Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Ariel, Sylvia Plath’s most celebrated book of poetry, is credited as the first collection of poems in which Plath finds her unique voice. The forty-three poems are bound together by an overwhelming sense of urgency and common themes. Some scholars consider Plath to be one of the few poets to address the traditional female world without being trite, obvious, or unimportant. Even those who discount the content of her work as self-indulgent praise her marvelous use of language, her mastery of rhythm and use of sound, and her unusual sense of metaphor—in short, her poetic craft.

Ariel was compiled posthumously by Plath’s estranged husband, the English poet Ted Hughes. Most of the poems were written in the final five months of Plath’s life, sometimes at the rate of several each day, a frenzy of productivity reflected in the furious pace of the poems. According to Hughes, around Christmas of 1962 Plath selected the poems for Ariel, ordering them in a binder beginning with “Morning Song” and ending with “Wintering,” so that the work opened and closed with the words “Love” and “spring,” respectively. Hughes omitted twelve of the intended works in the published edition—primarily the ones that dealt with her anger about his extramarital affair. These poems were published later.

While Plath’s earlier poetry is controlled, showing a development of technical mastery, in Ariel she releases a torrent of extreme violence and passion. In “Daddy,” probably her best-known poem, the speaker confronts the fury that she feels toward her father, who died when she was ten. “Daddy” is written as a child’s poem, a nursery rhyme which uses playful words, rhyme, and repetition, all of which contrast sharply with the poem’s content. The sing-song cadence and use of the affectionate term “Daddy” convey the feelings of a grown woman who longs for her dead father. She expresses the desire to reunite with him, which is possible...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Sylvia Plath is one of the most widely read poets of her time, and many poems from Ariel have become part of the poetic cannon. Ariel has been placed among the best-selling poetry collections of the twentieth century; it sold more than 500,000 copies in its first twenty years in publication. Few scholars have been able to discuss Plath’s body of work without addressing the facts of her life and death, either interpreting her poems using the knowledge of her history or arguing that her personal life should be ignored in scholarly study. It is difficult, however, not to discuss Plath’s history, as the poet, herself, has become a mythic figure. Her suicide often is viewed romantically giving credibility and authenticity to her artistic expression.

In Ariel, as in much of Plath’s work, a female voice presents a woman’s perspective. Her poems draw from traditional female roles, responsibilities, or concerns, such as cooking, childbearing, and mothering. Growing up in the 1950’s, Plath battled against the roles that she felt compelled to play: the perfect daughter, the perfect poet, the perfect wife, the perfect mother. She expresses her feelings of being stifled by society’s more in “A Birthday Present”: “When I am quiet at my cooking. . ./ Measuring the flour, cutting off the surplus,/ adhering to rules, to rules, to rules.” Her protagonist asks for death as her gift, the only thing that can free her from these...

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The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

On first reading, much of Sylvia Plath’s poetry seems chaotic, and there is a sense of demoniacal negativity. Some critics have wondered whether her later poetry did not represent a surrender of reason to the turbulence of the emotions and a distraught, hypersensitive mentality. “Ariel,” however, shows clearly the sense of control, order, and choice that characterizes her most mature lyrics. It describes in fragmentary, passionate, and almost hallucinogenic vividness an event in Sylvia Plath’s life that occurred when she lost control of her horse, Ariel, and, losing the stirrups, clung to its neck while it ran for two miles at full gallop across an English pastoral landscape.

“Stasis in darkness,” the first line, describes the moment when she is mounted on the horse but has not yet emerged from the stables into daylight beneath “substance-less blue” skies. A “tor” is a craggy hill, and together with the berry bushes and furrows of a ploughed field, it depicts the English landscape through which she rides at breakneck speed. The exultation of oneness with the raw power and dynamism of the horse hurtling forward produces the words “God’s lioness.” Is the lioness the rider, the horse, or—as the next line suggests—both, united in a “Pivot of heels and knees”? Actually, “god’s lioness” is a literal translation of the Hebrew word “Ariel” which in Isaiah 29:1-3 and 5-7 is an admiring epithet for Jerusalem, a city both...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The structure of “Ariel” is strict: ten three-line stanzas and a final single line for closure. The connections between the stanzas are strange, however, and they make it difficult to tell where one image or subject breaks off and another begins. For example, “God’s lioness,” which begins the second stanza, seems to refer by apposition to the “pour of tor and distances,” the end of the first stanza. In the same way, there is frequently a sort of enjambment or connection between the last line of one stanza and the first of the next.

Ordinary similes and metaphors occur, but they are indicated by the slightest signs. “The furrow” is likened to the “brown arc/ Of the neck I cannot catch” by the words “sister to.” The berries are compared to mouthfuls of blood by mere juxtaposition. “God’s lioness” is both a metaphor and a complex allusion; the single word “Godiva” is yet another simile. The poem is rich with the resonances and figures of speech of traditional lyric. The poetic innovation here is in the supreme brevity with which these poetic figures are invoked. The meter is so brief that a complex image must be communicated in a few telegraphic words.

There is a general sense of rejection, dissolution, and emptiness in “Ariel”: “substanceless blue,” “Nigger-eye/ Berries,” “hooks,” “Flakes from my heels,” “Dead hands,” the verb “Melts.” The sun is seen not as a sign of hope and power...

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(Critical Survey of Literature, Masterpiece Edition)

Critical Evaluation:

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,...

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(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Bassnett, Susan. Sylvia Plath: An Introduction to the Poetry. 2d ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Concentrates on close readings of Plath’s texts, rather than on the cult of her personality and suicide. Chapters include “God, Nature, and Writing” and “Writing the Family.”

Gil, Jo. The Cambridge Introduction to Sylvia Plath. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. A brief but comprehensive introduction to Plath’s life and work. Includes discussion of Ariel, the critical reception to her work, and analyses of the cultural contexts—including the domestic sphere and suburbia—in which she lived and wrote.

_______, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. This essay collection features critical and recent discussions on Plath’s work and life and on the background and contexts pertinent to Ariel. Although some of the essays are dense, this volume provides a serviceable selection of scholarship on Plath.

Hungerford, Amy. The Holocaust of Texts: Genocide, Literature, and Personification. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Chapter 1 provides an overview of the ways Plath has been read and discusses whether her controversial allusions to the Holocaust are ethical or appropriate.

Kroll, Judith. Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. 2d ed. Stroud, England: Sutton, 2007. First published in 1976, this book is one of the first to concentrate on the complexity of Plath’s work, rather than on the circumstances of her life and death. Discusses books and artwork that influenced Plath, including mythological and psychological sources.

Plath, Sylvia. Ariel: The Restored Edition. New York: HarperPerennial Modern Classics, 2005. This edition of Ariel follows Plath’s vision for the order of the poems and restores a dozen poems that had been cut from the original manuscript. Especially noteworthy is this edition’s foreword by Frieda Hughes, Plath’s daughter, which situates Ariel within the family’s history and contextualizes the collection within Plath’s life and literary output.