ARIEL, Sylvia Plath’s final collection of poems, is an extended riff on betrayal, motherhood and isolation. The title poem famously begins,
Stasis in darkness.
Then the substanceless blue
Pour of tor and distances.
Here, Ariel refers to a) a character from The Tempest, b) the symbolic name for Jerusalem, or c) her horse? Answer: all of the above. There’s so much banging around inside her verses, in fact, that perhaps a better approach is to just enjoy the sound of her language. Behold the pop and punch of “Daddy” (a poem about a girl with a Nazi father)…
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time—
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal
And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
Or simply admire the eeriness of her words.”The Detective,” which refers to her husband’s philandering, contains this wonderous line, “In that valley the train shrieks echo like souls on hooks”
What was she doing when it blew in
Over the seven hills, the red furrow, the blue mountain?
Was she arranging cups? It is important.
Was she at the window, listening?
In that valley the train shrieks echo like souls on hooks.
That is the valley of death, though the cows thrive.
In her garden the lies were shaking out their moist silks
And the eyes of the killer moving sluglike and sidelong,
Unable to face the fingers, those egotists.
The fingers were tamping a woman into a wall,
A body into a pipe, and the smoke rising.
This is the smell of years burning, here in the kitchen,
These are the deceits, tacked up like family photographs,
And this is a man, look at his smile,
Her talent with rhythm and haunting imagery leaves plenty to enjoy even if you take the words at face value. On the other hand, to do so is to miss out on her alluring backstory.
Plath was a seminal writer in the Confessional Poetry movement of the ’50s and ’60s, the practitioners of which freely aired their dirty laundry. Sex, suicide, sadness, you name it. As such, Plath’s poetry may be better understood by first learning her biography. One could start with her only novel, THE BELL JAR, as it’s all but autobiographical. For the rest, there’s the unfiltered internet.
Plath is a cult-like figure to many and the articles and tributes found online are seemingly endless. In scouring through all of the noise, however, it’s hard not to collide with assertions about her occult leanings; the running thread being that ARIEL serves as a not-so veiled homage to Tarot and Cabbala, and to the occult in general, of which Hughes, her famous poet husband, and Plath had a well-documented history.
ARIEL more than any of her other works holds special meaning to Plath fans since it was this work (still in draft form) that was sitting on her Fitzroy Road desk the day she died. Ted Hughes served as editor of the first (posthumous) edition and in this role, he altered aspects of what she wrote, both in terms of content (which poems made it) and sequence. Some of this, he argued, was simple editorial decisiveness (“I simply wanted to make the book the best I could”), but he also expressed concerns about the thematic content of some poems, especially in light of her death (for example, “Lesbos” and “Magi”).
In 2010, the couple’s daughter Frieda Hughes released a new edition of that work (ARIEL: THE RESTORED EDITION) which sought to reassemble it back to Plath’s original intent. There’s a running insinuation (for which there’s no evidence) that by reverting this collection, the younger Hughes sought to restore the work’s occult subtext too; that Ted Hughes had deliberately shuffled the deck hoping to obscure its relation to the arcana of Tarot. Namely, that each poem corresponded to a particular Tarot card and that put together corresponds to the deck order of the cards themselves.
Plath’s material is cryptic and often spooky in its imagery, but this urge to cast ARIEL in such a light probably speaks more to the cult that she engenders than to scholarly research (*). Speculation versus intent. Call it backward-masking for the literary crowd.
Whether any of this rings true, reading these poems and knowing where it all end is, well, creepy. During her final months, Plath’s depression had become greatly amplified by the recent divorce and an isolated, brutal London winter spent in a small flat with two screaming infants. That she gassed herself while in that apartment, taping the doors in the kitchen to spare her children the same fate, only makes her poem “The Birthday Present,” all the more harrowing. It’s clearly a suicide note, complete with a detailed (internal) debate over what would take place a few months later.
I know why you will not give it to me,
You are terrified. …
I will only take it and go aside quietly.
You will not even hear me opening it, no paper crackle.
The “it” being the suicide act, of course. And this:
But my god, the clouds are like cotton—-
Armies of them.
They are carbon monoxide.
Sweetly, sweetly I breathe in,
Filling my veins with invisibles…
With all this in mind (or despite it), listen to Plath read her own poems as she did on this BBC radio show a few months before her death. And though her delivery drips with New England academia, it carries a power beyond just the words or the accent. “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” are standouts in this set.
And if you’re feeling brave, try listening to “Birthday Present” too.
I leave you with the closing lines of “Ariel”
And now I
Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
The child’s cry
Melts in the wall.
Am the arrow,
The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning.
* 2016 update: There’s now a book on this subject. Here’s an interview with the author, Julia Gordon. Perhaps there’s more to this theory than previously thought?