Analysing critically, Jon Rosenblatt says, “. . . A poem like “Ariel” possesses power and importance to the degree to which the horseback ride Plath once took becomes something more—a ride into the eye of the sun, a journey to death, a stripping of personality and selfhood. To treat “Ariel” as a confessional poem is to suggest that its actual importance lies in the horse- ride taken by its author, in the author’s psychological problems, or in its position within the biographical development of the author. None of these issues is as significant as the imagistic and thematic developments rendered by the poem itself. . . .
. . . “Ariel” is probably Plath’s finest single construction because of the precision and depth of its images. In its account of the ritual journey toward the center of life and death, Plath perfects her method of leaping from image to image in order to represent mental process. The sensuousness and concreteness of the poem—the “Black sweet blood mouthfuls” of the berries; the “glitter of seas”—is unmatched in contemporary American poetry. We see, hear, touch, and taste the process of disintegration: the horse emerging from the darkness of the morning, the sun beginning to rise as Ariel rushes uncontrollably across the countryside, the rider trying to catch the brown neck but instead “tasting” the blackberries on the side of the road. Then all the rider’s perceptions are thrown together: the horse’s body and the rider’s merge. She hears her own cry as if it were that of a child and flies toward the burning sun that has now risen.
In “Ariel,” Plath finds a perfect blend between Latinate and colloquial dictions, between abstractness and concreteness. The languages of her earlier and her later work come together:
Godiva, I unpeel—
Dead hands, dead stringencies.
The concreteness of the Anglo-Saxon “hands” gives way to the abstractness of the Latinate “stringencies”: both the physical and psychological aspects of the self have died and are pared away. Finally, the treatment of aural effects in the poem makes it the finest of Plath’s technical accomplishments. The slant-rhymes, the assonance (for example, the “I”-sound in the last three stanzas), and the flexible three-line stanzas provide a superb music. . . . the vortex of images sucks the reader into identifying with a clearly self-destroying journey. On a literal level, few readers would willingly accept this ride into nothingness. But, through its precise rendering of sensation, the poem becomes a temptation: it draws us into its beautiful aural and visual universe against our win. As the pace of the horseride quickens, the intensity of the visual effects becomes greater. The identification of the speaker with the world outside becomes more extreme; Plath’s metaphors suggest a large degree of fusion between disparate objects, as in the lines “I / foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.” The ride across the fields suddenly turns into an ocean voyage. The body then fuses with the external world. As the speaker’s merger with the sun is completed, so is the reader’s merger with her: the process of identification within the poem generates a corresponding identification on the part of the reader. If the speaker will be destroyed in the cauldron of energy, the sun, so the reader will be destroyed in the cauldron of the poem. The poem entices us into a kind of death—the experience of abandoning our bodies and selves.
“Ariel,” the title poem of Sylvia Plath’s posthumous volume of the same name is one of her most highly regarded, most often criticised, and most complicated poems. The ambiguities in the poem begin with its title, which has a three fold meaning. To a reader uninformed by Plath’s biography “Ariel” would probably most immediately call to mind the “airy spirit” who in Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a servant to Prospero and symbolizes Prospero’s control of the upper elements of the universe, fire and air. On another biographical or autobiographical level, “Ariel,” as we know from reports about the poet’s life, was the name of her favorite horse, on whom she weekly went riding. Robert Lowell, in his forward to Ariel, says, “The title Ariel summons up Shakespeare’s lovely, though slightly chilling and androgynous spirit, but the truth is that this Ariel is the author’s horse.” Ted Hughes, Plath’s husband, adds these comments,
Ariel was the name of the horse on which she went riding weekly. Long before, while she was a student at
Cambridge (England), she went riding with an American friend out towards Grantchester. Her horse bolted, the stirrups fell off, and she came all the way home to the stables, about two miles, at full gallop, hanging around the horse’s neck.
These two allusions, to The Tempest and to her horse “Ariel,” have often been noticed and pointed out, with the emphasis, from a critical perspective, being placed on the biographical referent. But there is another possible referent in the title of the poem which no one has yet noted, although the poet, apparently, went out of her way to make reference, even obvious reference, to it. I refer to “Ariel” as the symbolic name for Jerusalem. “Ariel” in Hebrew means “lion of God.” She begins the second stanza of the poem with the line “God’s lioness,” which seems to be a direct reference to the Hebrew or Jewish “Ariel.”
