By Dr Oliver Tearle
Octobers and birthdays loom large in Sylvia Plath’s work, which perhaps isn’t surprising since she was born in October (27 October 1932 – which, it just so happens, was the day Dylan Thomas turned 18 years old). As well as writing ‘Poppies in October’ and ‘Poem for a Birthday’, Sylvia Plath also wrote ‘Ariel’, which came out of both her birthday and the last October she was alive on earth: she wrote ‘Ariel’ on 27 October 1962, her 30th birthday.
‘Ariel’ was the name of a horse that Plath was fond of riding when she lived down in Devon with her husband, Ted Hughes. By late 1962, however, they had separated, and Plath was living in London with their two children. You can read ‘Ariel’ here before proceeding to our analysis of the poem.
First, a brief summary of ‘Ariel’. The poem describes, in unrhymed tercets or three-line stanzas (though with a fair bit of consonance, assonance, and pararhyme), Plath’s dawn ride on the horse, Ariel, across the countryside. We begin with the world still in the darkness of night-time, and Plath motionless on Ariel (‘Stasis in darkness’); then, gradually, the blue of daylight begins to appear, revealing the small mountains or ‘tors’ in the distance.
Plath then addresses Ariel not as a horse but as ‘God’s lioness’: using a gendered word, and summoning the majesty and power of the (wild) lion. Gendering Ariel as female (‘lioness’) implies a sense of sisterhood between Plath and the horse, and sure enough the word ‘sister’ appears in the ensuing lines, describing the ride across the landscape, past the blackberries, past the shadows.
As Plath rides Ariel through the dawn light, it is as if she is shedding her past self and become reborn as something else: the experience of riding the horse is almost transcendent. ‘I unpeel’, she tells us, likening herself to Lady Godiva, the eleventh-century Saxon noblewoman who defied her husband’s harsh taxation of the people of Coventry and rode naked through the streets of the town, according to legend. Plath is free in a different sense, but is similarly ‘naked’ in that it is almost as if she is shedding her old skin as she rides.
‘Ariel’ ends with Plath riding towards the horizon as the sun appears like a ‘red eye’ of morning.
The ‘Godiva’ reference reminds us that Plath had separated from her own husband, Ted Hughes, when she wrote ‘Ariel’. Does she see herself as a latter-day Lady Godiva, defying her husband? Perhaps.
Certainly, ‘Ariel’ shows Plath’s interest in the theories of Robert Graves, whose 1948 book The White Goddess informs much of Plath’s work. Graves argued that all poetry is inspired by a ‘triple goddess’ represented variously as a maiden (white), a mother (red), and a hag (black).
We get all three colours in ‘Ariel’, with the blackness of the night (and those blackberries, even likened to the eye of a black person), the whiteness of Plath herself as a Lady Godiva figure, and the redness of the sunrise in the poem’s final image. It’s as if Plath is riding towards not only a new dawn but a maternal spirit that will guide her and protect her, the ‘red / Eye’ of the rising sun being the eye of an inspiring mother figure.
The form of ‘Ariel’ is also free enough to convey the sense of liberty and escape that riding the horse provides Plath, as she breaks off the memory of her failed marriage and, by association, her old self. It might be called ‘free verse’, although as often with a Sylvia Plath poem, how ‘free’ is her poetry?
Formally, like Ted Hughes as well, Plath liked to keep the shadow of a form, the ghost of a rhyme or structure, in the background to her poetry. And ‘Ariel’ is no different, as ‘darkness’ plays off ‘distances’, with both merging with ‘lioness’, while ‘grow’ paves the way for ‘furrow’, ‘sister to’ picks up on ‘blue’, ‘arc’ rhymes with ‘dark’, and so on. However, too rigid a rhyme scheme, followed too slavishly throughout the poem, would risk undermining the meaning of the poem, with its focus on freedom from life’s constraints.
And so later in the poem we get more pararhyme, as ‘mouthfuls’ leads into ‘else’, ‘heels’ into ‘unpeel’. The repetition of ‘I’ at the end of two lines, combined with the structure of those lines (‘And now I’ thinning down to the more immediate ‘And I’), however, shows Plath’s growing confidence in self-assertation and self-expression.
In the last analysis, ‘Ariel’ is one of Plath’s most confidently assertive poems about freedom and escape, made all the more poignant by the fact that she so desperately needed such escape (and, ultimately, tragically, only a few months after writing ‘Ariel’, would succeed forever in escaping, or perhaps failing to escape).
About Sylvia Plath
The life – and death – of Sylvia Plath (1932-63) can sometimes appear to eclipse her poetic achievement, as well as her achievement in fiction (she wrote one novel, The Bell Jar, as well as a collection of short stories). But this is partly because so much of her work drew on her life for its subject-matter, especially her unflinching analysis of her own struggles with her mental health.
Born in the United States, Plath moved to England in the 1950s, where she met fellow aspiring poet Ted Hughes, whom she quickly married. (They chose the date of their wedding in 1956 – 16th June – in honour of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, which takes place on that day in 1904.) Just one collection of Plath’s poetry, The Colossus (1960), appeared in her lifetime before she tragically took her own life in February 1963, during one of the coldest English winters on record. It was the publication of a posthumous collection, Ariel, in 1965 (edited by her widower, Ted Hughes) which really helped to ensure she was regarded as one of the greatest and most original voices in Anglophone poetry of the mid-twentieth century. Two further posthumous collections, Crossing the Water and Winter Trees, followed in 1971.
Plath is often grouped with the ‘Confessional poets’ – a group of (mostly American) mid-twentieth-century poets whose work engages with the darker aspects of their own lives, with the focus frequently on the poet’s own struggles with mental health issues. Plath attended a creative writing class led by the poet who helped to initiate the Confessional movement, Robert Lowell, in the late 1950s. But it’s important not to overlook Plath’s affinities with earlier female poets, especially modernists like H. D. and Mina Loy, who often used mythical personae to write about their own lives.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.