Christina Britzolakis: On "Ariel"

In 'Ariel', the experience of riding a horse becomes a metaphor for the process of writing a poem. For many critics, the poem is emblematic of Plath's attainment of poetic mastery, as in Stanley Plumly's words, 'Plath's singular and famous example of the form at one with its substance'. Dave Smith writes:

During those six years Plath had learned to write what would be her poem, the poem which was unlike any other, the poem Ted Hughes and others call the Ariel poem. I like it that this poem takes the name of her horse, the horse she is hell-bent on in a pre-dawn ride that is all fluid feeling . . . Nobody ever rode a horse exactly like that, then she did. She not only rode it, but as the physical meld of the images shows she became it in blood and hoof and stride and foam . . . The Collected Poems is a record of how she learnt to ride that electric horse sitting, then trotting, then galloping, finally becoming the current, the motion itself.

As Smith suggests, 'Ariel' forges its own myth of transcendence through the ecstasy of physical motion, an ecstasy which is seen as transitory and self-immolating. The poem seems to embody the event which it describes, seamlessly merging the separate identities of horse and rider through enjambment, assonance, alliteration, and internal rhyme. The symbolist reading of the poem as the affirmation of pure, androgynous creative energy would place it under the sign of Ariel in The Tempest. Yet the apparently seamless movement of poetic becoming in 'Ariel' is predicated on a darker narrative of violence. Two successive movements or phases can be distinguished in the poem's narrative. The first is earthbound and horizontal; it is associated with images of darkness, blood, orality, and the female body, such as the split furrow of the ploughed earth, and the 'nigger-eye | Berries'. These images suggest an identification with a subjugated animal/racial/sexual otherness (the 'nigger eye'/I) . The second movement, which almost imperceptibly takes over from the first, is phallic, solar, and vertical. It is linked with images of light, transcendence, and disembodiment, and punctuated by the repetition of the first-person pronoun, culminating in the figure of the arrow/dew that 'flies | Suicidal, at one with the drive | Into the red | Eye, the cauldron of morning'. The Apollonian 'red Eye', destination of the poem's journey, is an emblem of specularity and surveillance, while the 'cauldron' of morning/mourning invokes an extreme religious imagery of martyrdom and purification; in Isaiah 29: I, Jerusalem is referred to as Ariel, the city destined to be destroyed by fire. The initial assertion of the 'oneness' of the horse and rider gives way to a movement of individuation which forcibly leaves behind the body and the senses.

'Ariel' is a thoroughly Nietzschean poem, a meditation on Zarathustra's dictum that 'the fleetest beast to bear you to perfection is suffering'. The conjunction of the tropes of arrow, sun, and nakedness recalls Zarathustra's description of his 'desire with rushing wings' which 'tore me forth and up and away . . . and then indeed I flew, an arrow, quivering with sun-intoxicated rapture'. The 'rapture' is, as in 'Fever 103°', simultaneously spiritual and orgasmic. The pleasure of an unleashed, yet controlled movement of language ('at one with the drive') is seen in terms of sexual consummation. Yet this pleasure is also self-immolating, exacting a sacrifice of the 'lower', sensory, or bodily strata of experience to a paternal identification. The passage from the 'nigger-eye' to the 'red Eye' traces the emergence of a power structure within the psyche, a movement into the realm of the ego-ideal, which sublimates the darker, feminine, Dionysian energies of the 'nigger'-'I'. Pegasus, the legendary winged horse of poetry, sprang from the blood of Medusa's severed head, and in commemorating that violent birth, the poem remains ambiguously suspended between celebration and mourning.

From Sylvia Plath and the Theatre of Mourning. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Christina Britzolakis


Title Christina Britzolakis: On "Ariel" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Christina Britzolakis Criticism Target Sylvia Plath
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 18 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Sylvia Plath and the Theatre of Mourning
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