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Ariel Sylvia Plath

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English Literature

Most of the poetry in Sylvia Plath's collection Ariel (1965) was written just five months before the poet took her own life. Published two years later, it contains some of Plath's most famous poetry. Here we will look at the book and analyse the poem 'Ariel'.

Ariel (1965) poetry collection: overview

Ariel (1965) by Sylvia Plath was published posthumously in 1965, two years after Plath took her own life in 1963. The collection was Sylvia Plath's second volume of poetry following The Colossus (1959). Ariel was written at a turbulent time for Plath, separating from her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, and suffering from mental health difficulties. It was Ted Hughes who controversially edited the collection following Sylvia Plath's death. Some critics were upset at Hughes editing the collection due to the breakdown of their marriage and the personal nature of the poems.

The collection takes an unwavering look at the poet's mental anguish. Frequent themes include death, liberation, gender and rebirth. Poems featured in the collection, such as 'Daddy', 'Ariel' and 'Lady Lazarus', are some of Plath's most famous works.

The poems often address issues of patriarchy. Both Sylvia Plath's husband and father have frequently been the subject of her poetry, and were often portrayed in a negative light.

Ariel: title and meaning

The title is thought to be a reference to a character from Shakespeare's play The Tempest (1611). In the play, the character Ariel is an air spirit who becomes liberated towards the end of the play. Spending most of life in servitude before liberation, Ariel may serve as a reflection of some of Plath's main poetic themes.

Ariel is the Hebrew word for 'Lion of God', which is also a term used to refer to the holy city of Jerusalem. This is referenced in the poem 'God's Lioness'. The poem follows the speaker on a horse ride. Sylvia Plath's own horse was called Ariel.

Summary of the poem 'Ariel'

Ariel was written on Sylvia Plath's birthday and is believed by some to be an expression of rebirth for the poet. It is a free verse poem with a first-person narrator describing an early morning horse ride. As the poem progresses the speaker soon becomes attuned to nature. The horse is never directly referred to, but is alluded to (its 'brown arc of the neck') and the allusion to Godiva, a figure known to ride a horse naked.

Free verse poetry is a poetic form in which no formal rhyme scheme or meter is used. Free verse poems have no stylistic rules.

Ariel brown horse StudySmarterA brown horse, much like the one referenced in the poem, 'Ariel' by Sylvia Plath. Pixabay

The poem shares some of its ideas with a 1960's feminist movement known as 'Second Wave Feminism'. This can be seen in the inclusion of the female figure of Godiva. Lady Godiva stood up to her husband on behalf of the poor.

The poem is written in three-line stanzas, known as tercets. The final line is the exception to this, bringing the poem to a conclusion. The speaker begins their ride in 'stasis darkness' and 'substanceless blue', which suggests the early hours of the morning. That the speaker is in stasis means they are not yet moving; however, they see the blue of the sky emerging and mountains (tor) in the distance.

As the poem progresses, so too does the horse ride, galloping with a 'pivot of heels and knees'. The ride proves to be liberating for the speaker, they 'unpeel like Godiva' shedding 'dead hands' and 'dead stringencies' as they ride. Towards the end of the poem, the speaker is more in tune with nature and 'drives' towards the morning sun.

When reading poetry, try to read out loud so you can hear the rhythm, rhyme and metre.

The Text '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,

Nigger-eye

Berries cast dark

Hooks—

Black sweet blood mouthfuls,

Shadows.

Something else

Hauls me through air—

Thighs, hair;

Flakes from my heels.

White

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.

Analysis of the poem 'Ariel'

Here we will take a closer look at the poem, its form, themes and literary devices.

Theme

The major theme of the poem is liberty. The poem's title, as we saw earlier, is most likely a reference to the Shakespearean character Ariel from The Tempest. The character in the play becomes liberated, much like the speaker of the poem. As the speaker begins the horse ride they become more liberated and part of the world around them. At the start of the poem, the speaker describes the physical world of the mountains and the horse's movements. At the end of the poem, the speaker uses more spiritual and metaphorical language.

This transformation occurs in the fourth and fifth stanzas when the speaker finds and eats some dark berries. The speaker talks of the berries bringing them closer to nature, with their 'hooks'. They then proceed to liken the berry's juice to 'sweet black blood', which suggests the speaker is comparing nature to themselves. From the moment the speaker eats the berries the poem's language becomes more metaphorical. The pace of the poem and the ride seem to quicken.

Ariel(1965)+Blackberries+StudySmarterBlackberries, the poem takes a metaphorical turn after the speaker eats some blackberries. Pixabay

Language

Something 'hauls me through air' the speaker claims in the following, sixth stanza. This gives the impression of flight, the speaker carried quickly by their horse. As the poem continues the speaker 'unpeel dead hands, dead stringencies', which tells us that they are liberating themselves from the physical form. The speaker goes on further to say they 'foam to wheat', suggesting they are becoming more in sync with nature.

As the speaker liberates themselves from the physical form they also free themselves of childhood or childbirth, 'The child's cry Melts in the well'. Giving the impression of their worries disappearing like the speaker themselves. They are 'the dew that flies' towards the sun at the close of the poem. Dew is known to fade as the morning progresses. The poem ends with the image of the speaker driving towards the sun 'red eye, Cauldron of morning', liberated into nature and possibly, death.

