The Humble-Bee


Burly dozing humblebee!
Where thou art is clime for me.
Let them sail for Porto Rique,
Far-off heats through seas to seek,
I will follow thee alone,
Thou animated torrid zone!
Zig-zag steerer, desert-cheerer,
Let me chase thy waving lines,
Keep me nearer, me thy hearer,
Singing over shrubs and vines.
Insect lover of the sun,
Joy of thy dominion!
Sailor of the atmosphere,
Swimmer through the waves of air,
Voyager of light and noon,
Epicurean of June,
Wait I prithee, till I come
Within ear-shot of thy hum,—
All without is martyrdom.
When the south wind, in May days,
With a net of shining haze,
Silvers the horizon wall,
And, with softness touching all,
Tints the human countenance
With a color of romance,
And, infusing subtle heats,
Turns the sod to violets,
Thou in sunny solitudes,
Rover of the underwoods,
The green silence dost displace,
With thy mellow breezy bass.
Hot midsummer’s petted crone,
Sweet to me thy drowsy tune,
Telling of countless sunny hours,
Long days, and solid banks of flowers,
Of gulfs of sweetness without bound
In Indian wildernesses found,
Of Syrian peace, immortal leisure,
Firmest cheer and bird-like pleasure.
Aught unsavory or unclean,
Hath my insect never seen,
But violets and bilberry bells,
Maple sap and daffodels,
Grass with green flag half-mast high,
Succory to match the sky,
Columbine with horn of honey,
Scented fern, and agrimony,
Clover, catch fly, adders-tongue,
And brier-roses dwelt among;
All beside was unknown waste,
All was picture as he passed.
Wiser far than human seer,
Yellow-breeched philosopher!
Seeing only what is fair,
Sipping only what is sweet,
Thou dost mock at fate and care,
Leave the chaff and take the wheat,
When the fierce north-western blast
Cools sea and land so far and fast,
Thou already slumberest deep,—
Woe and want thou canst out-sleep,—
Want and woe which torture us,
Thy sleep makes ridiculous.

*

“The Humble-Bee” was written in 1847 and first published in Emerson’s 1856 collection Poems. The playful rhyme of “humble-bee” and bumblebee creates a light tone; and making the insect humble, among other characteristics, emphasizes passive, observational elements in the poem. The hum of the bee mentioned at the beginning is “singing” in the background of the poem, the sound later revisited as a “mellow, breezy bass” and a “drowsy tone.”

“The Humble-Bee” uses heptasyllabic and octosyllabic lines and a consistent end rhyme. It differs from AAAA, ABAB, and AABB without a discernable pattern. The first ten lines switch between these three different rhymes, while the rest of the poem, until the last ten lines, uses only rhymed couplets. The tenth line from the end parts from the AABB for four lines to ABAB, then switches again to end on AABB. When read aloud, the alternating rhyme scheme is similar to the flight pattern of the bee––playful and dancing as it moves through the air and through the poem. The consistency in the middle is song-like in its lightness; and the pairs of end rhymes can be compared to the whimsical “zigzag(ging)” of the bee through the air. The abrupt and symbolic language creates an understated yet gorgeous illustration of nature.

The descriptions of nature and the natural world are particularly are notable. Each plant described is significant because each holds a different meaning; for example, violets and columbine represent innocence, daffodils represent rebirth, and ferns represents fascination. Emerson calls the bee “my insect,” which indicates that the bee is leading the narrator on a tour of the world as he goes about his day. The pronoun indicates a personal relationship with the insect as well as a kind of ownership. However, their relationship is more a friendship than possession, and the narrator holds an affection for the bumblebee that one might express for a lover. Emerson mentions the bumblebee as a hedonistic being, using the adjective “Epicurean.” The bee is praised for its intelligence and is compared to Epicurus again as a “yellow-breeched philosopher.” Bees themselves are very social creatures and live only with the intention of doing their job. They have no awareness of the beauty that they encounter when pollinating plants and flowers; if they could, it would only support the notion that they are chasing the lovely things in life and avoiding the parts of the world that lack sweetness, as a fellow pleasure-seeking hedonist does.

Parts of “The Humble-Bee” were influenced by Emerson’s acute interest in the cultures of the Eastern world, a theme especially evident in his work of the 1840s. Both India and Syria are referenced in this poem with kind connotations: “Indian wildernesses” and “Syrian peace.” This is not to say that Emerson’s other language concerning Eastern cultures in his works was all positive; it was, in fact, mostly the opposite. Though Emerson explored using these non-Western influences in his work, many of the descriptions he used were undeniably biased towards marking Western culture as good, and Eastern as The Other. However, in this poem about the bee, which ultimately reflects harmony, beauty and grandness throughout the natural world, these countries are commended by name for their lovely, peaceful nature.

The theme of beauty in nature appears in many of Emerson’s other poems, such as “The Rhodora,” “Song of Nature,” and “Woodnotes.” “The Humble-Bee” is one of Emerson’s more well-known poems from his published collections.“The Humble-Bee” is about the simplicity and innocence of the bee and the beauty of the journey it goes on as it lives and pollinates the world around it. The end of the poem reflects upon what people could learn from the cyclic life of the insect, our “yellow-breeched philosopher.” The bee is already dead and gone by the time winter arrives, meaning it is saved from experiencing the decay of nature and lack of life that comes with the cold season. Its inevitable death makes the problems of humans seem “ridiculous” in comparison of the straightforward and calm nature of the bumblebee.

Bibliography and Further Reading “Poems: Ralph Waldo Emerson.” Internet Archive, The Library Shelf (1970); “Ralph Waldo Emerson,” Poetry Foundation; Richard Tuerk, “Emerson and the wasting of beauty: ‘The Rhodora’” (1990).

Credits Composed by Lexi Palmer, Fall 2018. Reading by Lexi Palmer

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American Poetry and Poetics by Mark C. Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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