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On "Ariel"

William V. Davis

"Ariel," the title poem of Sylvia Plath’s posthumous volume of the same name is one of her most highly regarded, most often criticised, and most complicated poems. The ambiguities in the poem begin with its title, which has a three fold meaning. To a reader uninformed by Plath’s biography "Ariel" would probably most immediately call to mind the "airy spirit" who in Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a servant to Prospero and symbolizes Prospero’s control of the upper elements of the universe, fire and air. On another biographical or autobiographical level, "Ariel," as we know from reports about the poet’s life, was the name of her favorite horse, on whom she weekly went riding. Robert Lowell, in his forward to Ariel, says, "The title Ariel summons up Shakespeare’s lovely, though slightly chilling and androgynous spirit, but the truth is that this Ariel is the author’s horse." Ted Hughes, Plath’s husband, adds these comments,

ARIEL was the name of the horse on which she went riding weekly. Long before, while she was a student at
Cambridge (England), she went riding with an American friend out towards Grantchester. Her horse bolted, the stirrups fell off, and she came all the way home to the stables, about two miles, at full gallop, hanging around the horse’s neck.

These two allusions, to The Tempest and to her horse "Ariel," have often been noticed and pointed out, with the emphasis, from a critical perspective, being placed on the biographical referent. But there is another possible referent in the title of the poem which no one has yet noted, although the poet, apparently, went out of her way to make reference, even obvious reference, to it. I refer to "Ariel" as the symbolic name for Jerusalem. "Ariel" in Hebrew means "lion of God." She begins the second stanza of the poem with the line "God’s lioness," which seems to be a direct reference to the Hebrew or Jewish "Ariel."

Plath’s obsession with Judaism and the Jewish people is clearly indicated in many of her poems.


Indeed, some of the imagery which informs the passage concerning "Ariel" in the Book of Isaiah (29:1-7) appears to have been drawn on directly by Plath for her imagery in her poem "Ariel." In Isaiah 29-5-6 we read,

And in an instant, suddenly,
You will be visited by the Lord of hosts
With thunder and with earthquake and great noise,
With whirlwind and tempest,
And the flame of a devouring fire

In short, then, the poet seems to be combining these three references to "Ariel" in her poem, and creating a context where each of the possible meanings enriches the others. She even seems to imply this when she says, in the second stanza, "How one we grow." Each of the three "Ariel’s" contributes its part to the totality of the poem, and each of them merges into the others so that, by the end of the poem, they are all "one."

Now, of these three references to "Ariel," the two that seem most fruitful in terms of an analysis of the poem appear to be the autobiographical and the Biblical In terms of the autobiographical overtones, the poem can be seen as what apparently it is in fact—an account of the poet’s going for a ride on her favorite horse. Each of the details she mentions with respect to the ride (at least through the first six stanzas) can be seen as exact reporting of what it is like to ride a horse. The last five stanzas of the poem obviously move beyond the literal telling of taking a horseback ride and move into something which partakes of the mystery whereby the rider experiences something of the unity which is created between horse and rider, if not literally, at least metaphorically. This change in the theme of the poem is signaled both by a change in tone and by a change in technique, and specifically by the break in the rhyme scheme.

In talking of the rhymes in Plath’s poetry, John Frederick Nims points out that in The Colossus, Plath’s first book, she chooses to rhyme "atonally" using one of several variations:

The same vowel-sound but with different consonants after it: fishes-pig-finger-history; worms-converge. Different vowel-sounds but with the same final consonant: vast-compost-must; knight-combat-heat (this is her most characteristic kind of rhyme in The Colossus). Unaccented syllable going with accented or unaccented: boulders-wore: footsoles-babel. She considers all final vowels as rhyming with all others: jaw-arrow-eye (perhaps suggested by the Middle-English practice in alliteration). Or she will mate sounds that have almost anything in common: ridgepole-tangle-inscrutable.

