“Ariel,” the title poem of Sylvia Plath’s posthumous volume of the same name is one of her most highly regarded, most often criticised, and most complicated poems. The ambiguities in the poem begin with its title, which has a three fold meaning. To a reader uninformed by Plath’s biography “Ariel” would probably most immediately call to mind the “airy spirit” who in Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a servant to Prospero and symbolizes Prospero’s control of the upper elements of the universe, fire and air.
On another biographical or autobiographical level, “Ariel,” as we know from reports about the poet’s life, was the name of her favorite horse, on whom she weekly went riding. Robert Lowell, in his forward to Ariel, says, “The title Ariel summons up Shakespeare’s lovely, though slightly chilling and androgynous spirit, but the truth is that this Ariel is the author’s horse.” Ted Hughes, Plath’s husband, adds these comments,
ARIEL was the name of the horse on which she went riding weekly. Long before,while she was a student at Cambridge (England), she went riding with an American friend out towards Grantchester. Her horse bolted, the stirrups fell off, and she came all the way home to the stables, about two miles, at full gallop, hanging around the horse’s neck.
These two allusions, to The Tempest and to her horse “Ariel,” have often been noticed and pointed out, with the emphasis, from a critical perspective, being placed on the biographical referent. But there is another possible referent in the title of the poem which no one has yet noted, although the poet, apparently, went out of her way to make reference, even obvious reference, to it. I refer to “Ariel” as the symbolic name for Jerusalem. “Ariel” in Hebrew means “lion of God.” She begins the second stanza of the poem with the line “God’s lioness,” which seems to be a direct reference to the Hebrew or Jewish “Ariel.”
Plath’s obsession with Judaism and the Jewish people is clearly indicated in many of her poems. Indeed, some of the imagery which informs the passage concerning “Ariel” in the Book of Isaiah (29:1-7) appears to have been drawn on directly by Plath for her imagery in her poem “Ariel.” In Isaiah 29-5-6 we read,
And in an instant, suddenly,
You will be visited by the Lord of hosts
With thunder and with earthquake and great noise,
With whirlwind and tempest,
And the flame of a devouring fire
In short, then, the poet seems to be combining these three references to “Ariel” in her poem, and creating a context where each of the possible meanings enriches the others. She even seems to imply this when she says, in the second stanza, “How one we grow.” Each of the three “Ariel’s” contributes its part to the totality of the poem, and each of them merges into the others so that, by the end of the poem, they are all “one.”
Now, of these three references to “Ariel,” the two that seem most fruitful in terms of an analysis of the poem appear to be the autobiographical and the Biblical In terms of the autobiographical overtones, the poem can be seen as what apparently it is in fact—an account of the poet’s going for a ride on her favorite horse. Each of the details she mentions with respect to the ride (at least through the first six stanzas) can be seen as exact reporting of what it is like to ride a horse. The last five stanzas of the poem obviously move beyond the literal telling of taking a horseback ride and move into something which partakes of the mystery whereby the rider experiences something of the unity which is created between horse and rider, if not literally, at least metaphorically. This change in the theme of the poem is signaled both by a change in tone and by a change in technique, and specifically by the break in the rhyme scheme.
In talking of the rhymes in Plath’s poetry, John Frederick Nims points out that in The Colossus, Plath’s first book, she chooses to rhyme “atonally” using one of several variations:
The same vowel-sound but with different consonants after it: fishes-pig-finger-history; worms-converge. Different vowel-sounds but with the same final consonant: vast-compost-must; knight-combat-heat (this is her most characteristic kind of rhyme in The Colossus). Unaccented syllable going with accented or unaccented: boulders-wore: footsoles-babel. She considers all final vowels as rhyming with all others: jaw-arrow-eye (perhaps suggested by the Middle-English practice in alliteration). Or she will mate sounds that have almost anything in common: ridgepole-tangle-inscrutable.
Nims goes on to say, In Ariel, the use of rhyme is very different. In some poems it is ghostlier than ever. But more often it is obvious: rhyme at high noon. The same sound may run on from stanza to stanza, with much identical rhyme. “Lady Lazarus” illustrates the new manner. The poem is printed in units of three lines, but the rhyme is not in her favorite terzarima pattern. Six of the first ten lines end in an n-sound, followed by a sequence in long e, which occurs in about half of the next twenty-two lines. Then, after six more a’s, we have l’s ending eleven of fourteen lines, and then several r’s, leading into the six or more air rhymes that conclude the sequence. Almost Skeltonian: the poet seems to carry on a sound about as long as she can, although not in consecutive lines.
