"Ariel" depicts a woman riding her horse in the countryside, at the very break of dawn. It details the ecstasy and personal transformation that occurs through the experience.
The poem begins with complete immobility in the darkness, while the rider waits on the horse. There is then a change – the intangible blue of hills and distances come into being. The rider is "God's lioness;" she experiences the sensation of becoming one with her horse in a powerful entangling of knees and heels. The plowed field on which she rides soon splits and vanishes behind her, remaining elusive like the brown neck of her steed that she "cannot catch."
As she rides, the narrator observes black berries "cast[ing] dark hooks," and a profusion of shadows. There is "something else" that forcefully pulls her through the air as she rides, its strength described as thighs, hair, and her heels, which flake from the force of the ride.
She compares herself to Lady Godiva, who rode naked upon her horse. In the midst of the ride, she can slough off things of no consequence –"dead hands, dead stringencies." She views herself as the foam on wheat, as a sparkling of light on the ocean. She discerns a child's cry through a wall, but ignores it.
The rider is now a potent arrow, as well as dew that "flies suicidal." She has been subsumed into both the horse and the ride as she propels herself forward into the rising sun, which is depicted as a powerful red Eye.
"Ariel"'s short length and seeming simplicity – a woman rides her horse through the countryside at dawn – is belied by the incredible amount of critical attention and praise that the poem has received since its publication in 1965. It is considered one of Plath's most accomplished and enigmatic poems, for it explores far more than a simple daybreak ride. It must be noted that this poem provides the title for her collection Ariel, selected after she rejected the title "Daddy." The poem justifies its centrality through a use of dazzling imagery, vivid emotional resonance, historical and biblical allusions, and a breathtaking sense of movement. Critics tend to discuss the poem as explorations of several different subjects, including: poetic creativity; sexuality; Judaism; animism; suicide and death; self-realization and self-transformation; and mysticism.
To begin with, the name Ariel refers to three different things: Sylvia Plath's own horse, which she loved to ride; the androgynous sprite from Shakespeare's play The Tempest; and Jerusalem, which was also called Ariel in the Old Testament. Critics who discuss Shakespeare's Ariel tend to read Plath's poem as an exploration of poetic creativity and process. Shakespeare's Ariel embodies this power, and Plath may be attempting to fashion a metaphor for the process of writing a poem. The poet begins in darkness, but is then hauled along by the inspiration of poetic language. The poem begins in passivity, but moves into one of control and power. The critic Susan van Dyne notes how the poet's self-transformation is manifest in her use of complete sentences, which begins midway through the poem. She becomes both male and female, horse and rider, poet and creative force, arrow and target. She is not merely a captive of the creative drive, but its agent.
In regards to the biblical allusion of Jerusalem, it is no doubt a product of Plath's fascination – nay, obsession – with Judaism and the Jews. "Ariel" translates to "lion of God" from Hebrew, and Plath refers to herself as "God's lioness" in line 4. Critics have observed a recurrent motif in Plath's poetry wherein she associates horses with religious ecstasy. Riding seemed to be a way to achieve this transcendence. William V. Davis sees Plath as wanting to communicate this private, ecstatic, and nearly-unknowable experience to the reader. He considers the rhyming scheme of the last line –"Eye, the cauldron of morning" – and sees it as tying together the personal activity of riding a horse, the communal connotations of the Hebrew race and its suffering, and the cauldron, which is a way to "[mix] all of the foregoing elements together into a kind of melting pot of emotion, history, and personal involvement." She does not mean to declare herself an inhabitant of Jerusalem, but as one connected to it through greater, transcendental forces.
The allusion to Lady Godiva is an important one, as it suggests issues of the feminine and the masculine. In the 11th century Anglo-Saxon legend, Lady Godiva was the wife of an English lord who rode naked through the streets in order to gain a remission from the heavy tax he had placed upon his tenants. She had been frustrated with his stubbornness and greed in the taxation matter, and continued to demand that her husband ease the burden. He finally agreed to do so if she would strip naked and ride her horse through the town. The townspeople agreed to refrain from looking at her; only one man, "Peeping Tom," did not keep his promise. Quite obviously, Plath wishes to connect her ride through darkness to that of Lady Godiva. The connection can be understood in terms of the privacy she enjoys on her ride, or as suggestion that she rides for a greater cause than simply her own pleasure. The allusion also resonates because of the prevailing fascination western culture has with the forbidden figure of the female nude and the problems of spectacle; Plath uses this image to take control of her self-display, and does not mention any male gaze at all. She embraces her ride and all of its evocations of power, including sexual power, and is able to ignore even a child's cry that "melts in the wall." On this ride, she can firmly declare her feminine independence away from stifling patriarchal forces.
The poem is indeed full of sexual imagery. Some examples include: lines 5 and 6 ("How one we grow,/Pivot of heels and knees!"); line 17 ("thighs, hair"); and the imagery of the phallic arrow. All of these lend credence to the claim that "Ariel" is an erotic poem. Plath is clearly the female rider, but she identifies with the horse's masculinity. Further, when she ignores the child's cry, she is refusing to accept the traditionally female role of mother and care-giver. Shakespeare's Ariel is an androgynous figure, and Plath's "Ariel" might also be statement about how a female poet, when possessed by the poetic creative fury, is not a female anymore – the genius transcends gender. The transcendence is not a violent one, and is not aimed at destroying men, however. Instead, it lies entirely outside of gender.
Finally, in critic Marjorie Perloff's discussion of animism and angst, she claims Plath's poetry as representative of the ecstatic, oracular poetic type, which centered upon self, thereby eschewing any sort of narrative objectivity. Plath identifies with the animal kingdom to express herself, depicting humans as lifeless and cold, and animals as vibrant and alive. She wishes to lose her human identity and commit to the instinct of animal, which rids her of any objectivity or judgment. In "Ariel," she is "God's lioness" as she becomes one with her force in a vivid trance. Perloff comments that "at its most intense, life becomes death but it is a death that is desired: the 'Suicidal' leap into the 'red / Eye' of the morning sun is not only violent but ecstatic." Animism is a way to demonstrate how one is taken out of one's quotidian life and one's self to achieve a state of transcendence and communion.
If one is so inclined, one can even connect this interpretation to the feminist and creative interpretations to suggest that Plath's ultimate goal was to relate ecstatic frenzy - how we identify and understand the frenzy ultimately reveals our own personality and interest.