The structure of “Ariel” is strict: ten three-line stanzas and a final single line for closure. The connections between the stanzas are strange, however, and they make it difficult to tell where one image or subject breaks off and another begins. For example, “God’s lioness,” which begins the second stanza, seems to refer by apposition to the “pour of tor and distances,” the end of the first stanza. In the same way, there is frequently a sort of enjambment or connection between the last line of one stanza and the first of the next.
Ordinary similes and metaphors occur, but they are indicated by the slightest signs. “The furrow” is likened to the “brown arc/ Of the neck I cannot catch” by the words “sister to.” The berries are compared to mouthfuls of blood by mere juxta-position. “God’s lioness” is both a metaphor and a complex allusion; the single word “Godiva” is yet another simile. The poem is rich with the resonances and figures of speech of traditional lyric. The poetic innovation here is in the supreme brevity with which these poetic figures are invoked. The meter is so brief that a complex image must be communicated in a few telegraphic words.
There is a general sense of rejection, dissolution, and emptiness in “Ariel”: “substanceless blue,” “Nigger-eye/ Berries,” “hooks,” “Flakes from my heels,” “Dead hands,” the verb “Melts.” The sun is seen not as a sign of hope and power but as a red eye and a “cauldron.”
The rhythm of “Ariel” has been called sexual, because its pace gradually quickens and crescendos to an orgasmic finish. Yet beneath this constant rise of energies is a sense of immense control–Plath’s mastery of the changing energies of selfhood in lyric experience. The poet mentions herself again and again, tracking step-by-step the stages of her disappearance into pure sensation. The first-person pronoun establishes a rhythm for this progress in the second half of the poem: “I unpeel,” “And now I/ Foam,” “And I/ Am the arrow.” One could almost say that the first six stanzas are the cause and the last four the effect. In the first six stanzas, she is propelled through a landscape; in the last four, the attention is drawn to the literal “I” of the poem.
“Dead hands, dead stringencies” creates a sudden pause in the headlong movement, and the reader must stop to think what this intellectual expression could mean. Then the beat is taken up again in a new key with the words “And now I/ Foam.” In the end one can see that, despite the apparently overwrought intensity of the poem, a balance has been carefully crafted between feeling and observation, creating what Helen Vendler called “the coordination of intelligence and feeling.”
(Source: Masterplots II: Poetry Series © 1992)