Nims goes on to say,

In Ariel, the use of rhyme is very different. In some poems it is ghostlier than ever. But more often it is obvious: rhyme at high noon. The same sound may run on from stanza to stanza, with much identical rhyme. "Lady Lazarus" illustrates the new manner. The poem is printed in units of three lines, but the rhyme is not in her favorite terzarima pattern. Six of the first ten lines end in an n-sound, followed by a sequence in long e, which occurs in about half of the next twenty-two lines. Then, after six more a’s, we have l’s ending eleven of fourteen lines, and then several r’s, leading into the six or more air rhymes that conclude the sequence. Almost Skeltonian: the poet seems to carry on a sound about as long as she can, although not in consecutive lines.

Now up to the seventh stanza of the poem (and continuing on through the remainder of the poem once the transitions has been made in the seventh stanza, "White / Godiva, I unpeel— / Dead hands, dead strigencies"), the rhyme scheme has been, for the most part, "regular" in terms of the slant rhymes Nims has suggested, each stanza having two lines which rhyme, given Plath’s approach to rhyme. "darkness" / "distance," "grow" / "furrow," "arc" / "catch," "dark"

/ "Hooks," "mouthfuls" / "else," "air" / "hair," "I" / "cry," "wall" / "arrow," and "drive" / "red." It is true that the rhymes do not all fit the categories Nims has set forth, although some of them do. Where the rhymes do not fit his scheme, another scheme, equally justifiable, could be suggested—one which the poet apparently used equally often, here as well as in other poems in Ariel. For instance, in the case of the rhymes "darkness" / "distance," the rhyme works on the duplication of the initial "d’s" and the final "s’s"; in "arc" / "catch," "arc" ends in the consonant "c" which is picked up as the initial letter in "catch" (also the sequence "ac" in "arc" is reversed in "catch" to "ca"); the "k" in "dark" and "Hooks" carries the rhyme for the lines ending in these two words; in the "wall" / "arrow" rhyme Plath has apparently worked the words so that the letters of the one word become inverted and duplicated backwards in the letters of the other, thus "w" begins "wall" and ends "arrow" and the double "1" in "wall" is duplicated by the double "r" in "arrow," each of the double consonants following the vowel "a"; and the initial "d" of "drive" goes with the final "d" of "red," and so forth.

But, to show the change in theme in the Godiva stanza, Plath breaks the rhyme within the stanza itself, while, and at the same time, she joins this transitional stanza to what has gone before and to what will follow by interlocking its rhyme with the dangling or unused line in both the preceding and following stanzas. Thus "heels" from the preceding stanza is made to rhyme with "unpeel" in the Godiva stanza, and "seas" of the following stanza is made to rhyme with "stringencies." The unity of the poem as a whole has thus been maintained while the shift in its theme is signaled both thematically and structurally by a shift in the rhyme scheme.

In addition to this rather complex patterning of rhyme, Plath also has her own alliterative-devices to bind together individual lines and, at times, larger units of her poems. In "Ariel," for instance, we find lines like, "Pour of tor and distances," "Pivot of heels and knees," and "Of the neck I cannot catch." In each of these lines, the internal rhyme ("pour" / "tor") or the alliteration ("cannot catch") or the assonance ("heels and knees") creates a kind of music which takes the place of exact or even slant rhyme.


On at least two other occasions, then, Plath has set forth similar experiences to the one she details in "Ariel," and in each case she has communicated her experience in terms of horses and horseback riding. All demonstrate a desire to have her reader feel, if not see, the unities of the interconnected emotions which she is attempting to express in these poems. Particularly in "Ariel," she is careful to link the thematic and rhyme devices already mentioned to an overall structure which suggests the special kind of fusions that she intends. The poem is written in three line stanzas, and, in the sense that two of the lines in each stanza rhyme, the poem might be considered to fall into a loose terza rima. Another way in which the form works to complement the meaning is in the stanzaic form itself. The very fact that the stanzas are tri-fold parallels the tri-fold allusions to horse, Ariel in Shakespeare, and "Ariel" as a reference to Jerusalem, Therefore, the stanzaic structure as well as the structure of the individual stanzas corroborates the theme of the poem.

