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:
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”?