Now up to the seventh stanza of the poem (and continuing on through the remainder of the poem once the transitions has been made in the seventh stanza, “White / Godiva, I unpeel— /Dead hands, dead strigencies”), the rhyme scheme has been, for the most part, “regular” in terms of the slant rhymes Nims has suggested, each stanza having two lines which rhyme, given Plath’s approach to rhyme. “darkness” /”distance,” “grow” / “furrow,” “arc” / “catch,” “dark” / “Hooks,” “mouthfuls” /”else,” “air” / “hair,” “I” / “cry,” “wall” / “arrow,” and “drive” / “red.” It is true that the rhymes do not all fit the categories Nims has set forth, although some of them do. Where the rhymes do not fit his scheme, another scheme, equally justifiable, could be suggested—one which the poet apparently used equally often, here as well as in other poems in Ariel.For instance, in the case of the rhymes “darkness” / “distance,” the rhyme works on the duplication of the initial “d’s” and the final “s’s”; in “arc” / “catch,” “arc” ends in the consonant “c” which is picked up as the initial letter in “catch” (also the sequence “ac” in “arc” is reversed in “catch” to “ca”); the “k” in “dark” and “Hooks” carries the rhyme for the lines ending in these two words; in the “wall” / “arrow” rhyme Plath has apparently worked the words so that the letters of the one word become inverted and duplicated backwards in the letters of the other, thus “w” begins “wall” and ends “arrow” and the double “1” in “wall” is duplicated by the double “r” in “arrow,” each of the double consonants following the vowel “a“; and the initial “d” of “drive” goes with the final “d” of “red,” and so forth.
But, to show the change in theme in the Godiva stanza, Plath breaks the rhyme within the stanza itself, while, and at the same time, she joins this transitional stanza to what has gone before and to what will follow by interlocking its rhyme with the dangling or unused line in both the preceding and following stanzas. Thus “heels” from the preceding stanza is made to rhyme with “unpeel” in the Godiva stanza, and “seas” of the following stanza is made to rhyme with “stringencies.” The unity of the poem as a whole hasthus been maintained while the shift in its theme is signaled both thematically and structurally by a shift in the rhyme scheme.
In addition to this rather complex patterning of rhyme, Plath also has her own alliterative-devices to bind together individual lines and, at times, larger units of her poems. In “Ariel,” for instance, we find lines like, “Pour of tor and distances,” “Pivot of heels and knees,” and “Of the neck I cannot catch.” In each of these lines, the internal rhyme (“pour” / “tor”) or the alliteration (“cannot catch”) or the assonance (“heels and knees”) creates a kind of music which takes the place of exact or even slant rhyme.
On at least two other occasions, then, Plath has set forth similar experiences to the one she details in “Ariel,” and in each case she has communicated her experience in terms of horses and horseback riding. All demonstrate a desire to have her reader feel, if not see, the unities of the interconnected emotions which she is attempting to express in these poems. Particularly in “Ariel,” she is careful to link the thematic and rhyme devices already mentioned to an overall structure which suggests the special kind of fusions that she intends. The poem is written in three line stanzas, and, in the sense that two of the lines in each stanza rhyme, the poem might be considered to fall into a loose terza rima. Another way in which the form works to complement the meaning is in the stanzaic form itself. The very fact that the stanzas are tri-fold parallels the tri-fold allusions to horse, Ariel in Shakespeare, and “Ariel” as a reference to Jerusalem, Therefore, the stanzaic structure as well as the structure of the individual stanzas corroborates the theme of the poem.
But perhaps the most important structural, as well as thematic, line in the poem is the last line, which is also the final stanza of the poem. This line is important in a three-fold way: first, the “ro” of “cauldron” is inverted to “or” in “morning,” thus continuing the duality of the double, and here internal, rhyme that occurs throughout the poem, but at the same time tightening the rhyme even further into the space of a single line; second, the words “eye” and “morning,” carrying as they do the overtones of “I” and “mourning,” at once incorporate the personal activity (riding a horse) with the communal concern of the Biblical passage (where “Ariel” comes to signify the whole history of the Hebrew race and the suffering, the “mourning” so immediately identified with that history); and, thirdly, the word “cauldron” mixes all of the foregoing elements together into a kind of melting pot of emotion, history and personal involvement. Thus, the poem takes on the richness and complexity we have come to expect from the poet, and, not without reason, stands as the title poem of the book. As A. Alvarez has said, “The difficulty with this poem lies in separating one element from another. Yet that is also its theme.” Indeed, Plath seems to have always had a similar difficulty in separating one element of her life from another. But, that, too, was also, and always, her theme.
From “Sylvia Plath’s ‘Ariel.’” Modern Poetry Studies 3.4 (1972)