But perhaps the most important structural, as well as thematic, line in the poem is the last line, which is also the final stanza of the poem. This line is important in a three-fold way: first, the "ro" of "cauldron" is inverted to "or" in "morning," thus continuing the duality of the double, and here internal, rhyme that occurs throughout the poem, but at the same time tightening the rhyme even further into the space of a single line; second, the words "eye" and "morning," carrying as they do the overtones of "I" and "mourning," at once incorporate the personal activity (riding a horse) with the communal concern of the Biblical passage (where "Ariel" comes to signify the whole history of the Hebrew race and the suffering, the "mourning" so immediately identified with that history); and, thirdly, the word "cauldron" mixes all of the foregoing elements together into a kind of melting pot of emotion, history and personal involvement. Thus, the poem takes on the richness and complexity we have come to expect from the poet, and, not without reason, stands as the title poem of the book. As A. Alvarez has said, "The difficulty with this poem lies in separating one element from another. Yet that is also its theme." Indeed, Plath seems to have always had a similar difficulty in separating one element of her life from another. But, that, too, was also, and always, her theme.

From "Sylvia Plath’s ‘Ariel.’" Modern Poetry Studies 3.4 (1972)

Jon Rosenblatt

. . . A poem like "Ariel" possesses power and importance to the degree to which the horseback ride Plath once took becomes something more—a ride into the eye of the sun, a journey to death, a stripping of personality and selfhood. To treat "Ariel" as a confessional poem is to suggest that its actual importance lies in the horse- ride taken by its author, in the author's psychological problems, or in its position within the biographical development of the author. None of these issues is as significant as the imagistic and thematic developments rendered by the poem itself. . . .

. . . "Ariel" is probably Plath's finest single construction because of the precision and depth of its images. In its account of the ritual journey toward the center of life and death, Plath perfects her method of leaping from image to image in order to represent mental process. The sensuousness and concreteness of the poem—the "Black sweet blood mouthfuls" of the berries; the "glitter of seas"—is unmatched in contemporary American poetry. We see, hear, touch, and taste the process of disintegration: the horse emerging from the darkness of the morning, the sun beginning to rise as Ariel rushes uncontrollably across the countryside, the rider trying to catch the brown neck but instead "tasting" the blackberries on the side of the road. Then all the rider's perceptions are thrown together: the horse's body and the rider's merge. She hears her own cry as if it were that of a child and flies toward the burning sun that has now risen.

In "Ariel," Plath finds a perfect blend between Latinate and colloquial dictions, between abstractness and concreteness. The languages of her earlier and her later work come together:

Godiva, I unpeel—
Dead hands, dead stringencies.

The concreteness of the Anglo-Saxon "hands" gives way to the abstractness of the Latinate "stringencies": both the physical and psychological aspects of the self have died and are pared away. Finally, the treatment of aural effects in the poem makes it the finest of Plath's technical accomplishments. The slant-rhymes, the assonance (for example, the "I"-sound in the last three stanzas), and the flexible three-line stanzas provide a superb music. . . . the vortex of images sucks the reader into identifying with a clearly self-destroying journey. On a literal level, few readers would willingly accept this ride into nothingness. But, through its precise rendering of sensation, the poem becomes a temptation: it draws us into its beautiful aural and visual universe against our win. As the pace of the horseride quickens, the intensity of the visual effects becomes greater. The identification of the speaker with the world outside becomes more extreme; Plath's metaphors suggest a large degree of fusion between disparate objects, as in the lines "I / foam to wheat, a glitter of seas." The ride across the fields suddenly turns into an ocean voyage. The body then fuses with the external world. As the speaker's merger with the sun is completed, so is the reader's merger with her: the process of identification within the poem generates a corresponding identification on the part of the reader. If the speaker will be destroyed in the cauldron of energy, the sun, so the reader will be destroyed in the cauldron of the poem. The poem entices us into a kind of death—the experience of abandoning our bodies and selves.

from Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation. Copyright © 1979 by University of North Carolina Press.

Alan Williamson

Consider the beginning of a much finer poem, "Ariel" itself:

Stasis in darkness.
Then the substanceless blue
Pour of tor and distances.

