In book 2 of Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora’s cousin Romney doubts there is any value in women writing poetry:

                                              ‘Who has time,
An hour’s time … think! … to sit upon a bank
And hear the cymbal tinkle in white hands?
When Egypt’s slain, I say, let Miriam sing!—
Before … where’s Moses?’

But Aurora defends herself:

                                            ‘Ah—exactly that!
Where’s Moses?—is a Moses to be found?—
You’ll seek him vainly in the bulrushes,
While I in vain touch cymbals. Yet, concede,
Such sounding brass has done some actual good,
(The application in a woman’s hand,
If that were credible, being scarcely spoilt,)
In colonising beehives.’

Most of this is straightforward. Miriam is an Israelite woman in the Book of Exodus. She plays a timbrel (tambourine) and sings a song in Exodus 15:20-21 after the death of Pharoah (“Egypt”) at the crossing of the Red Sea. She is traditionally identifed with Moses’ sister, who watched their mother place the baby Moses in a basket among the reeds (“bulrushes”) of the Nile, in Exodus 2:4. “Sounding brass”, “cymbal”, and “tinkle” are references to 1 Corinthians 13:1:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

But what does Aurora mean by “colonising beehives”?

2 Answers 2


Removing the parenthetical interruption so as to follow the syntax better, we have

While I in vain touch cymbals. Yet, concede,
Such sounding brass has done some actual good,
In colonising beehives.’

So what do cymbals have to do with beehives? In this webpage on medieval bee-keeping, it quotes a 10th-century Byzantine text which says:

This animal [the bee] is pleased by a good tune: when they are scattered, therefore, beekeepers clash cymbals or clap their hands rhythmically to bring them home.

I assume Elizabeth Barrett Browning knew about this custom. It was probably still being practiced eight centuries later, when she wrote. Even today, people are still asking about the accuracy of the "old wives' tale" that clapping your hands will cause a swarm of bees to land so they can be captured.

I have no idea whether this advice is accurate. However, its metaphorical relevance to the poem is clear. Aurora is saying that even though she's sitting tinkling her cymbals while other people are actively looking for Moses in the bulrushes, it's nevertheless possible that the cymbals will call Moses to her.

  • 2
    I think you have it! Browning's reference must surely be to Ovid's Fasti book III lines 740–2: "aeriferae comitum concrepuere manus, / ecce novae coeunt volucres tinnitibus actae, / quosque movent sonitus aera, sequuntur apes." Mar 7, 2020 at 14:06
  • A little bit of speculation – I don't know whether Browning's only reference for this was Ovid or whether she also might have learned this from Victorian beekeepers. It seems to me that an "old wives tale" that has lasted for 2000 years might have a grain of truth in it. And there is a possible explanation for this I found on the web. Honeybees are apparently deaf, but can feel vibrations, so one person was speculating that they think the crashing of cymbals is thunder, and so the swarm lands to avoid the rainstorm.
    – Peter Shor
    Nov 14, 2020 at 15:13

Peter Shor having identified the connection between cymbals and bees, I found a couple of classical sources for this allusion. First, in Ovid’s Fasti:

liba deo fiunt, sucis quia dulcibus idem
gaudet, et a Baccho mella reperta ferunt.
ibat harenoso satyris comitatus ab Hebro
(non habet ingratos fabula nostra iocos),
iamque erat ad Rhodopen Pangaeaque florida ventum:
aeriferae comitum concrepuere manus,
ecce novae coeunt volucres tinnitibus actae,
quosque movent sonitus aera, sequuntur apes.
colligit errantes et in arbore claudit inani
Liber et inventi praemia mellis habet.

Sweet cakes are made for the god, because he too rejoices in
Sweetness, and they say that Bacchus discovered honey.
Accompanied by satyrs, he set off from sandy Hebrus
(Our story having a not unpleasant joke),
And soon he had come to Thrace and flowering Pangaea:
Bronze cymbals clashing in the company’s hands,
Behold! Driven by the ringing, new-found insects swarm,
All disturbed, bees follow the sound of bronze.
Liber† gathered the flying things and shut them in a hollow tree
And had discovered the prize of honey.

Ovid (8 CE). Fasti, book III, lines 735–744. My translation.

† A Latin deity who was syncretized with Bacchus/Dionysus.

Second, in Virgil’s Georgics:

Hinc ubi iam emissum caveis ad sidera caeli
nare per aestatem liquidam suspexeris agmen
obscuramque trahi vento mirabere nubem,
contemplator: aquas dulces et frondea semper
tecta petunt. Huc tu iussos adsperge sapores,
trita melisphylla et cerinthae ignobile gramen,
tinnitusque cie et Matris quate cymbala circum.
ipsae consident medicatis sedibus, ipsae
intima more suo sese in cunabula condent.

So when the cage-escaped hosts† you see
Float heavenward through the hot clear air, until
You marvel at yon dusky cloud that spreads
And lengthens on the wind, then mark them well;
For then ’tis ever the fresh springs they seek
And bowery shelter: hither must you bring
The savoury sweets I bid, and sprinkle them,
Bruised balsam and the wax-flower’s lowly weed,
And wake and shake the tinkling cymbals heard
By the great Mother:‡ on the anointed spots
Themselves will settle, and in wonted wise
Seek of themselves the cradle’s inmost depth.

Virgil (c. 29 BCE). Georgics, book IV, lines 58–66. Translated by J. B. Greenough (1900).

† That is, bees. Book IV opens “Of air-born honey, gift of heaven, I now take up the tale”. ‡ The goddess Cybele, who was worshipped with cymbals.

Shortly after this question was asked and answered, Jane Wright published an essay on bees in Aurora Leigh discussing these and other allusions:

Bees in Barrett Browning’s domestic epic, Aurora Leigh (1856), appear on seven occasions and never as merely naturalistic detail. They include previously unnoticed instances of Barrett Browning’s allusive sophistication and they help to figure the poet’s (and Aurora’s) claims to literary posterity.

Jane Wright (2020). ‘Barrett Browning’s Enduring Bees’, Essays In Criticism 70:2, p. 178.

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