Form

The titular poem Ariel is written in free verse. Free verse poetry has no specific meter or rhyme scheme, although the poem does contain internal and slant rhyme. Internal rhyme is when the poet uses rhyming words within the line rather than the end. Slant rhyme is the use of words that sound similar but not identical.

Plath uses internal rhyme in line three with 'pour' and 'tor'.

Slant rhyme in the poem would be 'heels' and 'else' in the 5th and 6th stanzas.

Other Poems in Ariel

Here we will look at some of the other notable poems featured in Sylvia Plath's poetry collection Ariel.

'Daddy'

Written in October 1962, one month after separating from her husband Ted Hughes, Plath's controversial poem is also one of her most famous. In the poem, the speaker is addressing her father, who died when she was ten. The father figure in the poem is described as brutish and frightening. The speaker talks of a need to kill her father despite being long dead, a longing to remove the memory of him.

The poem's themes are that of power and oppression, the speaker feeling like they have 'lived in a black shoe' for thirty years. The image is dark and oppressive and is a reference to living with her father's memory. The speaker goes on to refer to the father figure with fascist imagery, specifically about the Nazis. The speaker also makes reference to marrying someone who could be described as a fascist. This gives the impression that the poet is not only referring to her father but patriarchal society in general.

'Lady Lazarus'

The title of the poem 'Lady Lazarus' is a reference to the biblical character Lazarus, who is raised from the dead by Jesus. The poem's speaker is the Lady Lazarus of the title, who, like the character from the Bible, is raised from the dead. The poem is written in free verse and contains 28 stanzas of three lines each (tercets). The poet uses both end and internal rhyme but does not have a traditional rhyme scheme.

As suggested by the title, death and resurrection is a large theme of the poem. The speaker refers to dying at least three times, 'I have done it again, One year in every ten'. Though unlike the Bible's Lazarus, the speaker does not wish for resurrection.

The speaker talks of their resurrection being an unwanted spectacle, 'the peanut crunching crowd Shoves in to see'. The speaker wishes to die and stay dead, rather than suffer in the male dominated world. The speaker warns any male that wishes the resurrect them that they will return and 'eat men like air'

'Tulips'

Sylvia Plath wrote 'Tulips' in 1961, finding inspiration while in hospital. The poem, written in free verse, was first published in the 'New Yorker' in 1962. The speaker of the poem is hospitalised and they are disturbed by the 'too excitable' tulips and their blood-red colour. They have found themselves 'learning peacefulness' in the hospital. The speaker expresses conflicting views on how much they wish to recover. The tulips, though a get well gift, only remind the speaker of pain.

The poem's themes deal with the contrast of sickness and health. The speaker is recovering in hospital and enjoys the calm nature of recovery. It is the life outside the hospital, the healthy life which causes the speaker pain. The poem starts with the speaker preferring to stay in the hospital but towards the end, this attitude softens. The speaker accepts their recovery.

'The Applicant'

Sylvia Plath wrote the monologue 'The Applicant' in free verse, like many of her poems in this collection. The monologue is a salesperson making a pitch to a customer. Unusually this customer is a man who has applied to buy a wife. The poem is both a critique of society's consumerist nature and gender roles within marriage. The potential 'wife' of the poem is very much a blank canvas, adapted to the male applicant's needs.

Ariel (1965) Collection - Key takeaways

  • Ariel (1965) is a poetry collection written by Sylvia Plath.
  • Ariel was published posthumously after Sylvia Plath took her own life in 1963.
  • Recurring themes in the collection are; death, gender, liberation and rebirth.
  • The poem 'Ariel' was written in 1962.
  • The poem 'Ariel' is a free verse poem about the speaker's horse ride.

Ariel Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath had written the poem 'Ariel' in 1962, not long before taking her own life in February 1963

The poem follows an early morning horse ride. The poem is about the feeling of liberation while riding.

Sylvia Plath wrote the collection Ariel five months before she took her own life.

In the collection Ariel the frequent themes are death, liberation, gender and rebirth

'Ariel' is a free verse poem.

Final Ariel Sylvia Plath Quiz

Question

What is the meaning of the poem 'Ariel'?

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Answer

The poem 'Ariel' is about the speaker finding liberation while on a horse ride.

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Question

When was the poem, 'Ariel' written?

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Answer

The poem was written on Sylvia Plath's birthday in 1962


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Question

What are the themes of the collection Ariel?

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Answer

The frequent themes of the collection are death, gender, liberation and rebirth


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Question

What type of poem is 'Ariel'?

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Answer

Ariel is a free verse poem


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Question

What play was the inspiration for the title, 'Ariel'?

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Answer

The title was inspired partly by the Shakespeare play, The Tempest


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Question

True or False?

Sylvia Plath once owned a horse named Ariel?

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Answer

True


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Question

When was the poem 'Daddy' written?

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Answer

The poem 'Daddy' was written in October in 1962


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Question

When was the collection Ariel published?

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Answer

The poetry collection was published in 1965, two years after Sylvia Plath's death.


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Question

'Ariel' is also a Hebrew word, what does it mean?

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Answer

Ariel is a Hebrew word meaning, 'Lion of God'.

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Question

Why is lady Godiva a famous figure?

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Answer

Lady Godiva is famous for riding her horse naked.


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