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Plath's 'Ariel': 'Auspicious Gales'

Critic: Linda Wagner


Source: Concerning Poetry, Vol. 10, No. 2, 1977, pp. 5-7. Reproduced by
permission
Criticism about: Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), also known as: Victoria Lucas, Mrs.
Ted Hughes
Plath's 'Ariel': 'Auspicious Gales',
[(essay date 1977) In the following essay, Wagner draws attention to the
complexity of Plath's poetry in Ariel which, as the critic notes, invokes archetypal
imagery and the paradoxical portrayal of suffering as survival to create depth of
feeling and insight.]
No poet contemporary with us has been so subject to misreadings, especially
biographical misreadings: Sylvia Plath's poems evoke the worst of subjective
fallacies. Probably some of our charged reactions are symptomatic of the times and
the culture; but more of them seem to stem from the always-too-easy identification
between troubled poet (with the ultimate proof, her suicide) and what might be the
tone of imagery and rhythm of the poem considered. Because Plath worked so
intensively in archetypal imagery (water, air, fire as bases for image patterns, for
example), many of her poems could be read as either "dark" wasteland kinds of
expressions, or as the reverse, as death-by-water, salvation poems--destruction
implied, but also survived, phoenix-like. (When a reader finds a gay, affirmative
poem like"Balloons" to be ominous simply because the child holds "A red / shred
in his little fist" at its end, there must be some reason for discounting fully ninety
percent of the affirmative lines and images in that single poem--making it "fit" the
preconception we have of Plath's work as being consistently despairing, vindictive,
bleak.)
"Ariel," the title poem of the collection that made Plath known to the reading
world so soon after her 1962 suicide, is a similarly ambiguous poem, rich in its
image patterns of movement-stasis, light-dark, earth-fire. The progression in the
poem is from the simply stated "Stasis in darkness," a negative condition as Plath
indicates in the very similarly imaged poem "Years," to the ecstatic
transformation-through-motion of the closing. That this is a poem about motion is
clear from the second image, which seems to be a depiction of the faint light of
morning ("substanceless blue pour of tor and distances") yet also stresses the
movement of the image--pour, distances. The eye of the reader, like that of the
poet, is on what is coming, and the scene that appears is always couched in
imagery that includes motion words or impressions. Even the furrows of earth are
moving ("splits and passes").

The antagonistic forces in the poem are those contrary to the motion that is so
passionately evoked. Set against the unity of the moving horse and rider are the
"Nigger-eye berries" casting "dark hooks," creating both "shadows" (in contrast to
the ever-growing light) and the only blood image of the poem. The stasis is
momentary, for immediately after the pause that the word shadows creates comes
the fragmentary picture of the woman being forcibly taken "through air"--"thighs
hair / flakes from my heels." And the statement-like close of that vivid image is the
apostrophe to the naked Godiva (physically, and emotionally, "white," a link to the
many images of purity and chastity in these Ariel poems), who finds her freedom
in the physical act of unpeeling--not clothes, in this case, but "Dead hands, dead
stringencies." There is no motion in either of these things; either the sexual links
with the image of hands, or the compulsive duty-oriented links with the image of
stringency.
Once free of these deadnesses, the rider/persona can then take off to the ecstasy
that awaits her. That the progression has been a fairly tortuous one is suggested,
effectively, by the back-and-forth emphasis on stasis and then speed; but that the
poem ends with the sheer joy of movement can be read only as affirmation.
Metamorphosis, transcendence blots out even those all-important cries from the
children that other poems of Plath's show to be so beloved, as the poem closes (and
the line arrangement here is, of course, mine):
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.
(Masterful as many of the short-line tercet poems are--"Lady Lazarus," "Fever
103," "Daddy"--this particular poem works better when a longer line structure is
used, because the impetus to motion is more apparent. The syncopation of the
short-line structure impedes the fluid reading that the image and syntax pattern
suggests.)
Several critics rely heavily on Plath's color systems in reading her poems. In this
poem, the day changes from "darkness" to the weightless blue of morning to an
absence of color, punctuated by the brown arc of the horse's neck and the earth it
travels, by the black of the sweet blood berries, and by the group of color images
describing the woman's body as evanescent (sparkling, silver/gold, glinting, in
"wheat," "glitter of seas," "dew"). From acoloration, itself a kind of transcendence,
the poem moves back to the sharp vividness of the day which is no longer