Plath’s obsession with Judaism and the Jewish people is clearly indicated in many of her poems.
Indeed, some of the imagery which informs the passage concerning “Ariel” in the Book of Isaiah (29:1-7) appears to have been drawn on directly by Plath for her imagery in her poem “Ariel.” In Isaiah 29-5-6 we read,
And in an instant, suddenly,
You will be visited by the Lord of hosts
With thunder and with earthquake and great noise,
With whirlwind and tempest,
And the flame of a devouring fire
In short, then, the poet seems to be combining these three references to “Ariel” in her poem, and creating a context where each of the possible meanings enriches the others. She even seems to imply this when she says, in the second stanza, “How one we grow.” Each of the three “Ariel’s” contributes its part to the totality of the poem, and each of them merges into the others so that, by the end of the poem, they are all “one.”
Now, of these three references to “Ariel,” the two that seem most fruitful in terms of an analysis of the poem appear to be the autobiographical and the Biblical In terms of the autobiographical overtones, the poem can be seen as what apparently it is in fact—an account of the poet’s going for a ride on her favorite horse. Each of the details she mentions with respect to the ride (at least through the first six stanzas) can be seen as exact reporting of what it is like to ride a horse. The last five stanzas of the poem obviously move beyond the literal telling of taking a horseback ride and move into something which partakes of the mystery whereby the rider experiences something of the unity which is created between horse and rider, if not literally, at least metaphorically. This change in the theme of the poem is signaled both by a change in tone and by a change in technique, and specifically by the break in the rhyme scheme.
In talking of the rhymes in Plath’s poetry, John Frederick Nims points out that in The Colossus, Plath’s first book, she chooses to rhyme “atonally” using one of several variations:
The same vowel-sound but with different consonants after it: fishes-pig-finger-history; worms-converge. Different vowel-sounds but with the same final consonant: vast-compost-must; knight-combat-heat (this is her most characteristic kind of rhyme in The Colossus). Unaccented syllable going with accented or unaccented: boulders-wore: footsoles-babel. She considers all final vowels as rhyming with all others: jaw-arrow-eye (perhaps suggested by the Middle-English practice in alliteration). Or she will mate sounds that have almost anything in common: ridgepole-tangle-inscrutable.
In Ariel, the use of rhyme is very different. In some poems it is ghostlier than ever. But more often it is obvious: rhyme at high noon. The same sound may run on from stanza to stanza, with much identical rhyme. “Lady Lazarus” illustrates the new manner. The poem is printed in units of three lines, but the rhyme is not in her favorite terzarima pattern. Six of the first ten lines end in an n-sound, followed by a sequence in long e, which occurs in about half of the next twenty-two lines. Then, after six more a’s, we have l’s ending eleven of fourteen lines, and then several r’s, leading into the six or more air rhymes that conclude the sequence. Almost Skeltonian: the poet seems to carry on a sound about as long as she can, although not in consecutive lines.
Now up to the seventh stanza of the poem (and continuing on through the remainder of the poem once the transitions has been made in the seventh stanza, “White / Godiva, I unpeel— / Dead hands, dead strigencies”), the rhyme scheme has been, for the most part, “regular” in terms of the slant rhymes Nims has suggested, each stanza having two lines which rhyme, given Plath’s approach to rhyme. “darkness” / “distance,” “grow” / “furrow,” “arc” / “catch,” “dark”/ “Hooks,” “mouthfuls” / “else,” “air” / “hair,” “I” / “cry,” “wall” / “arrow,” and “drive” / “red.” It is true that the rhymes do not all fit the categories Nims has set forth, although some of them do. Where the rhymes do not fit his scheme, another scheme, equally justifiable, could be suggested—one which the poet apparently used equally often, here as well as in other poems in Ariel. For instance, in the case of the rhymes “darkness” / “distance,” the rhyme works on the duplication of the initial “d’s” and the final “s’s”; in “arc” / “catch,” “arc” ends in the consonant “c” which is picked up as the initial letter in “catch” (also the sequence “ac” in “arc” is reversed in “catch” to “ca”); the “k” in “dark” and “Hooks” carries the rhyme for the lines ending in these two words; in the “wall” / “arrow” rhyme Plath has apparently worked the words so that the letters of the one word become inverted and duplicated backwards in the letters of the other, thus “w” begins “wall” and ends “arrow” and the double “1” in “wall” is duplicated by the double “r” in “arrow,” each of the double consonants following the vowel “a”; and the initial “d” of “drive” goes with the final “d” of “red,” and so forth.
