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Regarding Bees: Symbols in Modern Society: On a Honey Bee

Array ( [0] => ENGL 6330 Spring 2018 [1] => no-show [2] => student exhibit )

"Do as you please, your will is mine;/Enjoy it without fear–/And your grave will be this glass of wine,/Your epitaph–a tear"

—Philip Moren Freneau, "On a Honey Bee"


Philip Morin Freneau 1752-1832


Philip Morin Freneau was born in New York in 1752 and is considered the poet of the Revolution and father of American poetry.[1] Although neither of these titles is strictly true because of writers like Anne Bradstreet and Phillis Wheatley, Freneau was still a strong voice for American Independence. Much of his writing was political satire, which served him well as he edited the newspaper the National Gazette where he was able to put this biting satire to work and create tension. And as a Jeffersonian or Republican, to the “Federalists in general he directed the keenest shafts of his criticism,”[2] according to Edwin W. Bowen. Alexander Hamilton was not too pleased and accused Freneau of “being the pensioned tool of Jefferson.”[3] That conflict was soon settled, but Freneau continued writing.



One of his more well-known pieces of poetry is entitled “To a Honey Bee Who Hath Drunk Too Much Wine and Drowned.” It is the sad, possibly true story, of a bee who landed in Freneau’s glass of wine and subsequently perished. Much like Leapor's poem "Silvia and the Bee," Freneau's poem is surrounded with picturesque scenery, yet the beauty is used to juxtapose deeper political meanings. The scenery and the use of the bee symbol show that the use of nature to define society was not confined to Britain.

"Bee Drinking the Good Stuff"

Most people accept that this poem is about the dangers of alcoholism and is warning the American people to stick to moderation. However, in her book Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation, Tammy Horn speculates that “it also serves as a warning to Americans intoxicated with political freedom for the first time.”[4] In light of Freneau’s political past with satire, this reading makes a lot of sense.

Thou born to sip the lake or spring,

Or quaff the waters of the stream,

Why hither come on vagrant wing?--

Does Bacchus tempting seem--

Did he, for you, the glass prepare?--

Will I admit you to a share?

In the poem, the speaker sees the bee and wonders why it is coming for his wine when the bee was born to drink water. Perhaps it was a god who prepared the glass and tempted the bee to come, much as people believed that God had brought them to the new world. The next stanza brings out even more the idea that people had left Britain to get away from the king’s rule, as the speaker specifically asks if “wasps or king-birds bring dismay.” But the wine (or America) welcomes the bee.

The speaker then warns the bee in the fifth stanza:

Yet take not oh! too deep a drink,

And in the ocean die;

Here bigger bees than you might sink,

Even bees full six feet high.

So, it is not just the bee in danger of drinking too deeply from the intoxicating drink. The bees reaching six feet are men who have faced the same danger. The people of the newly-formed United States of America are cautioned that their freedom, though intoxicating, can lead to their downfall if not taken responsibly.

A third, though similar, reading of the poem is possible. As a republican, Freneau must have believed in the power of the people to govern, and so was heavily invested in keeping the national government from gaining too much power. When taking this into account, the bee could very likely be representative of the government instead of the people. The fifth stanza ends with “Like Pharaoh, then, you would be said/ To perish in a sea of red.” This warns the government by comparing it to the Pharaoh in the Bible who perished in the Red Sea after trying to exert too much authority over children of Israel.


[1] Shields, John C. "Philip Freneau." Critical Survey of Poetry, Second Revised Edition, September 2002, pp. 1-6. EBSCOhost, dist.lib.usu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=103331CSP12200160000093&site=eds-live.

[2-3] Bowen, Edwin W. “Philip Freneau, the Poet of the American Revolution.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 11, no. 2, 1903, pp. 213–220. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27530558. Quotes from 215

[4] Horn, Tammy. Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation. Lexington, The University Press of Kentucky, 2005.


Image Citations

Halpin, Fredrick. Philip Freneau. 1901, engraving. Philip Freneau, the poet of the Revolution : a history of his life and times, by Mary S. Austin. Wikimedia. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Philip_freneau.jpg. 

Hahs, Rachel. Bee Drinking the Good Stuff. 22 Aug. 2015. Photograph. Flickr