The two near-spondees, rhyming, balanced around the insignificant pivot "in": a line could hardly contrive to have more "stasis," less forward movement to it. Moving ahead another five syllables, a hypothetical second line completes itself with the third occurrence of the rhyme--falling, yet again, on an abstract word denoting a privation of quality or presence. Thus, "blue" enters like the declaration of a second theme: because it is a quality; because it is formally unexpected; because it is only the second long vowel in the poem. The theme expands instantaneously, in a "pour" of long-vowel assonance and rhyme, then curiously sinks back under the first theme, as the velocity of the bolting horse melts concrete objects to an abstract blue of "distances."

This little sonata already contains the essential action of the poem. The second theme, of velocity, intensified quality, intensified selfhood, will be developed around the symbolic long i and the related long e, in what must be one of the most aurally spectacular passages in English poetry since Dylan Thomas:

And now I
Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
The child's cry

Melts in the wall.
And I
Am the arrow,

The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.

As in the mountain vision in The Bell Jar, the "I" is "honed" against the sun until it is "saintly and thin and essential." It is thrust to the end of the line, against unconditioned space; underscored with ideas of purification, expansion, intensity, and above all speed and daring ("White / Godiva," "unpeel," "seas," "child's cry," "flies," "suicidal," "drive"). But finally, at the crisis, "I" metamorphoses into "Eye," fuses with the cosmic, impersonal awareness, or sheer Being, of the sun itself. Specific identity--like specific perception in the opening stanza—"melts" in the "cauldron" of its own acceleration, back to a formless monism.

I have dwelt on this poem not only because it is a tour de force, but because its melding opposites reveal a side of Plath's ontological vision peculiarly relevant to her stylistic development. In a certain sense, as we shall see, the opening stanza we examined so laboriously contains the plot not only of "Ariel" the poem but of Ariel the book.

The philosophical vacillation between motion and stasis runs through all of Plath's late writing.

From Introspection and Contemporary Poetry. Copyright 1984 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Margaret Dickie

A poem that moves from "Stasis in darkness," "substanceless," to the "cauldron of morning" cannot be adequately described as an expression of suicidal impulses, although Plath's use of that word demands explanation. The arrow and the dew, although in apparent apposition, do not reinforce each other. The arrow kills, the dew is killed; the arrow at one with the red eye is its apotheosis, while the dew is consumed by the sun. The dew, like the child's cry melting and the unpeeling dead hands and even the foaming wheat and "glitter of seas," symbolizes all that will be overcome or sacrificed in this arrow's drive into morning. But the speaker, identifying with the arrow, presents herself as no sacrificial victim on the altar of any god. The arrow, like the horse, "God's lioness," absorbs the power of the avenging God: "at one with the drive/ Into the red/ Eye," it is associated with the fury that lit the holocaust.

The sexual implications of this imagery reinforce this reading and develop as well its use in "Purdah." The female speaker here identifies with the horse, a symbol of masculine sexual potency which, as the arrow, becomes a phallic image that drives into the eye, the circle associated with female sexuality. Far from a desire to transcend the physical, "Ariel" expresses the exultation of a sex act in which the speaker is both the driving arrow and the receiving cauldron. "God's lioness" in "Ariel" calls upon both strands of the female mythological lioness: as an arrow she is associated with battle, and in her merger with the sun she absorbs its fertility. Destroyer-creator, masculine-feminine, the spirit with which the speaker identifies in "Ariel" is whole, entire in itself. The fires that burn in honor of and through this spirit are emblematic of its passion and ecstasy.

From Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Copyright © 1979 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

A. Alvarez

The difficulty with this poems lies in separating one element from another. Yet that is also its theme; the rider is one with the horse, the horse is one with the furrowed earth, and the dew on the furrow is one with the rider. The movement of the imagery, like that of the perceptions, is circular. There is also another peculiarity: although the poem is nominally about riding a horse, it is curiously 'substanceless'--to use her own word. You are made to feel the horse's physical presence, but not to see it. The detail is all inward. It is as though the horse itself were an emotional state. So finally the poem is not just about the stallion 'Ariel'; it is about what happens when the 'states in darkness' ceases to be static, when the potential violence of the animal is unleashed. And also the violence of the rider.

From The Art of Sylvia Plath: A Symposium. Ed. Charles Newman. Copyright © 1970 by Charles Newman and the Estate of Sylvia Plath.

