Ariel is a posthumously published collection of poetry by the American poet Sylvia Plath: her second, after The Colossus and Other Poems, which was first published by Heinemann in 1960. After Plath’s death in 1963, her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, edited the first version of the collection which was published in 1965. It includes an introduction by Robert Lowell, an American writer whose book Life Studies (1959) she described as allowing her to make a ‘breakthrough’ into writing about ‘very serious, very personal emotional experience, which I feel has been partly taboo’.

Especially when read out loud, it becomes apparent that the collection is full of the sound of echoes (‘Morning Song’, ‘Elm’, ‘Nick and the Candlestick’ and ‘Words’) and the tolling of bells. The echoes are relevant in terms of semantics, as well as sound, recalling Echo, a character from Ovid’s Metamorphoses who can only speak when spoken to, and then cannot stay silent; on rejection by the beautiful youth Narcissus, she becomes a disembodied voice. The Ariel of the title brings to mind the similarly ethereal and captive spirit from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Other imagery – such as the narrative of rebirth in ‘Lady Lazarus’ – is drawn from the bible; ‘Daddy’ draws its imagery from the Holocaust.

Some of the poems – for example ‘The Bee Meeting’, ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’, ‘Stings’ and ‘Wintering’ – are described as the ‘bee sequence’, and recall the specialist subject of Plath’s father, whose death when she was eight had been extremely traumatic. They are also informed by Plath’s own experience of keeping bees in Devon.

Though there are further personal resonances of Plath’s marriage to Ted Hughes, and the care of the couple’s two children, the critic Robin Peel points out that the apocalyptic atmosphere triggered by the Cuban Missile Crisis (22–26 October 1962) was another influence.

In 1981, Plath’s Collected Poems, edited by Ted Hughes, were published by Faber. In this edition Hughes included a list with the original arrangement of the Ariel poems as Plath left them before her death. In 2004 the ‘Restored Edition’ of Ariel was published, which results in the collection beginning with the word ‘Love’ (the first word of ‘Morning Song’) and ending with ‘spring’ (the last word of ‘Wintering’). This arrangement gives the overall impact of the collection a far more positive tone.

Sylvia Plath

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