The poems of Ariel were written in the last months of Sylvia Plath’s life. In January of 1963, The Bell Jar, Plath’s only novel, was published in England under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. It was well received but Plath’s life was too deep in the personal turmoil that is expressed in Ariel for her literary success to save her. She committed suicide on February 11, 1963. Many of the poems celebrate death, and death is what Plath chose for herself. The fact of her own death adds a seriousness to the work. The reader is aware, for better or for worse, not only that she wrote about death and suicide but also that she acquired it for herself at a young age, as her career as a writer was beginning. In reading Ariel, then, it is impossible not to try to imagine Plath’s feelings about her own life and her thoughts of ending it. If there were any question that the poems were not genuinely from the poet’s heart, these thoughts are vanquished by the knowledge of her death. Her life and death intrude, in a sense, on her art: The reader is not likely to experience Ariel in the same way that one might if the book’s author had not committed suicide.
Plath’s poetry has been categorized in what is known as the confessional school. Other poets from this school to whom Plath is often compared are Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Anne Sexton. Confessional poetry is characterized by experimentation in form and voice (often, use of free verse and of idiomatic and nonstandard English), use of metaphor that borders on private meaning or the surreal, and, most noticeably, frank discussion of the poet’s own personal and private griefs. One of Plath’s great achievements was her fusing of the emotional immediacy of the confessional style of poetry with the more distant, aesthetically rigorous formalism seen in the strictly structured poems of an earlier era. She manages to take her most emotional and sensuous feelings and use them objectively in terms of formal poetic devices. Her poems can capture the attention of the mind and the heart. It must be added that, while much of her poetry is in the confessional mode, it should not be assumed that every word is directly traceable to events in the poet’s life. Even though the temptation is great to do otherwise, her poetry should be read as poetry, not as autobiography.
The poems of Ariel may be broken into four groups. These do not coincide with the order in which they are arranged in the book, but are the order in which they were written. “Elm,” “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” “The Rival,” and “Berck-Plage” were written before July, 1962, and were inspired during Plath’s stay at her husband Ted Hughes’s home in Devon, England. The next group was written in October and November of 1962. These are the bee poems, including “The Bee Meeting,” “The Arrival of the Bee Box,” “Stings,” “Wintering,” and “The Swarm.” Next followed the main body of the collection for Ariel, including “The Couriers,” “Sheep in Fog,” “The Applicant,” “Lady Lazarus,” “Cut,” “The Night Dances,” “Poppies in October,” “Ariel,” “Death & Co.,” “Nick and the Candlestick,” “Gulliver,” “Getting There,” “Medusa,” “A Birthday Present,” “Letter in November,” “Daddy,” and “Fever 103°.” The last group of poems was written in January, 1963, in the last month of her life; these are “The Munich Mannequins,” “Totem,” and “Paralytic.” Included in this last set are five others, which were written in the last week of Plath’s life. They are “Balloons,” “Contusion,” “Kindness,” “Edge,” and “Words.”
“Mary’s Song,” “Lesbos,” and “The Swarm” appear in the American edition of Ariel but not in the original British edition. “The Swarm” belongs with the bee poems, and the other two are from the period in her life following the writing of the bee poems. This covers the time frame of the majority of the work in Ariel.
The main body of poems, from the later era of her life, read as a nightmare. Plath fuses her knowledge of poetic structure with Greek and biblical myths, in order to create her own place in the nightmare and create poetry that expresses her darkest fears and pains of life. This collection is a critically acclaimed masterpiece. The poems of Ariel differ from her earlier poems in that they are written in a simpler style, with a more economical use of words, more direct and pointed phrasing. They read in a more conversational tone than her earlier poems, and adhere less to formal meter and rhyme.
One exception to the general use of free verse in Ariel is the poem “Daddy,” which is in anapestic trimeter. The rhyme scheme is based on the sound “oo,” which is a grand use of a nursery-rhyme sound in discussing a fierce loathing for the character called “Daddy.” Plath may have used and needed a strong sense of structure for this poem because it may be the most painful issue that she confronts in this volume. By using a rigid structure,...