But, to show the change in theme in the Godiva stanza, Plath breaks the rhyme within the stanza itself, while, and at the same time, she joins this transitional stanza to what has gone before and to what will follow by interlocking its rhyme with the dangling or unused line in both the preceding and following stanzas. Thus “heels” from the preceding stanza is made to rhyme with “unpeel” in the Godiva stanza, and “seas” of the following stanza is made to rhyme with “stringencies.” The unity of the poem as a whole has thus been maintained while the shift in its theme is signaled both thematically and structurally by a shift in the rhyme scheme.
In addition to this rather complex patterning of rhyme, Plath also has her own alliterative-devices to bind together individual lines and, at times, larger units of her poems. In “Ariel,” for instance, we find lines like, “Pour of tor and distances,” “Pivot of heels and knees,” and “Of the neck I cannot catch.” In each of these lines, the internal rhyme (“pour” / “tor”) or the alliteration (“cannot catch”) or the assonance (“heels and knees”) creates a kind of music which takes the place of exact or even slant rhyme.
On at least two other occasions, then, Plath has set forth similar experiences to the one she details in “Ariel,” and in each case she has communicated her experience in terms of horses and horseback riding. All demonstrate a desire to have her reader feel, if not see, the unities of the interconnected emotions which she is attempting to express in these poems. Particularly in “Ariel,” she is careful to link the thematic and rhyme devices already mentioned to an overall structure which suggests the special kind of fusions that she intends. The poem is written in three line stanzas, and, in the sense that two of the lines in each stanza rhyme, the poem might be considered to fall into a loose terza rima. Another way in which the form works to complement the meaning is in the stanzaic form itself. The very fact that the stanzas are tri-fold parallels the tri-fold allusions to horse, Ariel in Shakespeare, and “Ariel” as a reference to Jerusalem, Therefore, the stanzaic structure as well as the structure of the individual stanzas corroborates the theme of the poem.
But perhaps the most important structural, as well as thematic, line in the poem is the last line, which is also the final stanza of the poem. This line is important in a three-fold way: first, the “ro” of “cauldron” is inverted to “or” in “morning,” thus continuing the duality of the double, and here internal, rhyme that occurs throughout the poem, but at the same time tightening the rhyme even further into the space of a single line; second, the words “eye” and “morning,” carrying as they do the overtones of “I” and “mourning,” at once incorporate the personal activity (riding a horse) with the communal concern of the Biblical passage (where “Ariel” comes to signify the whole history of the Hebrew race and the suffering, the “mourning” so immediately identified with that history); and, thirdly, the word “cauldron” mixes all of the foregoing elements together into a kind of melting pot of emotion, history and personal involvement. Thus, the poem takes on the richness and complexity we have come to expect from the poet, and, not without reason, stands as the title poem of the book. As A. Alvarez has said, “The difficulty with this poem lies in separating one element from another. Yet that is also its theme.” Indeed, Plath seems to have always had a similar difficulty in separating one element of her life from another. But, that, too, was also, and always, her theme.
One of Sylvia Plath’s poems from her final phase—the last five months or so of her life—Ariel, which also provided the title for the posthumous collection, Ariel, was written on October 20, 1962 and recorded for BBC ten days later.
In its draft stage, this poem also carried provisional alternative titles, such as ‘God’s Lioness’ and ‘Horse’. Painstakingly revised, crafted and finished, Ariel, in its final form, is an elliptic and also occasionally esoteric poem that stretches its language almost as far as it will go. In this sense, if in no other, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel is an instance of “extremist poetry”. It is almost mystical in its celebration of a union between what it calls, in its opening line, “stasis” and its dynamic and volatile opposite, ‘ec-stasis’ or ecstasy. It is an act of joissance, a poem that defies and rides roughshed over—and beyond?—the symbolic order, the pre-existing structures of language, kinship relations, culture and other combinatorial structures into which one is born. The symbolic order is, of course, that which “submits her [the woman], it transcends her” by inscribing the woman “in an order” of exchange of which she is the object is what makes for the fundamentally conflictual and…insoluble character of her position”.