Anne Stevenson

The title "Ariel," like "Medusa," carries multiple meanings; it refers to the ethereal spirit of Shakespeare's Tempest, but also significantly, Ariel happened to be the name of the (rather elderly, ponderous) horse on which Sylvia was learning to ride. Most potent of all, Ariel is the spirit of poetry, the romantic embodiment of inspiration or genius. In the canon of Sylvia's work, "Ariel" is supreme, a quintessential statement of all that had meaning for her. In it she rehearses the whole spectrum of her color imagery, moving from "Stasis in darkness" into the "substanceless blue" of sky and distance as horse and rider, "God's lioness," rush as one through clutching hostilities:

Berries cast dark

Black sweet blood mouthfuls,

"Something else," too, "Hauls me through air": the speaker, increasingly ethereal, unpeels, like the speaker in "Fever 1O3°," shedding "Dead hands, dead stringencies" as woman-horse becomes woman-arrow-dew, destroying herself in her unremitting drive toward resurrection. At the end, the "child's cry" that "Melts in the wall" is that of a real child, just as the "the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning" is the real sun rising as she writes. As always - and this is one of the sources of Plath's extraordinary power - every image is grounded in some thing, depicted as if with verbal paint.

From Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Copyright © 1989 by Anne Stevenson.

Stanley Plumly

"Ariel" is, of course, Plath's singular and famous example of the form completely at one with its substance, the language exactly the speedy act of its text. The point for the poet is obvious: "How one we grow,/Pivot of heels and knees." The speaker thus becomes as much Ariel as the horse, and together they become the one thing, the poem itself, "the arrow,/ /The dew that flies/Suicidal, at one with the drive." The run from stasis in darkness into the red eye of morning is a miraculous inhabiting, in which the natural and referential world dissembles, blurs into absence, to the point that the transformation of the horse and rider can become absolute. "Something else / / Hauls me through air . . . " In seconds, she is a white Godiva, unpeeling dead hands and stringencies, then, almost simultaneously, she is foam to wheat, and at that freeing instant, in terror or in esctasy, the child's cry melts in the wall. "Ariel" is as close to a poetry of pure, self-generating, associative action as we could hope for, as if the spirit, at last, had found its correlative, had transcended, in the moment, memory.

From "What Ceremony of Words" in Ariel Ascending: Writings about Sylvia Plath. Ed. Paul Alexander. Copyright © 1985 by Paul Alexander.

Kathleen Margaret Lant

The work which most perfectly embodies Plath's conflicting sets of figures concerning power and nakedness is "Ariel" (October 1962), for this poem shows how Plath's metaphorical universes collide but also how her mutually exclusive systems of representation give rise to some of the most effective and beautiful poetry she wrote. Plath noted in her journal that she was privileged to listen to Auden discuss his view of Shakespeare's Ariel as representative of "the creative imaginative" (Journals 77), so one might assume that in this poem she is revealing something about her own view of creativity.(17) What is curious is that the creativity which emerges so energetically here is ultimately undone within the context of the poet's own presentation of that creativity.

M. L. Rosenthal points to the basic conflict of the poem in observing that "In a single leap of feeling, it identifies sexual elation (in the full sense of the richest kind of encompassment of life) with its opposite, death's nothingness" (74). In fact, however, Plath is not conflating two opposing states of being; instead she is capering dangerously between metaphorical designs which seem to consume the poem from within. Obviously the movement of the poem is very powerful and very positive since the speaker proceeds from stillness and ignorance ("Stasis in darkness" [239]) toward light at a very rapid pace. The speaker moves with some potent force - a horse, a sexual partner, some aspect of herself - which compels her, and given the title and Plath's remarks concerning Auden, we can assume that this force must relate to some aspect of Plath's creative self. The speed of the journey is such that the earth "Splits and passes" before the speaker, and even those delicious and tempting enticements that come between the creator and her work are not enough to impede her; they may be "Black sweet blood mouthfuls," but the speaker of the poem consigns them to the category "Shadows," things which threaten the vision (light) and power of her creative surge.

