A close reading of 'Ariel'

Mark Ford describes how physical and emotional experience interact in Sylvia Plath’s 'Ariel'.


It was on her 30th birthday, 27 October 1962, that Sylvia Plath wrote the poem that she eventually decided should give its title to her second collection of poetry. As well as being the airy spirit eventually released by Prospero in The Tempest, Ariel was the name of a horse that Plath used to ride in Devon. Like a number of the poems that she wrote in the aftermath of the collapse of her marriage to Ted Hughes earlier that summer, ‘Ariel’ transforms an everyday rural activity – horse riding – into a vividly charged narrative, dramatising extreme, vertiginous, conflicted emotions. Her use of the word ‘Suicidal’ towards the end of ‘Ariel’ has meant that the poem has often been read as enacting her compulsion to dice with death: in his Preface to the American edition of Ariel Robert Lowell described her late work as ‘playing Russian roulette with six cartridges in the cylinder’. What is perhaps most fascinating about the volume’s title poem, however, is its layering of the thrilling physical and visual experience  of an early morning horse ride with Plath’s equally thrilling quest for a new kind of poetry, one able to communicate, through the energy of its rhythms and the violence of its imagery, dangerously powerful, indeed overwhelming, feelings. Yet for all the poem’s intensity, the meanings of its various metaphors remain ambivalent: should one interpret, for instance, its final depiction of her flying into ‘the red // Eye, the cauldron of morning’ as signifying apocalyptic conflagration or as looking towards an exciting vita nuova? Startling in its precision and purposefulness, the language of ‘Ariel’ brilliantly enables the contradictions that are the source of its energy to co-exist without resolution.

Manuscript fair copy of Sylvia Plath's 'Ariel', dedicated to Al Alvarez

Sylvia Plath's 'Ariel', dedicated to Al Alvarez

Plath’s fair copy of ‘Ariel’, written in October 1962.

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'Something else hauls me'

The urgency of the emotions driving ‘Ariel’ is reflected in the compression of the poem’s idiom: its opening line, ‘Stasis in darkness’, uses just five syllables to convey the experience of sitting on an unmoving horse while waiting for dawn. Plath’s language is insistently metaphorical throughout, while achieving immediacy by paring and eliding and fusing: ‘God’s lioness, / How one we grow’; there is no time for simile-introducing words such as ‘like’. The ride itself unfurls in a kind of poetic shorthand, ‘the substanceless blue / Pour of tor’ (a tor is a Devonshire word for a rocky hill) capturing the kaleidoscopic whirl of land and sky impressionistically registered mid-gallop. Yet, despite the poem’s reckless speed, Plath also manages to develop complex analogies that take some puzzling out: stanza three, for instance, is devoted to an intricate visual comparison between the sweeping brown curve that can be seen when looking down a furrow in a ploughed field and the sweeping brown curve of Ariel’s neck. This comparison is presented, however, as occurring in the poem’s present, as flashing through the mind of the rider as she zooms past each furrow, on the verge of losing control:

                         The furrow
Splits and passes, sister to
The brown arc
Of the neck I cannot catch …

The analogy works somewhat in the ingenious manner of a metaphysical conceit, and like numerous religious poems by John Donne, George Herbert and Andrew Marvell, ‘Ariel’ can be read as dramatising a dialogue between body and soul: the blackberries glimpsed in the next stanza, for instance, are figured as attempting to restrain her helter-skelter dash towards transcendence, as allegorical ‘hooks’ that might slow her down or waylay her; the ‘black sweet blood mouthfuls’ they offer are emblematic of tempting, earthly pleasures, and her dismissal of them as mere ‘shadows’ is a crucial stage in her surrender to the ‘something else’ that ‘hauls’ her ‘through air’. (It is, incidentally, surely much to be regretted that the need to intensify every perception leads Plath to convert these blackberries into ‘Nigger-eye / Berries’, even if in the early 1960s the N-word was not as beyond the pale as it has since become.) While on the literal level this ‘something else’ is her horse Ariel, as the ‘red eye’ of the final lines is the early morning sun, on the plane of the psychodrama that the poem develops this force might be glossed as the compulsive eruption of transgressive energies so extreme that they both shatter social taboos and prompt an exhilarating, if perilous, reconfiguration of the self.

'White Godiva'

This reconfiguration involves a casting off of clothes and conventions and obligations. As Prospero releases Ariel at the end of The Tempest, with the words ‘Then to the elements / Be free, and fare thou well’, so in ‘Ariel’ Plath imagines herself escaping the ‘Dead hands, dead stringencies’ that confine her, and even as dissolving the weight and limitations of her own physical being – ‘Thighs, hair; / Flakes from my heels’.

Yet by also describing herself as ‘White / Godiva’, she summons up an altogether less consensual model of liberation than that of Ariel from Prospero. The 11th-century noblewoman Lady Godiva was reputed to have ridden naked through the streets of Coventry in protest against the excessive taxes that her husband was imposing on his tenants. The reference reminds us of the ‘big strip tease’ that Plath presents herself performing in ‘Lady Lazarus’ (also composed in the last week of October 1962), and it is no coincidence that Lady Godiva’s legendary ride was a courageous act of defiance of a cruel, unjust husband. While ‘Ariel’ does not demonise Hughes in the way that ‘Lady Lazarus’ and ‘Daddy’ do, the allusion to Godiva links the poem’s quest for freedom with her more explicit attacks elsewhere on the forces of patriarchy, as well as with the willingness expressed in related poems to engage in mocking erotic self-performance as a form of protest and vengeance, to ‘unpeel’ herself in a public place, just as Lady Lazarus allowed herself to be unwrapped in front of the ‘peanut-crunching crowd’. Both vulnerable and aggressive, the naked Lady Godiva serves as a striking visual image of the paradoxes that generate the contradictory forces at play in the last third of the poem.

'The arrow, the dew'

For good or ill, the force behind the poem so transforms Plath’s sense of her identity that rather than locating herself in the landscape, she becomes it:

Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
And I
Am the arrow,

The dew that flies ...

It is interesting to note that early drafts of the poem include an address to her horse, ‘O bright / Beast’; its elimination from the final version is another instance of the urge to dissolve the physical and the circumstantial, an urge most potently, and troublingly, expressed in her rejection of her maternal role – ‘The child’s cry // Melts in the wall’. In the poem’s final lines her liberation from her social and physical self is so complete that she asks to be construed either as a visionary seer, or as someone who has now decisively moved beyond all the ‘hooks’ that might attach her to everyday existence. As both arrow and dew Plath is aimed upwards; and although it may be worth remembering that both will eventually return to earth, the poem’s forward thrust negates such considerations, asking us to imagine only their hurtling, like Icarus, towards the sun:

the drive
Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.

  • Mark Ford
  • Mark Ford is a Professor in the English Department at University College London. He has published widely on 19th-, 20th- and 21st- century British and American poetry, and is the author of three collections of poetry himself: Landlocked (1992), Soft Sift (2001), and Six Children (2011). He has also edited the anthology London: A History in Verse (2012).

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