Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1352
The poetry collection Ariel established Sylvia Plath as one of the most famous confessional poets of the twentieth century. Like Anne Sexton, her contemporary, and other confessional poets, including Robert Lowell, Plath wrote about taboo subjects such as depression, mental and emotional instability, and familial and domestic problems. Her poems challenged Cold War mentality and the mid-twentieth-century expectations of conformity, often lending themselves to psychoanalytic interpretations.
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Plath’s intense poems deconstruct the boundaries between public and private selves, and most of the poems in Ariel are understood by readers and scholars to be autobiographical. However, it is important to understand that the personas of the Ariel poems are fabricated; the “I” of the poems is only loosely autobiographical. Plath carefully distances herself from the speaker of the poems in direct ways. For example, in perhaps the best-known poem, “Daddy,” Plath positions the victimized speaker as a Jew and her vampire father as a Nazi; furthermore, the poem is replete with references to the Holocaust. Plath, however, was not Jewish and her father was neither a fascist nor a vampire. This poem, like Plath’s others, should be read as authentic in its emotional intensity and in its depictions of psychological states, rather than as strictly autobiographical.
The art of Ariel, including its use of controversial Holocaust metaphors and allusions, creates a poetry that captures the trauma and suffering of the poems’ speakers and that communicates the horrors of living in a suffering female body. Ariel has especially fascinated feminist scholars because of its denunciation of patriarchal power, brutality, and violence. The poems in Ariel are political in terms of their emphasis on personal identity and subjectivity. The collection pivots on issues pertaining to female agency and freedom (or lack thereof). Additionally, the collection displays the hallmarks of confessional poetry, thus making the personal political: In the poems, Plath reshapes the personal and recasts it to make it political by connecting the pain or the issue at hand to larger social problems. Typically, confessional poetry treats issues that are private, sometimes even shocking or unsavory to readers. Still, the most anthologized poems by Plath come from Ariel and have, in fact, influenced how the confessional poetry movement of the 1960’s was understood.
Among the most widely read poems of the collection are, in order of their presentation in the standard edition, “The Applicant,” “Lady Lazarus,” “Tulips,” “Ariel,” “Daddy,” “Fever 103 ,” and “The Arrival of the Bee Box.” Of these, “Lady Lazarus,” “Ariel,” and “Daddy” are, arguably, the standouts. “Lady Lazarus” combines elements of “Ariel” and “Daddy” in its treatment of the suicidal and traumatized speaker who resists patriarchal power in her attempt to reclaim her life. The Holocaust is used as an extended metaphor to connote the extensive victimization endured by the “I” of the poem. However, the corporeal references are more insistent than in Plath’s other poems: The body of the speaker is decaying and dying both from repeated suicide attempts and from the insistent (male) gaze of the people in a crowd, people who want to gawk at the speaker in a metaphorical “big strip tease.” In other words, the speaker’s valuable and yet vulnerable body is on display in a dangerous and damaging way, and yet no one intervenes. The only interventions are the persona’s failed attempts at killing herself: She returns from the dead like the biblical Lazarus. The speaker grows increasingly hostile and angry as the poem progresses, culminating in the turn that makes up the last five stanzas. As the speaker reveals that she has nothing left to show, she warns her readers to beware: “Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air.”
“Ariel” presents a cryptic but vivid portrayal of the suffering female body. The poem opens with an inactive subject in the dark, and the reader learns that the speaker is female and will, ultimately, immolate herself. From the darkness and inactivity she is hauled through the air by hooks and compelled to follow an arrowlike trajectory that involves her body disintegrating before she flies, suicidal, into the sun, the “cauldron of morning.” This cauldron, ironically, promises a new and bright beginning for the suffering speaker. In the process of losing her skin and body, the persona appears to be both driven by an outside force and yet in control, by the end, of her life. Although it is not clearly expressed, the transformed speaker seems to gain agency and freedom, albeit at great cost to herself.
“Daddy” invokes a father figure who is both individual and collective: Daddy is the abusive father and, later, the husband of the persona or speaker of the poem. He is the embodiment of all brute, domineering, and misogynistic men. The persona is entrapped by him metaphorically, and this position points to her emotional and psychological dependence on him. In psychoanalytic terms, the poem can be interpreted as the desire by the persona, who may harbor an Electra complex, to be a healthy, whole, and independent self; so, she must renounce her dead father by metaphorically killing him in verse.
Allusions to the Holocaust abound in “Daddy” as well; the speaker positions herself as a suffering Jew being taken to a concentration camp. The Holocaust references are powerful and controversial, as Plath appropriates the hideous imagery to highlight the traumatic legacies that the persona is confronting in the poem. Plath also creates a sing-song tone and rhythm to highlight the perversity of the persona’s situation: What has been done to the persona emotionally and psychologically are crimes, and the false brightness of the rhymes and the title of the poem underscore this aspect. Indeed, the poem displays an intergenerational cycle of violence. At various points, the speaker identifies Daddy as a fascist, a devil, and a vampire who loves to torture her. Near the end of the poem, Daddy transforms into the speaker’s husband, also couched as a vampire who diminishes the speaker’s life and harms her. However, in a heroic turn in the last stanza, the speaker powerfully condemns Daddy and declares that she is through with him and, by extension, all that he represents.
As dark as the majority of the poems are in this collection, there are bright respites. For example, two poems are written about the children Plath had with poet Ted Hughes. “Morning Song” and “Nick and the Candlestick” are sweet in their conceits or extended metaphors. Although there still remains the myth that Ariel is Plath’s death wish, the restored edition of Ariel, brought out with the help of her daughter, shows that Plath intended the last poem of the collection to be “Wintering,” a hopeful poem that finishes the cycle of what are called the bee poems in Ariel: “The Bee Meeting,” “The Arrival of the Bee Box,” “Stings,” and “The Swarm.” The speaker in “Wintering” ponders the future in the last stanza: “Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas/ Succeed in banking their fires/ To enter another year?/ What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?/ The bees are flying. They taste the spring.” This optimistic ending counters the more pessimistic ending of the last poem, “Words,” in the standard edition, in which the last lines suggest that the speaker is resigned to her fate: “From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars/ Govern a life.” There has been much controversy about the order and omission of poems in the standard, posthumous edition of Ariel, compiled by Hughes, because they differ from the way Plath had organized the collection before her suicide.
The searing feminist critique, the volatile poetic speakers or personas, the technical mastery, and the confessional subject matter of Ariel have intrigued readers since its publication. This interest can be seen in the references to Plath and to the Ariel poems in popular culture, and it is supported by the steady production of academic scholarship on Plath’s work. As a result, Ariel still speaks to human anxieties, fears, and hopes about life, living, and the world, and it remains a touchstone in American poetry.