Ariel Sylvia Plath’s poem “Ariel” begins with a speaker who exists in a void: “Stasis in darkness.” Then the world slowly starts to reveal itself, as if at dawn: “the substanceless blue / Pour and for of distances.”
Steadily, the substance of the picture fills in. The speaker addresses someone–“God’s lioness”–exclaiming “How one we grow, / Pivot of heels and knees”! The speaker and the “lioness” are joined together; yet at the same time, the following lines: “–The furrow / Splits and passes,” give an impression of motion and falling away.
The picture of the poem becomes clearer in the next lines: “The brown arc / Of the neck I cannot catch.” The speaker is addressing a horse she is riding. She is unable to catch the image of her horse, yet in the following stanza she portrays a feeling of being caught: “Nigger-eye / Berries cast dark / Hooks–.” The speaker is clearly threatened, for even berries have the ability to hurt her.
The image of darkness returns, but with greater urgency. Shadows are Black sweet blood mouthfuls” that the speaker savors. Yet she quickly cast them away. Her mind is galloping ahead in full force, already claiming that “Something else / Hauls me through air–.”
The speaker turns to the impressions of her own body–“Thighs, hair”–to fill out the sensory picture. Yet she quickly begins to unravel that image as well: “Flakes from my heels. / White Godiva, I unpeel–.”The image of Godiva refers to the legendary eleventh-century woman Lady Godiva. On the condition that her husband eases the heavy taxation on his town, Lady Godiva rode through the town naked on a horse. The legend of Lady Godiva grew over the centuries to include the character of peeping Tom, the only townsperson who caught a glimpse of her through the closed shutters–and went blind as a result.
This reference to Lady Godiva casts an image of the speaker as a larger-than-life figure. She associates herself with a woman of such power that she could rob a man of his sight. While this immense power has an effect on others, it also is turned toward–perhaps against–the speaker herself. The stanza ends in a powerful flash: all that is left of the image of the speaker’s body are “Dead hands, dead stringencies.” Her energy is spent.
In the following stanza, the speaker completes her evaporation: “And now I / Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.” As surely as the sensory world crept in at the beginning of the poem, it recedes. Sound disassembles as if in a hallucination: “The child’s cry / Melts in the wall.” Yet instead of fading away, the speaker’s voice comes on again in full force. She claims “And I / Am the arrow, / The dew that flies / Suicidal.” She is on a clear path, though it is heading toward self-destruction. In this certainty the speaker is elated, feeling “at one” with the suicidal wish.
The speaker’s final destination is “Into the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning.” Rather than retreating into night, she begins at a new dawn: rather than returning to the void that begins the poem, she achieves a blinding, exalted completion.
Source: “‘Ariel’,” in Poetry for Students, 1997