The female force of the poem flies through air, and suddenly she begins to engage in that most essential of poetic acts - at least for the writers of Plath's generation; she removes those restrictions which threaten her gift. She tosses her clothing off like a rebellious Godiva and rides free, fast, unclothed, and fully herself toward her goal:

Godiva, I unpeel --
Dead hands, dead stringencies.

And she reaches a moment of apparent transcendence: "And now I Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas." Her epiphany is associated with traditionally female symbols. (We might make a connection between the wheat and Demeter, goddess of agriculture, or between wheat and the mother earth. The sea, moreover, certainly seems closely connected with female cycles and with the female symbol of the moon.) Her moment of triumph, moreover, is conveyed in verbs which may suggest - if sexuality is at all to be considered appropriate here - female rather than male sexuality. To foam and to glitter have arguably much more resonance when considered in terms of female orgasm than in terms of male orgasm. The energy of these verbs is great, but it is a more sonorous and sustained energy than a directed, explosive, and aimed burst. To make use of Luce Irigaray's paradigm, woman's sexuality and woman's pleasure are not "one" but "plural" because "woman has sex organs more or less everywhere" (28).

But now the speaker enters a different metaphorical paradigm. Her final "stringency" is removed, "The child's cry / / Melts in the wall," and she can become more powerful only by moving her fully exposed (naked) female self toward the power which she so covets, the power of light and heat and vision - the sun. To make this journey she must transform herself from wheat and water to something much more dangerous and traditionally powerful - an arrow. And here Plath is forced - by the desire of her speaker to assert herself, to move and fly - to appropriate an inappropriate figure for her speaker's flight: the speaker of "Ariel" becomes an arrow. She transforms herself into the most potent figure of the patriarchal symbolic order - the phallus. The arrow is clearly a figure Plath associates somewhat resentfully, with masculine power. In The Bell Jar, Buddy Willard's mother tells him that a man is "an arrow into the future" and that a woman needs to be "the place the arrow shoots off from" (79). Esther's response to Buddy's reiteration of Mrs. Willard's platitudes is that she, Esther, wants to be that arrow: "I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself" (92). In "Ariel," Plath demonstrates the consequences for the female artist of such proud and self-affirming desires when these desires are couched in the only symbolic structures available to her.

While the speaker of the poem may call herself the arrow, while she might arrogantly lay claim to that title, she is still female, still the wheat and the water, still naked and exposed and vulnerable. It is important to note that once the speaker begins her flight, she is no longer the arrow; her femaleness has ineluctably reasserted itself. Inescapably female, she is

The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.

And dew must be consumed by the power of the sun. The speaker of the poem is fully aware that her urgent desire for the power she has arrogated for herself is destructive to her as a woman, for she refers quite deliberately to her journey as suicidal. What is perhaps most tragic about both the speaker of this poem and about Sylvia Plath as the creator of that speaker is that the impulse toward self-disclosure, the desire to move toward the eye/I of awareness, is destined to destroy both of them. In Western culture the unclothed female, whether it be the self-disclosing creator or the emblematic and naked female subject, can be a symbol only of vulnerability and victimization, even when the audience to the glorious and hopeful unveiling is the self.

Placing "Ariel" in a feminist context, Sandra Gilbert argues that the "Eye" toward which this poem moves is "the eye of the father, the patriarchal superego which destroys and devours with a single glance" ("Fine, White Flying Myth" 259). But such a reading, by ignoring the play on words of "eye" and "I," leaves unremarked a central ambiguity in the poem and underestimates Plath's commitment to her female subject and her wild and creative commitment to her own art. The speaking subject here is not just moving toward a powerful male entity, the sun; Plath's speaker is moving implosively toward herself as well, toward the eye/i that has become the center of her universe, the focus of her attention. The tragedy of Plath's work, however, is that she has conceived of this overwhelmingly omnipotent figure in the only metaphors available to her - those of the masculine poetic tradition. In this tradition, power is the sun/god, as Gilbert has observed, and to be fully revealed before him, to be naked before this God, is the most transcendently powerful act a human can perform. But when you are female, when you burn with your own sun and expose yourself confidently to that sun, you are consumed. Your body, your self, is still vulnerable. It will be destroyed. The most telling irony of the poem is that the masculine God of patriarchal discourse has been displaced here by the "I" which is the speaker herself. And the female speaker has become the phallic arrow which impels itself toward that sun. But such a journey into knowledge will prove deadly - because the language, the signifiers of that journey dictate that it must be so  for the speaking subject who is still "dew," still female. Even when the father is replaced, his words speak for him, his language secures his position: the dew will be dispersed by the sun.

