“Ariel” by Sylvia Plath is the title poem of her volume of poetry, “Ariel,” published after her death. The poem is filled with the skillful application of consonance (rhyming consonants) and assonance (rhyming vowels), as well as a end, slant (or half rhymes), and head rhymes (also called alliteration). The poem is constructed of sets of three lines, also known as tercets.
Additionally, Plath makes consistent use of enjambment, instances in which lines break before their natural stopping points. This gives the piece a rushed feeling, as if the reader is is also riding on this out of control horse.
It is important to note a piece of background information before attempting to understand what this piece is about. In an interview after her death, Ted Hughes, Plath’s husband, explained that “Ariel” was the name of her horse. Without this information, understanding this poem is almost impossible. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of Ariel
“Ariel” by Sylvia Plath describes the terror of a wild horseback ride and the mental and emotional transformation that the rider, and speaker, goes through as she faces death.
The poem begins with a calm “stasis” in which nothing is happening, until, the horse, “Ariel” throws herself headlong into a charge. The speaker is holding on for dear life, unable to grasp her neck. The hills and landmarks of the countryside are pouring past them.
As she rides she begins to lose pieces of herself, she is shedding her past life and “stringencies” and becoming something new. She is merging with Ariel and becoming the “arrow” that will take her to a new life. The poem ends with the two charging on into the burning sun/future that awaits them.
Analysis of Ariel
In the first tercet of the poem the reader is given a very brief description of the situation in which the speaker has found herself. (While it is probable that the speaker is Plath herself, it is not 100% certain.)
The speaker is in a place of “darkness” in which nothing is happening. She is in “stasis,” frozen in place. The reader is also waiting at the beginning of the poem for something to happen. This does not last long as the second and third line of the poem jump into action.
Consulting the background information, and knowing that Ariel was the name of Plath’s horse, the reader can understand that she is riding Ariel and the horse has suddenly bolted. All of a sudden the “substanceless blue,” the undefined sky and scenery around her, is flying around. She describes the “Pour of tor and distances,” tor, meaning hills, is a perfect use of internal rhyming that helps to carry the piece along. The hillsides, woods, and other landmarks are speeding by her as Ariel carries her away
The next tercet gives the reader slightly more description. Plath’s speaker describes Ariel, the horse, as being “God’s lioness.” This is in an attempt to show the strength and power of the horse, she is a fearful being. Perhaps even more so than the speaker realized a few seconds ago. The two of them, rider and horse are merging. They are growing together as “one.”
The speaker is only able to see flashes of the horse’s movements as she is attempting to cling onto the neck. She sees the fast “Pivot of heels and knees!” And how Ariel propels her forward, deftly navigating the terrain.
At the start of the third tercet the speaker is comparing the “furrow,” or indention made from the horses’ hooves in the ground, to that of the horse’s “brown…neck.” The two are alike, as “sisters” are. There is not time, for either the speaker or the reader to analyze this fact as the narration takes us quickly into the next line in which the speaker is unable to “catch” a hold of the “brown neck” of the horse. It is clear that she is starting to lose the small amount of control she had over the situation.
In the next set of lines Plath’s speaker is being catapulted past dark, or as the speaker brazenly refers to them, “Nigger-eye / Berries.” The use of the word “Nigger” in this context was not meant as a racial slur, but was rather used as a general descriptor of darkness. While it is not used to refer to a particular person or type of person in this stanza, today it is still considered racist to do so. In Plath’s time, this was not so much the case.
These dark “berries” which she stick in her mind. They are said to “cast dark / Hooks” into her.
Continuing on, the speaker does seem to be hooked by the image of the berries as she imagines tasting them as “Black sweet blood mouthful.” This use of dark imagery is not unusual for Plath. The addition of the word “blood” lends a feeling of dread to the piece, as if something darker is on the verge of happening. This feeling lines up with the fact that Plath’s speaker is in actual danger on top of Ariel.
