Telling the Bees

Telling the Bees

Original Text
The Complete Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier, Cambridge edition, ed. H. E. S. (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1894): 59-60. PS 3250 E94 1894 Robarts Library.
2  Runs the path I took;
3You can see the gap in the old wall still,
4  And the stepping-stones in the shallow brook.
5There is the house, with the gate red-barred,
6  And the poplars tall;
7And the barn's brown length, and the cattle-yard,
8  And the white horns tossing above the wall.
9There are the beehives ranged in the sun;
10  And down by the brink
11Of the brook are her poor flowers, weed-o'errun,
12  Pansy and daffodil, rose and pink.
13A year has gone, as the tortoise goes,
14  Heavy and slow;
15And the same rose blows, and the same sun glows,
16  And the same brook sings of a year ago.
17There 's the same sweet clover-smell in the breeze;
18  And the June sun warm
19Tangles his wings of fire in the trees,
20  Setting, as then, over Fernside farm.
21I mind me how with a lover's care
22  From my Sunday coat
23I brushed off the burrs, and smoothed my hair,
24  And cooled at the brookside my brow and throat.
25Since we parted, a month had passed, --
26  To love, a year;
27Down through the beeches I looked at last
28  On the little red gate and the well-sweep near.
29I can see it all now, -- the slantwise rain
30  Of light through the leaves,
31The sundown's blaze on her window-pane,
32  The bloom of her roses under the eaves.
33Just the same as a month before, --
34  The house and the trees,
35The barn's brown gable, the vine by the door, --
36  Nothing changed but the hives of bees.
37Before them, under the garden wall,
38  Forward and back,
39Went drearily singing the chore-girl small,
40  Draping each hive with a shred of black.
41Trembling, I listened: the summer sun
42  Had the chill of snow;
43For I knew she was telling the bees of one
44  Gone on the journey we all must go!
45Then I said to myself, "My Mary weeps
46  For the dead to-day:
47Haply her blind old grandsire sleeps
48  The fret and the pain of his age away."
49But her dog whined low; on the doorway sill,
50  With his cane to his chin,
51The old man sat; and the chore-girl still
52  Sung to the bees stealing out and in.
53And the song she was singing ever since
54  In my ear sounds on: --
55"Stay at home, pretty bees, fly not hence!
56  Mistress Mary is dead and gone!"


1] "A remarkable custom, brought from the Old Country, formerly prevailed in the rural districts of New England. On the death of a member of the family, the bees were at once informed of the event, and their hives dressed in mourning. This ceremonial was supposed to be necessary to prevent the swarms from leaving their hives and seeking a new home." (Whittier's note, p. 59) "The scene is minutely that of the Whittier homestead." (editor, p. 59)

Whittier's editor (p. 518) quotes S. T. Pickard's Life and Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier:

The place Whittier had in mind was his birthplace. There were bee-hives on the garden terrace near the well-sweep, occupied perhaps by the descendants of Thomas Whittier's bees. The approach to the house from over the northern shoulder of Job's Hill by a path that was in constant use in his boyhood and still in existence, is accurately described in the poem. The `gap in the old wall' is still to be seen, and `the stepping stones in the shallow brook' are still in use. His sister's garden was down by the brook-side in front of the house, and her daffodils are perpetuated and may now be found in their season each year in that place. The red-barred gate, the poplars, the cattle yard with `the white horns tossing above the wall,' were all part of Whittier's boy life on the old farm. Even the touch of `the sundown's blaze on her window pane' is realistic. The only place from which the blaze of the setting sun could be seen reflected in the windows of the old mansion is from the path so perfectly described .... All the story about Mary and her lover is wholly imaginative.
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Publication Start Year
RPO poem Editors
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition
RPO 1998.