Ariel, by Sylvia Plath


Sylvia Plath died on 11 February, 1963, so fifty years later it seemed appropriate to re-read Ariel to see how well it has stood the test of time, ignoring the post-publication accretions that have built up around Plath, her relationship with Ted Hughes, and her posthumous conscription into the war against patriarchal oppression in a vague ‘the personal is political’ way.

The problem is that Plath’s work is now always viewed through her iconic status.  What for another treating similar themes would be dismissed as narcissistic self-indulgence, turning private themes into confessional poetry, in her case has become mythologised, even though still narcissistic and self-indulgent; when, that is, it is not being wilfully obscure.  The merits of her poetry have been so distorted by her unhappy short life and the desperate manner of her death that it is difficult to come to any kind of balanced judgement on them.

One can see why she might be the darling of emo angst though.  She has a keen eye for herself, down to the “Flakes from my heels” (assuming flakes is a noun and not a verb), but sometimes she transcends her self-absorption, for example when she writes about the universal fear of illness and physical pain, with “nerves bursting like trees“, or that excruciating sensation we can all identify with, slicing the tip of your finger in the kitchen.  At such times her fascination with pain and death is transmuted into art.  But the superb imagery is too often diluted by obscurantism, personal references at which we can only guess and do not resonate, and the meanings we insert are read through what we think we know about her life and feelings.

She is at her best when she is dealing with nature, albeit often her pessimism in the face of impersonal forces, and not focusing on herself and the frustrations of domesticity.  ‘Sheep in Fog’ has the memorable line “The train leaves a line of breath”, while horses’ hooves are “dolorous bells”.  Her poems on bee-keeping are positively optimistic compared to some of the personal stuff.  Perhaps her relationship with Hughes brought out her strengths as a poet, which would be ironic given the opprobrium heaped on him since her death.

The title of this volume and Plath’s age at death remind one of Shelley, who drowned while out in his boat, which was called Ariel, and who was almost the same age when he died.  If you look at their respective achievements, you suspect that Plath’s relatively modest output has been somewhat overrated since her death.  One wonders what she would have made of it all fifty years on.

First posted on Goodreads website 21 January 2013


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