In Ariel, the “God’s Lioness” (in Hebrew, the word Ariel means God’s Lioness), the speaker in the poem, deftly sidesteps what Helene Cixous, in her essay, “The Laugh of Medusa” (1976), calls “circumfusion”, steals past and endeavours to “unthink” the “unifying regulating history that homogenizes and channels forces herding contradictions into a single battlefield”. By the end of Ariel, “God’s Lioness”, flows, has fused into a “new” being, a sort of woman-horse, both body and mind,
Intriguingly, in the above, Sylvia Plath appears to have anticipated, in creative ways, the James Joyce scholar Helene Cixous who, in “The Laugh of Medusa”, writes:
For us the point is not to take possession in order to internalize or manipulate, but rather to dash through and to “fly”.
Flying is woman’s gesture—flying and making it fly. We have all learned the art of flying and its numerous techniques; for centuries we have been able, to possess anything only by flying: we have lived in flight, stealing away, finding, when desired, narrow passages, hidden crossovers.
In Ariel, Sylvia Plath attempts a “cross-over”, perhaps not so much “hidden” as “overt”, through the poem whose language and syntax Plath, in some ways recalling the Surrealists, tries to dislocate and break up, through aleatory, hasard-oriented shock tactics toward the end of engendering, hopefully, new ways of seeing. Ariel, here, participates in the politics of perception, as it were; Plath here casts the first stone.
Ted Hughes, writing about the genesis of Ariel reveals that:
Ariel was the name of the horse on which she went riding weekly. Long before, while she was a student at Cambridge (England), she went riding with an American friend out towards Grantchester. Her horse bolted, the stirrups fell off, and she came all the way home to the stables, about two miles, at full gallop, hanging around the horse’s neck.
It is this suicidal 1956 horse-ride, at “full gallop, hanging around the horse’s neck”, that Sylvia Plath recalls and narrativizes in Ariel. Perhaps it is because of her allusion, in Ariel, to this incident (accident?) that Sylvia Plath had provisionally entitled the poem: “Horse”.
Sylvia Plath’s interest in alchemy, the Cabala, the occult, the Seance (one of her poems is entitled ‘Ouija’), theosophy and the Tarot pack (recalling William Butler Yeats) is also a significant factor contributing towards her writing of the poem.
Reading Ariel as one of several of Plath’s “Triumphant Women Poems” (the others, according to her, are “Lady Lazarus”, “Purdah”, “Fever 103°” and “Applicant”), Linda Wagner Martin refers to Mary Kurtzman’s essay, “Plath’s Ariel and Tarot”.
Kurtzman’s reading of Ariel depends, line by line, on those beliefs as generated from Tarot card #14, Art or Temperance, on which a black-white woman is doing alchemical work over a cauldron, with a lion and an eagle at her feet. Associated with this iconography is the number 60, the Hebrew letter S, the sign Sagittarius, the god Jupiter, the goddess Diana, the colour blue, the horse, the Arrow, the hips and thighs, the Centaur and the Path of union with one’s Higher Self or Holy Guardian Angel, symbolized by the sun.
There is a striking resemblance between these figures and the imagery in Ariel. Since it is well established that Plath was into the occult and tarot packs in her last years. Kurtzman perhaps correctly concludes that the speaker in Ariel is Plath, “a person neither suicidal nor insane.” Kurtzman adds that this speaker
…is a mystic using her own, always idiosyncratic, version of the ancient language of mysticism. Like H.D., she renames the patriarchal myths reclaiming Ariel as feminine and declaring her independence from the “hooks” of male definitions of woman. She becomes the Goddess of the cauldron of poetic inspiration—autonomous, creative, fertile, the very voice of the Angel Ariel.
Another likely source for Ariel is Robert Graves’s mythographic book, White Goddess (1948). Again, Wagner-Martin is an invaluable source-hunter here:
For, in Ariel the woman persona is completely alone. Her mind is free from the canker of hatred for her husband; her spirit is coming into a newly fruitful phase as she leaves human discord behind. Fusing her human identity with the animal spirit is itself a kind of transcendence, and recalls Robert Graves’s insistence in his White goddess (a book that was a kind of Bible for Ted Hughes) that the spirit of the fiery female goddess often appears as a mare, tigress, owl, sow, serpent, she-wolf, female spider, snake, or queen Bee (of these, the serpent and the racehorse are holy animals, as is the lion).
