Plath's 'Ariel': 'Auspicious Gales'
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 often-contradictory 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.
Gale Database: Contemporary Literary Criticism