from "The big strip tease: female bodies and male power in the poetry of Sylvia Plath." Contemporary Literature 34.4(Winter 1993)

Christina Britzolakis

In 'Ariel', the experience of riding a horse becomes a metaphor for the process of writing a poem. For many critics, the poem is emblematic of Plath's attainment of poetic mastery, as in Stanley Plumly's words, 'Plath's singular and famous example of the form at one with its substance'. Dave Smith writes:

During those six years Plath had learned to write what would be her poem, the poem which was unlike any other, the poem Ted Hughes and others call the Ariel poem. I like it that this poem takes the name of her horse, the horse she is hell-bent on in a pre-dawn ride that is all fluid feeling . . . Nobody ever rode a horse exactly like that, then she did. She not only rode it, but as the physical meld of the images shows she became it in blood and hoof and stride and foam . . . The Collected Poems is a record of how she learnt to ride that electric horse sitting, then trotting, then galloping, finally becoming the current, the motion itself.

As Smith suggests, 'Ariel' forges its own myth of transcendence through the ecstasy of physical motion, an ecstasy which is seen as transitory and self-immolating. The poem seems to embody the event which it describes, seamlessly merging the separate identities of horse and rider through enjambment, assonance, alliteration, and internal rhyme. The symbolist reading of the poem as the affirmation of pure, androgynous creative energy would place it under the sign of Ariel in The Tempest. Yet the apparently seamless movement of poetic becoming in 'Ariel' is predicated on a darker narrative of violence. Two successive movements or phases can be distinguished in the poem's narrative. The first is earthbound and horizontal; it is associated with images of darkness, blood, orality, and the female body, such as the split furrow of the ploughed earth, and the 'nigger-eye | Berries'. These images suggest an identification with a subjugated animal/racial/sexual otherness (the 'nigger eye'/I) . The second movement, which almost imperceptibly takes over from the first, is phallic, solar, and vertical. It is linked with images of light, transcendence, and disembodiment, and punctuated by the repetition of the first-person pronoun, culminating in the figure of the arrow/dew that 'flies | Suicidal, at one with the drive | Into the red | Eye, the cauldron of morning'. The Apollonian 'red Eye', destination of the poem's journey, is an emblem of specularity and surveillance, while the 'cauldron' of morning/mourning invokes an extreme religious imagery of martyrdom and purification; in Isaiah 29: I, Jerusalem is referred to as Ariel, the city destined to be destroyed by fire. The initial assertion of the 'oneness' of the horse and rider gives way to a movement of individuation which forcibly leaves behind the body and the senses.

'Ariel' is a thoroughly Nietzschean poem, a meditation on Zarathustra's dictum that 'the fleetest beast to bear you to perfection is suffering'. The conjunction of the tropes of arrow, sun, and nakedness recalls Zarathustra's description of his 'desire with rushing wings' which 'tore me forth and up and away . . . and then indeed I flew, an arrow, quivering with sun-intoxicated rapture'. The 'rapture' is, as in 'Fever 103°', simultaneously spiritual and orgasmic. The pleasure of an unleashed, yet controlled movement of language ('at one with the drive') is seen in terms of sexual consummation. Yet this pleasure is also self-immolating, exacting a sacrifice of the 'lower', sensory, or bodily strata of experience to a paternal identification. The passage from the 'nigger-eye' to the 'red Eye' traces the emergence of a power structure within the psyche, a movement into the realm of the ego-ideal, which sublimates the darker, feminine, Dionysian energies of the 'nigger'-'I'. Pegasus, the legendary winged horse of poetry, sprang from the blood of Medusa's severed head, and in commemorating that violent birth, the poem remains ambiguously suspended between celebration and mourning.

from Sylvia Plath and the Theatre of Mourning. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Christina Britzolakis

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