All these glosses perform a useful literary/critical function—they show exactly how influenced Plath was by other texts and also how she creatively used this intertextuality to create, in poems like Ariel, her image of a “Triumphant Woman”, and further, show “how her woman persona can stand alone”.
In his mythography, White goddess, Robert Graves suggests that all true poetry is in subjection to a Muse who represents both Nature and the primitive traditions of a matriarchal religion and society, and who is both creative and destructive, both to be loved and feared. Why such a mythography should impress and influence Sylvia Plath is obvious. Looking for alternatives to a patriarchy, the Law of the Father, under whose lash she believed she had suffered, Plath would have turned to the ancient mysteries, some of them based in the pre-Socratic Greece and also the Middle East, to explore possibilities of regenerative counter-myths to patriarchy. Poems like “The Moon and the Yew Tree” and Ariel (and probably also “Lady Lazarus”) would appear to be the direct result of such an exploration. For these poems clearly embody a new “truth” in Plath’s poetry, related to her possible awareness that the woman can stand alone, as Wagner-Martin notes. (However, she totally ignores, somewhat surprisingly, Plath’s explorations, in “The Moon and the Yew Tree”, for an alternative to patriarchy and a Father-centred Christianity).
(b) The Poem
Ariel begins with “stasis in darkness”, that is to say, in a period of “inactivity, stagnation”, or a “state of equilibrium”. However, the poem quickly gathers momentum and, like a horse breaking into a trot before quickly proceeding to a canter followed by gallop and accelerating to breakneck speed, it ends (or rather consummates itself) with a “drive”, an intense, almost “mystic”, vision of the speaker’s “I” finally merging with the red.. ./”Eye”, that is, “the cauldron of morning”.
This is rapturously mystic, but simultaneously “extremist”, poetry that progressively builds up towards a crescendo that culminates in (in many ways recalling the toddler in “Ocean-1212 W” crawling towards the green-blue walls of the Atlantic from the beach at Port Shirley, before her mother rescued it) an ecstatic merging of the self and the non-self.
It is almost Wagnerian in inspiration, the Richard Wagner (1813-83) of Tristan and Isolde, Gotterdamerung (“Twilight of the Gods”) and Parsifal, among other operas. Only, Plath’s voice is personal rather than operatic or orchestrated.
Perhaps the reckless “drive”, towards an apocalypse on a horse named Ariel (in Hebrew, “God’s Lioness”) owes its inspiration even more to Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), who was an admirer of Wagner, on whose opera, Tannhauser, he had written an appreciative piece in 1861. Specifically, it is the Baudelaire of the poem, “The Voyage”, who has had such a seminal influence on modern poetry. In section 8 of “The Voyage”, Baudelaire writes:
Death, old captain, it is time!
This country bores us, Death! make ready!
If the sky and the sea are black as ink,
Our hearts, our hearts are filled with sunbeams.
Pour us your poison to comfort us
This fire burns our brains so,
That we want to plunge to the bottom of the gulf
Hell or Heaven, what does it matter?
To find something new in the depths of the
This is the defining moment that Sylvia Plath, in Ariel recaptures and reproduces—a romantic-modernist desire “to find something new in the depths of the unknown”.
Writing on Baudelaire, Hauser observes:
The age of impressionism produces two extreme types of the modern artist estranged from society: the new bohemians and those who take refuge from Western civilization in distant, exotic lands. Both are the product of the same feeling, the same “discomfort with culture”, the only difference being that the first chose “internal emigration”, the others real flight. But both lead the same abstract life severed from immediate reality and practical activity…The voyage into remote lands, as an escape from modern civilization is as old as the bohemian protest against the bourgeois way of life. Both have their source in romantic unreality and individualism.
Like Baudelaire, the bohemian “internal emigre” of the 1850s and 1860s, Plath, writing a hundred years later, looks for a transfiguring experience, a redemptive potential, in a settled bourgeois way of life. However, whether Plath was severed from immediate reality (Howe and Gates believe she was) or not is a moot point but her women speakers are invariably associated with various practical activities like the “labour” of child-birth (cf. “Three Women”), child-rearing (cf. “Morning Song”), minding the house and the kitchen (cf. “Mary’s Song, “Cut”). Plath’s “disgust” is not only with the embourgeoisment of Western life but also with the inequities and hidden cruelties, not to speak of inanities, of patriarchal culture. The “red” Eye of the sun, towards which the speaker in Plath’s poem rushes headlong in the end, is at once a figure of Death which the speaker suicidally wants to embrace (this would make her a kind of female Phaeton) and the fiery sun of a new morning heralding an apocalypse, i.e., a New Heaven and a New Earth.
