Alan Williamson: On "Ariel"

Consider the beginning of a much finer poem, "Ariel" itself:

Stasis in darkness.

Then the substanceless blue 

Pour of tor and distances.

The two near-spondees, rhyming, balanced around the insignificant pivot "in": a line could hardly contrive to have more "stasis," less forward movement to it. Moving ahead another five syllables, a hypothetical second line completes itself with the third occurrence of the rhyme--falling, yet again, on an abstract word denoting a privation of quality or presence. Thus, "blue" enters like the declaration of a second theme: because it is a quality; because it is formally unexpected; because it is only the second long vowel in the poem. The theme expands instantaneously, in a "pour" of long-vowel assonance and rhyme, then curiously sinks back under the first theme, as the velocity of the bolting horse melts concrete objects to an abstract blue of "distances."

This little sonata already contains the essential action of the poem. The second theme, of velocity, intensified quality, intensified selfhood, will be developed around the symbolic long i and the related long e, in what must be one of the most aurally spectacular passages in English poetry since Dylan Thomas:

And now I

Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.

The child's cry


Melts in the wall.

And I

Am the arrow,


The dew that flies

Suicidal, at one with the drive 

Into the red


Eye, the cauldron of morning.

As in the mountain vision in The Bell Jar, the "I" is "honed" against the sun until it is "saintly and thin and essential." It is thrust to the end of the line, against unconditioned space; underscored with ideas of purification, expansion, intensity, and above all speed and daring ("White / Godiva," "unpeel," "seas," "child's cry," "flies," "suicidal," "drive"). But finally, at the crisis, "I" metamorphoses into "Eye," fuses with the cosmic, impersonal awareness, or sheer Being, of the sun itself. Specific identity--like specific perception in the opening stanza—"melts" in the "cauldron" of its own acceleration, back to a formless monism.

I have dwelt on this poem not only because it is a tour de force, but because its melding opposites reveal a side of Plath's ontological vision peculiarly relevant to her stylistic development. In a certain sense, as we shall see, the opening stanza we examined so laboriously contains the plot not only of "Ariel" the poem but of Ariel the book.

The philosophical vacillation between motion and stasis runs through all of Plath's late writing.

From Introspection and Contemporary Poetry. Copyright 1984 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.


Title Alan Williamson: On "Ariel" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Alan Williamson Criticism Target Sylvia Plath
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 18 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Introspection and Contemporary Poetry
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