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.
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...
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