The precipitate flight of the speaker in Ariel towards the East, to the source and origin of light and life, the sun, takes place even as she clings to the neck of the “God’s Lioness” while riding on its back. In a blur of blinding speed, it looks as if the speaker and the horse (mare?) were fused into one, new, mythic being:
How one we grow
Pivot of heels and knees.
Half woman, half horse, a sort of female centaur, the speaker now takes off. As she does so, she leaves behind, on the muddy ground, a mark, (brown?) “furrow” (a “narrow groove made in the ground, especially by a plow”, or a “narrow, trench-like depression in any surface”) that is “sister to” (is akin to, resembles?) the “brown arc/of the neck I cannot catch”, perhaps the “neck”, not of the horse that now hauls her through the air [Ariel in Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, is the sprite of air and fire, once imprisoned by the bestial Caliban and his mother, the witch Sycorax] but of the “Nigger eye” dark “berries”, representing yew-berries, symbols of sorrow and death.
This is what she has left behind when flying off—the (yew?) berries which
Black, sweet blood mouthfuls.
The dark red juice of the berries, which “cast dark hooks”, would have the “sweet” taste of “blood mouthful”, suggesting the Vampire-like hold of whatever she is leaving behind. (Unlike Dracula, the legendary Vampire that lives on the blood of his victims, sucked from the side of the neck, the speaker in Ariel cannot catch the neck” of the earthy “furrow” she has left behind).
What is this “furrow” that the speaker has left behind, as she flies off? It may be
Dead hands, dead stringencies.
As in “Tulips”, where also the smiles, in a photograph, of the hospitalized speaker’s husband and child, are likened to “hooks” that catch onto her “skin”, the deathly berries in Ariel, too, perhaps have “hook”-like tentacles. Similarly, as in “Tulips”, where the “dead close on, finally”…shutting their [Dracula-like?] mouths on it, like a “communion tablet”, or, again, as in “All the Dead Dears”, where “Mother, grandmother, great grandmother/Reach hag hands to haul me in”, the “dead hands” cryptically mentioned in Ariel might be vampire-like. Sylvia Plath often revels in the shocking Gothic imagery of, say, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Those “stringencies” (i.e., “rigorously binding or exacting”, leading to “straitness” or “strictness” in human/social relations) that sink their mundane claws into one’s skin are now left behind, as is “The child’s cry” which “Melts in the Wall” (an image that at once recalls Shakespeare’s Macbeth and William Blake’s poem, “London”).
Kicking over the traces, the speaker in Ariel is now free to zoom off, having recently bonded with the horse/mare that would appear to have become fused, one, with the speaker. As such, she may now be a new mythic being—a woman-horse. Has she become one of those “Triumphant Women” in poems like “Purdah”, “Lady Lazarus”, “Daddy” and “Fever 103°” that Linda Wagner-Martin believes her to have become? Can she stand alone, as Wagner-Martin suggests she does, in these poems?
Is the speaker in Ariel born again, this time into self-sufficiency and autonomy? On the evidence of Ariel, this might indeed appear to be the case. Like Lady Godiva (died 1057) who, in the legend, accepted and met her husband Leofric’s challenge that she ride naked through the streets of Coventry, England, if she wanted to win relief for the ordinary people from a burdensome civil tax imposed by him, the speaker in Ariel too “unpeels”, perhaps in defiance of her husband. However, what she “strips” herself of is her emotional, worldly links, not her clothes; she merely denudes herself of “dead hands, dead stringencies”.
Thus rendered “naked, like a new-born babe, heaven’s cherubim” (Shakespeare’s Macbeth), “naked” in a metaphoric rather than any literal sense, the speaker here, recalling the “pitying” Lady Godiva of the legend, would appear to be in defiance of man-made law, the Law of the Father, patriarchy.
Thus “unpeeled”, the speaker now “boils over”, perhaps somewhat like a fiery, “red-hot” cauldron, herself:
And now I
Foam to wheat, a glitter of sea.
