered but helpless labourers out. This can be tied to the poem’s context, where the speaker is the exporter with the power over the bees, the exports, as she can choose their fate according to her fancy.
The speaker’s thoughts change as she wonders what she will do with the bees and questions ‘how (she can) let them out’. Realizing their fate was in her hands, she takes a further step to deciding what to do with them. As she thinks, the speaker realizes that as their ‘ruler’, she actually has no idea what her ‘subjects’ desire, as they speak ‘unintelligible syllables’. Their speech was to her an ‘appalling’ noise of ‘a Roman mob’, and even after trying to decipher the ‘furious Latin’, she throws in the towel and professes ‘(she) is not a Caesar’. The speaker gives up trying to decide what to do with the bees.
After pondering and wavering between her decisions, the speaker comes to a sudden realization that ‘she had simply ordered a box of maniacs’. The matter of fact tone hints at a certain coldness as she distances herself from the bees, and her distancing from authority over them in exchange for assertion of her opinion. She realizes the choices that are open to her as she willingly gives up her control over the bees, passing that authority back to others. The bees ‘can die’ as she ‘need(s) feed them nothing’, owing nothing to the bees as ‘(she was) the owner’ – a dictator’s view on authority.
However, we see a peculiar change in her attitude towards the bees in the next stanza. The first line shows a glimpse of empathy for her ‘subjects’ – ‘I wonder how hungry they are’. This compassion implies that the speaker is not one who will be willing to give up her emotional capacity for authoritative power alone. She continues to ponder if ‘they would forget (her)’ if she let them free. The speaker assumes that, since she is nothing of any food source to them, the bees would not harm her, and might ‘ignore (her) completely’. However, in her kindness to free the bees, she overlooks the pun on the word ‘sweet’ in the line ‘tomorrow I will be sweet God’ – a direct contradiction to her previous remark that ‘(she) is no source of honey’. This could imply that the speaker is so taken with the idea of being a benefactor to her ‘subjects’ that she overlooks the danger involved in doing so.
The poem ends with the line ‘The box is only temporary’, emphasized by the break in the 5-line stanzas before it. It is also symbolic of the temporary nature of the box – the line indeed breaks out from the physical shape of the boxed 5-line stanzas, proving its permeance. By the end of the poem, we can see quite clearly that the speaker has confidence in her opinions, that she has made a choice to ‘set (the bees) free’, showing us that the speaker has thus asserted her identity through her firm stands on her opinion.
Lyn, Lynette, Joan, Hui Ming, Sarah