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‘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