The erotic imagery here (in the very next poem, “Death & Co.”, from the collection, Ariel, the second figure of death, is caught “Masturbating a glitter”) is also “interchangeable”. It is the crest of a powerful wave that appears to “foam”, while fields of wheat appear in sunlight to “glitter” (i.e., “to reflect light with a brilliant luster” or “to sparkle”). In any event, the imagery here implies motion, lambent play of light (“glitter”, “foam”), and a kind of dynamism that, in terms of painting, recalls, for instance, Van Gogh’s dynamic landscapes.
Thus revivified, the speaker now visualises herself as an arrow (“a straight, slender, generally pointed missile”) that “flies” straight to its mark, scores a “bull’s eye” or gets “home”, to its target. Alternatively, she sees herself as “the dew” (a “foaming” or “glittering” spray of water, as on the crest of a wave which would evaporate, then condense and become “dew”) that “flies/suicidal, at one with the drive/Into the red/Eye, the cauldron of morning.” A shamanic “oneness” with the “flying” horse/mare can only culminate, for the speaker in this poem, in another kind of “at one”-ness, the atonement of death by suicide: a dew flying towards “the red…Eye, the cauldron of morning”, would only evaporate, again, and thus become “one” once again, with the fiery, burning sun. But that is a “natural” cycle.
Intriguingly, the “male” symbol of the arrow quickly glides, almost as an after-thought or, in opposition to the “arrow”, into a droplet of dew. The man-slaying speaker in “Purdah” is, somewhat like the Clytemnestera of the Oresteian tragedies, a tough, perhaps sadistic, killer. The speaker in Ariel first envisions herself as a “masculated” arrow that zooms home. It is possible to recall, in this context, the “masculinization”, of Maud Gonne that Yeats, in “No Second Troy”, apparently deprecates:
With beauty, like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Flying high, as a semi-mythic, semi-entranced being, “not natural in an age like this”, is the speaker in Ariel not only “high and solitary”, but also “most stern” (as is the speaker in “Purdah” or Clytemnestera in Aeschylus’s Orestes)? Quickly disowning any such sadistic intent (somewhat unlike the speaker in “Lady Lazarus”, the speaker in Ariel may not be a “witch” that “eat(s) men like air”, and she is definitely not a “father-killer”, unlike the speaker in “Daddy”), the speaker immediately slides off into a “softer”, more “feminine” image, that of a dew-drop, to envision the end of her flight from a world of “dead hands, dead stringencies”, that is, to a “human”-less world. It may not be the mundane world of day-to-day living (and dying) at all; in fact, it may illustrate what Howe calls “an extreme state of existence, one at the very boundary of non-existence.” Howe adds: “There is something utterly monolithic, fixated about the voice that emerges in [poems like Ariel], a voice unmodulated and asocial”. As it turns out, the flight of the speaker is not only away from human and social contact (Ariel, unlike Keats’s “Nightingale Ode”, is not about both departure and return), but it is also “suicidal”. An alternative to a world of “dead hands, dead stringencies”, and the “cry of a child”, that “melts in the wall”, cannot yet be wholly triumphantly affirmed.
Interestingly, Sylvia Plath’s life—and death—did not follow, to a nicety, the prescription of Ariel. In the morning of February 11, 1963, the day she “put her head in the oven” and gassed herself, Plath first went up at around six o’clock to the children’s room before the arrival of a new aupair and “left a plate of bread and butter and two mugs of milk, in case they should wake hungry before the aupair girl arrived”. Before, in fact, committing suicide (a lonely act) Plath had ambivalently proceeded to serve her children, even if only for the last time. In this context, it was not as easy in life, as it may appear in the poem Ariel, to turn one’s back on either “dead stringencies” or the “cry of a child”. In putting her head in the oven, Plath perhaps, before losing consciousness, “melted” into the red/Eye, “the cauldron of morning”.
It is salutary to note that, in psycho-analysis, the word “stasis” also means “the presence of high energy or excitement in the libido, caused especially by repression and thought to produce neurosis”, i.e., “a conflict phenomenon involving the thwarting of some fundamental instinctive urge”.
In Ariel, a super-charge of “high energy and excitement in the libido” results in a high-voltage ecstasy, but this soon turns out to be also a single ticket to “death instinct”, i.e., “the impulses aiming at destruction, death, or escape from stimulation….primarily appearing as the repetition compulsion, in consequence of which the individual must seek death only by repeating the normal life cycle”.
The seeking of death only by repeating the normal life cycle is also crucial to a poem like “Lady Lazarus”, for instance.