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21 March 2012

The Bumble of a Bee

The Bumble of a Bee 
A Witchcraft, yieldeth me.
If any ask me “why” –
Twere easier to die
Than tell!

The Red upon the Hill
Taketh away my will –
If anybody sneer,
Take care – for God is here – 
That's all!

The Breaking of the Day –
Addeth to my Degree –
If any ask me “how” –
Artist who drew me so –
Must tell!
                                                            F217 (1861)  155

This poem seems to crack and splinter as what seems to be three regular iambic trimeter quatrains each end in a monometer line – with an exclamation mark. Glancing at the poem, the reader would expect that the monometer line would add a twist or an important emphasis. However, this isn’t always the case. Additionally, the poem seems dashed off in a heat, as if the poet had come running to her room breathless from the transport of a bumble bee or sunset or sunrise.
            We begin with how the “Bumble of a Bee” has the effect of witchcraft on the poet. She can’t explain why, though – it would be “easier to die.” A critical reader might think that this is precisely the poet’s portfolio – to take something like bee sound and somehow make the readers feel and understand how spellbinding it can be. But, okay, we’ll have to take Dickinson’s word for it here. (In an earlier version, Dickinson wrote “The Murmur of a Bee.” I think “Bumble” is a much more delightful choice.)
A lovely, sacred beehive – lot's of bumbles!
            The second stanza finds the poet challenging anyone who would “sneer” at her for being entranced by a sunset glazing the hill with red. “Take care,” she warns. “God is here.” Whether God is there because of the beauty of this particular sunset or because God is immanent in the world (vs. being cooped up in a church), is not clear. I suspect she is implying that God is especially there at that moment of beauty. The poet seems a bit smug about it. Her will is taken away while others sneer. She closes the stanza abruptly: “That’s all!” Subject closed.
            In the final stanza we learn that daybreak adds to the poet’s “Degree” of rapture (one supposes). Again she doesn’t venture any insight into what the rapture, or whatever, is but once again we have to take the poet’s word for it. Unless, that is, the “Artist” – God –who is responsible for making the poet who and what she is chooses to explain for her.
She’s a bit snappish in this poem as if tired of people commenting on or criticizing her propensity to lose herself in nature and landscape. But as readers of Dickinson’s poetry we get a very fine sense of just what these raptures are. Time and time again she writes about bees and sunsets and sunrises. Her poems ring with just what witchcraft is in the Bee’s bumble, or why the sunset leaves her without will.


  1. I read this here shortly before reading "I stole them from a Bee-" I had some trouble with "Bumble of a Bees'" first stanza, because I find "yieldeth" to be a big tough verb. Does she mean, "the bumble of a bee" or the "witchcraft" has conquered her, or that she uses (yields) this "witchcraft" as weapons. I agree grammatically the second interpretation makes slightly (perhaps considerably) less sense, but it was the way I first read this stanza. The second interpretation also fits in well with some of my thoughts on "I stole them from a Bee-"

    Also, the last three lines of that first stanza, I read them differently at first. I read those lines as saying: "Were it easier to die, than tell (or write it so)." Hence, I read it at saying the Bee (and her thoughts and poems) are her life--it would be too difficult without them. I only realized that there is an alternate explanation, when I read your interpretation. I still think this works, but I think your interpretation definitely works. Personally, I think she is saying they are one and the same: being conquered by the Bee (the witchcraft) or actively employing the witchcraft ("Bumble of a Bee") in her poems.

    The second stanza I read as "giving in" or surrender. So, while she steals things from the Bee and yields "witchcraft," sometimes she loses the will to write, and gives into the moment (The Red on the Hill). The immanent and ephemeral could be seen in another way: the bee could symbolize joy, creativity, and disconnected harmony (buzzing) with it's short lifespan, while "The Red" (if it is the sun) could be the immanent/permanent since God is around (and the poet gives in after spending time with the Bee).

    I like your interpretation of the last stanza of "the Artist" being God. That works well--I hadn't seen that at all. I had read it as (which also what you suggest) the reader who is able to get a gleam of "why" or "how" she writes (or yields the "witchcraft" or "surrenders" to the bee) is able to illuminate and elevate her solar degree--say from 9 am to noon.

  2. I just realized--when I first read the poem, I actually thought the "than tell" was a question to the reader. So, she could be sarcastically chiding/asking the reader, whether the reader believes she could forgo the bee and life for death.

