Analysis of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel

Stasis in darkness.
Then the substanceless blue
Pour of tor and distances.
God’s lioness,
How one we grow,
Pivot of heels and knees!—The furrow
Splits and passes, sister to
The brown arc
Of the neck I cannot catch,
Berries cast dark
Black sweet blood mouthfuls,
Something else
Hauls me through air—
Thighs, hair;
Flakes from my heels.
Godiva, I unpeel—
Dead hands, dead stringencies.
And now I
Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
The child’s cry
Melts in the wall.
And I
Am the arrow,
The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning.

The title of this poem refers to three possible Ariels. First, Ariel is the name of the horse that the narrator of the poem rides, many critics assume, because it also is the name of a horse that Plath herself rode. Second, in the Old Testament, it is the name for the holy city of Jerusalem and means “lion of god.” Lastly, in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest it is the name of a character, a spritely embodiment of poetic imagination who eventually is set free by his master.

While it may be questionable whether the poem’s narrator is taking us along on an exhilarating horse ride, what is clear is that the poem is full of incredible movement. It starts in still darkness and then rushes us through shadow that transforms into white, then glitter, and then the blazing red “cauldron of morning.” Since morning is the start of day, the poem ends, then, with a beginning and the implication of further movement toward more and more brightness. At the same time, however, the poem ends on what can be seen as a path of suicidal destruction, with the assumption that the narrator will be annihilated by the sun. It is not an accident that “morning” (the last word of the poem) sounds exactly the same as “mourning”—reinforcing the poem’s duality and promoting the idea that something must die in order for something new to be born.

Alternatively, some critics have pointed out that it is not death, but the moment of courting death, that is the poem’s focus and what fulfills some poets such as Plath. The poem may be about the brink of death, or about sex, or riding a horse, or giving birth to a poem or any other artful work, or any combination of these. What is clear is that it is about the overwhelming ecstasy of escape.

The first line in the poem—“Stasis in darkness.”—is the only line that exists by itself, with a period at the end, even though grammatically it actually is not a complete sentence since it lacks a verb. Lacking a verb, it lacks action, which is exactly fitting, for its words are about stillness. The poem, then, starts without movement, and by the second line we are confronted with a word, “substanceless,” that is so hard to say that near stillness continues. Yet quickly after this heavy start, however, the pace picks up. Most words in the poem are one or two syllables, most lines are only a few words, and each stanza but one flows into the next.

The second stanza reads:

God’s lioness,
How one we grow
Pivot of heels and knees!—The furrow

God’s lioness, in any one of the previously mentioned forms, takes the narrator to the place of escape and ecstasy. Quickly, too, the narrator melds with the lioness. The heels and knees of the rider press against her vehicle, give it some direction, and also allow the rider to hold on. Already we are confronted with an exclamation point. But it is in the middle of a line, so we cannot stop for long. The exhilarated riding, sexual allusions, and pure physicality continue as the narrator reaches for “the neck I cannot catch” and gets hauled “through air— / Thighs, hair.” Up until this point, though, there is still darkness and also an ominousness. Berries are not just black and sweet but are “Nigger-eye / Berries,” full of blood that “cast dark / Hooks” and shadows.

The rider gets pulled through the air by “Something else,” into a world that is very different from that of darkness and “Nigger-eye / Berries.” The seventh stanza reads:

Godiva, I unpeel—
Dead hands, dead stringencies.

“White” on its own line stands in stark contrast to the previous blackness, then, even more so because the narrator has become a white Godiva, showing even more white in her public nakedness. Curious is the choice of the word “unpeel,” bringing us back to the previously sweet berries. Also powerful here is the fact that the narrator now exerts some control. She gets to unpeel the deadness rather than just grapple to hold on for the ride. This is the only stanza that stands alone. It is the beginning of the change. The focus is more on light, more on “I.” The long “I” sound occurs repeatedly through the rest of the poem, starting with “White” at the beginning of this stanza.

At the start of the next stanza, we read, “And now I / Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.” The concentration on the narrator continues; the unpeeling has produced this new “I” that is light and glimmering, both dry and wet. “The child’s cry / Melts in the wall” we are told at the end of the stanza and the beginning of the next. This could be the child that the parent hears while having sex in the next room, whose sound diminishes as the parent becomes more involved with her partner. Or the child could be any possible interruption that might seem to need attention but that disappears after all. The child could also be the young, undeveloped self within the “I” narrator, who now melts into the background as the narrator is transformed.

Near the end of the poem, the narrator becomes “the arrow, / The dew that flies / Suicidal,” only to evaporate (harkening back to the child’s cry that “melts”) as the sun rises. More than one critic has compared the use of the arrow in this poem to the reference to the arrow in Plath’s novel The Bell Jar. In the novel, the female teenage narrator quotes her boyfriend’s traditional mother as saying, “What a man is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from.” Later, the young woman (whose life in various ways mimics Plath’s) thinks to herself, “The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the coloured arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.”

As the poem progresses, the narrator is “at one with the drive / Into the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning.” The escape from the self seems to require coming dangerously close to destruction. The narrator in the poem becomes “at one with the drive” (emphasis added) into the red eye, not at one with the actual red eye. The poem ends just on the edge of destruction. Its last lines—“the cauldron of morning”—again point to the mix of destruction and rebirth. Morning traditionally is thought of positively, as a new beginning. Yet here it is a huge, boiling vat, presumably causing destruction as parts of its self are boiled away. At the same time it is an image of cleansing, since boiling traditionally is used as a disinfecting process also.

Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Survival

Further Reading
Aird, Eileen. Sylvia Plath. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1973.
Alexander, Paul, ed. Ariel Ascending: Writings About Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.
Bawer, Bruce. “Sylvia Plath and the Poetry of Confession.” New Criterion 9 (1991): pp. 18–27.
Davis, Robin Reed. “The Honey Machine: Imagery Patterns in Ariel.” New Laurel Review 1 (Spring 1972): pp. 23–31.
Howes, Barbara. “A Note on Ariel.” Massachusetts Review 8 (Winter 1967): pp. 225–26.
Kenner, Hugh. “Ariel—Pop Sincerity.” Triumph 1 (September 1966): pp. 33–34.
Kurtzman, Mary. “Plath’s ‘Ariel’ and Tarot.” Centennial Review 32 (Summer 1988): pp. 286–95
Newman, Charles, ed. The Art of Sylvia Plath. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971.
Perloff, Marjorie. “The Two Ariels: The (Re)Making of the Sylvia Plath Canon.” American Poetry Review 13 (November–December 1984): pp. 10–18
Wood, David. “Art as Transcendence in Sylvia Plath’s Ariel.” Kyushu American Literature 24 (May 1982): pp. 25–34.
Source: Bloom, H., 2001. Sylvia Plath: Bloom’s Major Poets. Chelsea.

Categories: Feminism, Literary Criticism, Literature, Poetry

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