“Ariel” in many ways encapsulates the essence of the lyric form—a sense of nowness, of immediate experience which, because it is unconnected with any domestic narrative, captures the sublimity possible in pure sensation. At the same time, it contains the negativity that is an integral part of Sylvia Plath’s vision. This sense of darkness, of fatality, was considered by her early critics to be inseparable from the theme of suicide that was explored in her novel The Bell Jar (1963) and that attracted her in life as well.
Perhaps a more objective way of putting it would be to say that Plath attempted to see the world in a more honest and direct way; stripping sensation of its conventional meanings, she produced a new, dark vision of transcendence. This she expressed in a personal language with its own systems of classical allusions and correspondences. As she said in her 1956 journal: “[l]t is suddenly either all or nothing; either you break the surface shell into the whistling void or you don’t. … The horror is the sudden folding up and away of the phenomenal world, leaving nothing. Just rags. Human rooks which say Fraud.”
In “Ariel” one can see this folding up of the phenomenal world and the abandoning in stages of conventional meaning; through tribulation, there is a movement to a new transcendence. This idea is expressed in the Hebrew meaning of the name she gave to her horse, “Ariel.” This is the word used for Jerusalem when the prophet Isaiah predicts its tribulation–the period when the holy city will be invaded and the temple destroyed. After the time of its terrible trials, it will be purified and will achieve “deliverance in the apocalypse,” as Caroline King Barnard has noted.
In the same way, the poet persona clinging to the fleeing horse gradually journeys through tribulation to a triumphant dissolving of the self. She lets fall the clothes of her conventional self-identity: “I unpeel–/ Dead hands, dead stringencies.” This strikes a note of feminine rebellion, for that is the most familiar meaning of the Godiva story—the story of a woman who rides naked through a town as an act of protest. Judith Kroll has also pointed out a second meaning for Lady Godiva, which is her identification with the White Goddess, a female lunar deity discussed by Robert Graves in his exploration of Celtic goddesses.
Freed from external views of the feminine, the persona becomes the androgynous elfin essence of freedom, the Shakespearean Ariel from The Tempest (1611). That Ariel undergoes trials and then finds freedom, serving the magician Prospero for a period in order to gain final untrammeled liberation. At the same time, this liberation is a death to the old self, which dissolves like dew or disappears, flying like an arrow into the target, the red eye of the sun.
(Source: Masterplots II: Poetry Series © 1992)