Tag Archives: American Literature

‘Ariel’ by Sylvia Plath

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.
WhiteGodiva, I unpeel—
Dead hands, dead stringencies.
And now IFoam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
The child’s cry
Melts in the wall.And I
Am the arrow,
The dew that fliesSuicidal,
at one with the drive
Into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning.

Ariel is the poem that gives its name to Sylvia Plath’s most celebrated collection, which was published in 1965. It was published posthumously, two years after Plath committed suicide. The fact that Plath chose ‘Ariel’ as the title for the collection is to me very important; I think that in a sense it can be read to define the episode of incredible creative outpouring that was the few years before she died (this was when she wrote DaddyLady Lazarus, Fever 103 and other seminal works).I feel that this poem is about the creative process, and specifically the process of writing poetry. It is very enigmatic, spiritual, and almost erotic in places — we find very physical descriptions. ‘Ariel’ is a name that we probably most associate with the spirit character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, who is servant to the magician Prospero. This definitely adds to the mystical and magical quality that surrounds the notion of the Muse, or creative process, in the poem. However, Ariel was also the name of the horse Plath used to ride when she was living in Devon. The poem describes a woman riding a horse.Set at dawn, the poem begins with “Stasis in darkness”. I love this opening line; it is soft-footed, like the quiet before a storm. There is anticipation; the rider is still in the dark of the stable. But then she is suddenly out, and riding. She becomes “God’s lioness”. I love the lioness; it is such a strong, but determinedly feminine image. The rider is on an almost divine mission here; she is strong, and provocative (this part reminds me of that final, devastating line in Lady Lazarus: “And I eat men like air”.)As you rush through these swift stanzas (that create a breathless effect, when read aloud) you can almost feel the wind rushing past you, with the “Pivot of heels and knees”. “How one we grow”, writes Plath; she is one with her horse, one with Ariel, and one with her creative process or Muse. There is an interesting duality here; although Plath describes herself as “one” with the horse, Ariel also has a “neck I cannot catch”. This is fascinating to me because it perfectly captures the nature of the creative process, which is so very hard to pin down or define. When she is riding (or writing) she feels in complete harmony with this force, and yet it remains somehow elusive and mysterious. This mystery persists as Plath writes, “Something else/ Hauls me through air”. What is this force?This poem (and much of Plath’s other work) contains many physical images. In this wonderful, exhilarating metaphor for the act of writing a poem, the whole body is involved: “heels and knees”, “sweet blood mouthfulls”, “thighs, hair” etc.  I think that it is perhaps because she wrote such personal or ‘confessional’ poetry – using her own emotional experiences as subject matter – that Plath makes this poem so physical; she puts her whole being into the writing of a poem. She puts her real experiences in there. Perhaps that is why she describes herself as being physically hauled through the air, here; “I unpeel”, she writes. (I also personally think that there is always an element of wanting to shock, with Plath. Being a woman, it is somehow more shocking for her to use personal, physical images, and she uses this to provoke and get our attention. In a similar way, she included many Holocaust images in her other poems.)A part of this poem that particularly moves me is where Plath writes, “A child’s cry / Melts in the wall.” In the final year of her life, when Plath was writing many of the poems for Ariel, her children were still very small. She used to get up before dawn every day to write. I am sure this is why the poem is set at dawn, though dawn is also a beautifully symbolic moment of the day; it is a non-time, a time when everybody else is asleep. It is like how time seems to stop while a poem is written, and can then resume once it is done. I love to picture Plath writing in the early morning, the thunder of Ariel’s hooves in her head — such a powerful time of creativity. Real life — the “child’s cry” — attempts briefly to enter the poem, but cannot distract the poet from her craft. She thunders on, “Suicidal, at one with the drive/ Into the red/ Eye, the cauldron of morning.”

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘A noiseless patient spider’ by Walt Whitman

A noiseless, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

This is another beautiful, profound and spiritual poem by Whitman. I love the use of the image of a spider launching its “gossamer thread” to create a bridge through the air in order to venture into the “oceans of space” surrounding it. This image is then beautifully likened to the Soul — the soul of any person, yes, but also the soul of the Poet — as it is ceaselessly “musing, venturing, throwing,- seeking the spheres, to connect them”. I love this last phrase because it has definite connotations of the poetic process, of making bridges and letting down anchors…”till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere”.
Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Sudden Light’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door;
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.You have been mine before, –
How long ago I may not know:
But just when at the swallow’s soar
Your neck turned so,
Some veil did fall, – I knew it all of yore.
Has this been thus before?
And shall not thus time’s eddying flight
Still with our lives our love restore
In death’s despite,
And day and night yield one delight once more?
I think this is a truly startling poem about the moment of falling in love. It is about the phenomenon where (when it’s real) loving someone can feel like you have “been here before”. It is about deja vu.Rossetti starts his second stanza with the words “You have been mine before”; he does not remember how long ago, but he feels a connection to the person that is impossible to explain. Just a gesture or movement can open up memories: she turns her head and “some veil did fall, – I knew it all of yore”.
I love this poem because it’s very romantic and mystical.

Although I have posted a few poems by Christina Rossetti on this blog, this is the first one that I have read by her brother, and I look forward to reading more of his work.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Wordsworth’s Skates’ by Seamus Heaney

Star in the window.
Slate scrape.
Bird or branch?
Or the whet and scud of steel on placid ice?

Not the bootless runners lying toppled
In dust in a display case,
Their bindings perished,

But the reel of them on frozen Windermere
As he flashed from the clutch of earth along its curve
And left it scored.

I wanted to post a poem (rather belatedly I know) to pay tribute to the great poet Seamus Heaney, who sadly died very recently. When I heard on the news that Heaney had died I was shocked because he was not so old and because he was so well known, and such a ‘star’ in the poetry world (and there aren’t many of those). I also realised that he is probably the most famous English-langauge poet of recent times, and that, despite that, I have not read a huge amount of his work.

I have long admired his famous, Digging, which has been cited many times on the TV and in articles since his death. I studied his translation of Beowulf at school. However, there is not much else that I have read by Seamus Heaney, and I want to change that.

This poem, Wordsworth’s Skatesis from Heaney’s collection ‘District and Circle’, which I have owned for some time, but never got to grips with. I don’t know why. Anyway, I opened that book today and found this poem, and I instantly loved it. I remember visiting Dove Cottage myself in the Lake District when I was 17 and seeing Wordsworth’s skates on display in the museum there. The poem is such a clever, beautiful description of the poet’s response to seeing those skates.

I especially love the way Heaney uses the image of Wordsworth skating and equates it to the poet’s writing and his legacy. What remains of Wordsworth is not the tatty old skates, with “their bindings perished”, but rather his poetry, which is a far more heroic legacy. You can really see the poetic genius of Heaney in that final couple of lines, which I find just exquisite: “As he flashed from the clutch of earth along its curve/ And left it scored.” A great poet does “flash from the clutch of earth” — escapes death and the heavy pull of mortality when he creates immortal beauty in a poem. Heaney certainly has left the world of literature “scored” — forever marked — just as Wordsworth did.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh