Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Ariel” in many ways encapsulates the essence of the lyric form—a sense of nowness, of immediate experience which, because it is unconnected with any domestic narrative, captures the sublimity possible in pure sensation. At the same time, it contains the negativity that is an integral part of Sylvia Plath’s vision. This sense of darkness, of fatality, was considered by her early critics to be inseparable from the theme of suicide that was explored in her novel The Bell Jar (1963) and that attracted her in life as well. Perhaps a more objective way of putting it would be to say that Plath attempted to see the world in a more honest and direct way; stripping sensation of its conventional meanings, she produced a new, dark vision of transcendence. This she expressed in a personal language with its own systems of classical allusions and correspondences. As she said in her 1956 journal: “[I]t is suddenly either all or nothing; either you break the surface shell into the whistling void or you don’t.The horror is the sudden folding up and away of the phenomenal world, leaving nothing. Just rags. Human rooks which say: Fraud.”

In “Ariel” one can see this folding up of the phenomenal world and the abandoning in stages of conventional meaning; through tribulation, there is a movement to a new transcendence. This idea is expressed in the Hebrew meaning of the name she gave to her horse, “Ariel.” This is the word used for Jerusalem when...

(The entire section is 475 words.)