The next lines continue to spread the feeling of danger as the second line of this tercet is only the word, “Shadows.” She is seeing more flashes as she rides, and there is “Something else.”
This “Something else” is “Haul[ing] her through the air. She has not chosen to embark on this chaotic and somewhat terrifying ride on top of Ariel, she is being “Haul[ed],” forced along without a choice.
Once more the speaker turns the reader’s attention to the horse and describes how she is being carried along atop,
And below her, flakes are falling from her heels. She sees the power of the horse and it’s ability (through body parts that mirror her own) to carry her wherever it wants. Additionally, as this happens, she is coming apart. Her feet, which are her form of self transportation are falling apart. They are shedding their skin and she is becoming something new.
The next line, only made up of the word, “White” contrasts with the previous reference to “Nigger-eye” berries in the fourth tercet. She is casting herself as the opposite. She has tasted darkness in her mouth and is coming out of it. She is comparing herself directly with “Godiva.”
This historical figure, a woman from the 11th century, saved her people by proving her devotion to her husband, the powerful Earl of Mercia and Lord of the city. To do so, Lady Godiva rose through the center of town on horseback, naked.
The speaker states that she, like Lady Godiva, is peeling off a layer (the speaker means this metaphorically). Plath’s narrator, instead of peeling off clothing, is ridding herself of
Dead hands, dead stringencies.
This dangerous and cleansing ride that the speaker is on is freeing her of her “stringencies,” or the requirements of her life. She is shedding the person that she has been and is becoming someone else.
The poem is beginning to conclude as the reader comes to understand that this ride on Ariel is more than just an accidental brush with disaster, it is a wake up call, an opportunity (that the speaker takes) to change her way of life.
The change through which the speaker is going is described in the next stanza. She is changing from “Foam to wheat” and shedding her old self. She is becoming one with the landscape she is flying through, she is,
…a glitter of seas.
The reader receives a few additional details at the end of the poem as the speaker mentions, “The child’s cry.” Thus far there have been no other characters in this drama, so one must consider the importance of this child, mentioned in such an prime spot in the narrative.
The thoughts the speaker is having about a “child’s cry” continue into the next tercet. She describes how the “cry / Melts in wall.” It disappears out of her consciousness, she is part of nature with no need to dwell on the past.
While it is never made clear who this child is, one can assume that it is a child either lost by the speaker or one for which she craves.
She has shed the part of herself that is perhaps mourning this loss and is now “the arrow.” She is speeding so quickly through the “substanceless blue” she is shooting like an arrow. The connection between herself and Ariel, the horse, has grown strong.
The final lines of this poem bring back the darkness that was felt towards the middle. The speaker describes the ride that she is on as “Suicidal.” From what the reader has learned about the change that the narrator is undertaking, this reference to suicide is mostly likely to do with the killing of a past self. Ariel is charging quickly, almost suicidally as well.
Past the speaker flies the dew from the forest around them and they “drive” onward. Their pace is not slowing and Ariel, and now the speaker, are determined to get exactly where they need to be. They,
Into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning.
They are charging directly at the sun, a new day is approaching. The speaker can see a new, intense, burning light at the end of her tunnel and she is heading straight for it. This is where she will find her new life.
About Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1932. When Plath was only eight years old her father, who had been strict and authoritarian in his parenting style, died. His death would become the driving force behind a number of her most famous poems; most notably, “Daddy.” Plath graduated summa cum laude from Smith College in 1955. This is the same year in which “Two Lovers and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea” was published. She had battled with depression throughout her schooling, attempting suicide in 1953.
Plath would then move to Cambridge, England and marry fellow poet, Ted Hughes. In 1960 her first collection, Colossus, was published and 1963 she published her novel, The Bell Jar. Sylvia Plath would commit suicide using her gas oven in February of that same year. Her most famous collection of works, Ariel, was published by Hughes, along with another three after her death.