Fame is a bee

Beekeeping - from the Tacuinum Sanitatis, 14th century, Ibn Butlan
Background Image: Beekeeping – from the Tacuinum Sanitatis, 14th century, Ibn Butlan

On first read this poem seems simple enough: “Fame”, while it has a “song”, can also hurt you and it can fly away without warning. But why is she comparing “Fame” to a “Bee”, and in what way does a “Bee” have a song?

Formally this poem is doing something rather interesting in that it is deceptively plain. At only 4 lines, where each line is built with pyrrhics of unstressed single syllable words – 4 words in the first three line and 2 more in the conclusion – with an ABCC rhyme scheme, the poem doesn’t possess a lyric quality, in fact, it’s reads rather flat and it stands out among her other poems which often sing in a ballad meter. Perhaps she is using this flat delivery to express her own feelings about “Fame” in that in and of itself “Fame” is flat and boring, and it contains nothing of any real interest.

Yet it is her use of phyrrhics which is her most clever trick. In poetry, a pyrrhic foot is two unstressed syllables, such as “Fame is” and “It has”. But Pyrrhic also means to win a battle whose victory was so costly to the winner that it turns out to not be worthwhile (OED, adj 1). Thus Emily is telling us that “Fame” is a battle whose price is so costly that you will never gain anything useful from it and she has constructed her poem to reflect this philosophy. And what she isn’t saying outright is that when we spend all of our time worrying about “Fame” we neglect the hard work and effort that is involved in making art or just living a productive life.

And it is productivity rather than “Fame” that she seems most interested in and is why she is using the “bee” as her vehicle to describe “Fame”. Yet there is a paradox here because a “bee” is known for its industriousness and for its valuing the hive community over the needs of just one individual. Once again we can turn to the word pyrrhic which can also refer to “an ancient Greek war dance simulating the movements of combat and performed in full armour” (OED, adj 2) which resembles the activity of bees in their hive. The bees dance to tell each other where the flowers are, and the bees band together to protect the hive from intruders. The bee, on its own might not be very impressive, yet as a community it is a formidable opponent. Thus what Emily might be trying to do here is show how it is hard work and community which are the values a person should encourage rather than going off to court “Fame”. “Fame” is a solitary endeavor, like the lone bee, or the lone unstressed syllable, or the Greek warrior separated from his unit, but productivity and disciplined hard work is everlasting because it can stand up to any “sting”, it can win the battle and though there might be causalities, a hive working together is less likely to suffer a pyrrhic victory.

But what does she mean that “Fame” also “has a song”? Bees buzz, but they do not “sing”, at least no “bee” I’ve ever heard. What Emily might be doing here is intentionally misleading us to demonstrate that “Fame” also does not have a “song”, rather the sound it makes is just a dull buzzing, a droning of pyrrhic syllables. In Chaucer’s The House Of Fame, he compares gossip, which is the instrument of “Fame” to passing gas. For Chaucer “Fame” is just a waste product that has no value and is, at best, something we can laugh at but that will not stand the test of time, it is just so much wind whirling around that will only make you dizzy if you get caught up in it. “Fame” is a waste of time, it is a pyrrhic victory, it is basically a fart.

Emily may not have had a fart in mind when she wrote this, but the sentiment of the poem lines up with the point Chaucer made about “Fame” in that it is fleeting at best. “Fame” might sound nice at first but upon closer inspection it’s just so many bees who will get angry when you stick your nose in their hive. Yet buried in the poem is Emily’s typically American philosophy that hard work is the substance – the honey – of life, that being part of a community and a family is what is everlasting and that longing for individual attention is a waste of time and produces nothing of substance.