shrouded in amorphous blues, but instead burns, cauldron-like, with a red glow in
the east. Red being one of those archetypal images that can suggest several oftencontradictory meanings, I turn here to the common source of the name Ariel and
the association, affirmatively, with fire and the color red. (Because Plath spoke so
frequently of her admiration for Shakespeare, and because in another late
poem, "The Bee Meeting," she describes herself as "the magician's girl," it seems
a fair assumption that she did know The Tempest; and that, at this period in her life,
separated from her husband and living alone, she might have been drawn to its
fairy-tale emphasis on Miranda's sheltered chastity, and the final consummation of
marriage/peace/brotherhood at the play's end--even if ironically.)
As Shakespeare describes Ariel, through Prospero's words, "a spirit too delicate /
To act her earthy and abhorred commands," imprisoned in a pine for a dozen years,
until freed from the confinement by Prospero's "art" (not, significantly, magic or
other kind of occult power.) Set in direct and sympathetic contrast to both the hag
Sycorax and Caliban, her son, Ariel is an unrelieved power for freedom and good
throughout the play. When he first appears, Act I, Scene ii, he aligns himself with
the elements that are presented as positive in Plath's poems:
All hail, great master! Grave sir, hail! I come
To answer thy best pleasure, be't to fly,
To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride
On the curled clouds . . . .
So succinctly are all the images given, Ariel's speech is a near-abstract for the
successive patterns that appear in Plath's poem. And when one relates Ariel's
imprisonment within the tree to the "White Godiva, I unpeel" image, even that
takes on richer suggestion.
As Ariel continues speaking, we see that the method he has used to effect
Prospero's command--to bring the ship to land--is that of taking the shape of fire,
St. Elmo's fire ("Now on the beak, Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin, I
flamed amazement. Sometime I'd divide, And burn in many places, on the topmast,
The yards and bowsprit, would I flame distinctly, Then meet and join"). The
paradox, of course, is that none of the ship's passengers has been harmed, that
Ariel's use of fire is a gentle means of attaining what is best for the human beings
involved; and that the tone of the play--caught so well in Prospero's farewell
charge to Ariel--is that of benevolence and calm. He charges Ariel with securing
for the ship at its leave-taking, "calm seas, auspicious gales, And sail so
expeditious that shall catch Your royal fleet far off." (The paradox inherent in
"auspicious gales" is echoed in Plath's use of fire and driven motion as positive
forces within the poem in question.) And to Ariel, as farewell, Prospero adds, with

endearment, "My Ariel, chick. That is thy charge. Then to the elements be free, and
fare thou well!" The greatest blessing of all, freedom, particularly after a dozen
years jailed within a tree. And Plath's vibrant use of the free flying image at the
close of "Ariel" suggests the same benizon, "I / Am the arrow, // The dew that flies
/ Suicidal, at one with the drive / Into the red // Eye, the cauldron of morning."
"Then to the elements be free" . . . "at one with the dew." Plath's drive to motion,
that sheer impact of energy and force, beyond the "Dead hands, dead stringencies,"
is the power behind not only "Ariel" but also "Stings," "Lady Lazarus,"
"Wintering," and "Fever 103." That she, with Shakespeare, found such violence
as the gale winds "auspicious" is an important index to these passionate and
sometimes difficult poems, poems important enough to us that we must learn to
read them with an insight closer to Plath's own emphasis, and to her equally
personal thematic direction.
Biographical/Critical Introduction to Sylvia Plath
Source: Linda Wagner, "Plath's 'Ariel': 'Auspicious Gales,'" in Concerning
Poetry, Vol. 10, No. 2, 1977, pp. 5-7. Reproduced by permission.
Gale Database: Contemporary Literary Criticism
1999 The Gale Group. All rights reserved.

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