    I think, maybe, it's possible to see the stanzas substituting the three parts of being: life (the bee), death (the Red upon the Hill), and the afterlife (The Breaking of the Day-). Or, the way I kind of saw it at first: life, death, and a final meditation on the two.

  3. The life, death, and afterlife gloss is interesting. I think it fits pretty well -- and makes a more interesting poem (to me). Reading over your comments gave me another thought: Dickinson seems to be talking about her poetic wellsprings. The bee gives her the "witchcraft" that is her (craft of) poetry. At night, signaled by the red of sunset, God comes to her (which we've seen in her poetry -- how God comes like a bridegroom, or death does); this is a type of death. Morning is a type of resurrection. So we have the little death, the resurrection, and the then the blessed bee sparking the poetry that explores the deeper mysteries.

    1. That is pretty cool (regarding the wellsprings)--particularly if you read "The Artist who drew me so-" to be the bee. As it is the start of the poem, the "Bumble of a Bee," and she is likening his bumble (maybe existence) to an mesmerizing Art form. Drew me, could be "made me" (for God) or also "captivated me" (for the bee). Thanks!

  4. I didn't see how the bee came back (in the resurrection you suggested) until much later today, after seeing the alternate reading of "drew me." Wonder how she manages to pack so many different interpretations into one poem.

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  6. I agree that this poem is about rapture, but I believe Red is an actual person and the poet is under a spell she dare not articulate. But how modern of her to rejoin, God is here.God is love. As you say, god the artist, also made her this way. Every person on the planet should recognize the despair in this poem, regardless of their orientation. I thank the poet for closing it with a note of plausible hope and giving the question to God to answer, not her.

    1. Hmmm... that's interesting and your reading hadn't occurred to me. It works if you take the stance, as some scholars do, that much of her writing is coded.

  7. I hadn't seen the idea of the bee's bumble giving (yielding" witchcraft to the writer. I like the idea, but that doesn't fit the overall sense of this poem for me, which is more about being transported than transporting. (Though Emily does often seem to be talking about both at once, the poem meant to carry on the transport.) I read it as the bumble of the bee yields "me", which is a stunning idea, that a bee would create the self in it's buzz. There is a line in one of ED's letters, "Emerson's intimacy with his "Bee" only immortalized him." (Here she is talking about his great poem "Humble Bee" I believe.) Anyway, the idea that Emily could get so put under a spell by a bee that she becomes herself is just gorgeous to me. And then to go from sound to sight in the second stanza, but same basic idea, that just that beautiful red does the trick. But then the idea that something that "takes away" the will is somehow synonymous with something that gives you yourself is deep zen. The last stanza adds a degree, but I think it is a degree of self that each new day adds, the breaking of the new day yielding more 'you".

  8. A couple grammatical errors above, but you can't edit these comments, alas. Anyway, I was reading this poem to my 10 year old daughter and she pointed out that "yield" also means to stop. And then I realized that Emily could also mean that it stops her, which aligns the first and second stanza. Yield is a contranym! (a word with two opposite meanings). I wouldn't put it past Emily to mean both, and for me they both work here. I like the idea of the bee yielding (producing, like a field yields) the "me". But the idea of being stopped, yielding, is great too. And what I really love is the idea that they may both occur simultaneously, that the Self emerges when when the self is stopped. Contravalence.

    1. I love the richness you bring out in 'yield'/'yieldeth'. How fortunate to have such a perspicacious child!

      Looking back at the poem I can easily make out two subjects in the first two lines: either it is "The Bumble of the Bee" (and its effect is like Witchcraft -- producing in the speaker a sort of otherworldly sense of the world) or the subject is "Witchcraft" (and it 'yields' her -- in the various ways that might be read) a deeper/truer/more mystical entre into the bee's bumble. Amazing.
      Thank you for the Emerson reference -- and also for the 'deep zen' tie in!

  9. No one could claim that ED had an ordinary brain, though she sometimes feigned ordinariness. But not here. In F217 she claims she’s Witchcraft’s child, and that dying is easier than explaining why “The bumble of a bee” created her. Some would say she’s suffering delusions of grandeur, but she’s not worried; she knows she’s one-of-a-kind.

    A sunset shining on a hill captures her will, but you’d better not sneer, for God is here. Other than that, it’s no big deal! A sunrise adds to her capacity for joy, but don’t ask her how; the artist who created her must tell.

    Clearly, for this poet, self-esteem is not in short supply, at least sometimes.