The first stanza plays the vital role of establishing the pace of the poem. Stanza one fluctuates between motion and ‘stasis’ (motionlessness). The poem begins with complete stillness and absence of light, as indicated by the first line “Stasis in darkness”. In these three words, Plath perfectly captures a sense of stasis. “Stasis” and “darkness” are both spondees - two syllable words consisting of a stressed beat followed by an unstressed beat. They are joined by the short pivot word “in”. Thus, the syntax is symmetrical, perfectly capturing a lack of movement and momentum. This first line represents the persona’s ignorance at the very beginning of the poem.
In the next two lines, Plath skilfully creates a rapid sense of movement and action, indicating that the horse has begun to run. The comparative “then” indicates this juxtaposition from stasis to motion, furthered by the color imagery and contrast between “darkness” and the “blue”. The rapid movement in vowel sounds – “blue”, “pour”, “tor” further emphasize movement. However, the pace is not extremely frantic in the first stanza, though it becomes very chaotic as the poem progresses. This is because the rhyming, abstract words “darkness”, “substanceless” and “distances” in stanza one help dampen this speed. Nonetheless, stanza one effectively brings the horse and rider out of stillness.
This stanza furthers the sense of chaos established in the first stanza, and emphasizes the close connection between rider and horse. There is an important allusion in the first line of stanza two – “God’s lioness” – as ‘Ariel’ is the Hebrew word for ‘Lion of God’. In the Old Testament, in particular the Book of Isaiah, the word ‘Ariel’ represents the plight of the Jews. This can be seen in Isaiah 29: 1 – 7, which critics believe was a great source of inspiration for Plath’s poem. The biblical passage introduces the notion of Ariel and the critical theme of suffering, “Woe to Ariel, to Ariel, the city where David dwelt” (Isaiah, 29:1). As well as this, Isaiah 29 verses 5 – 7 contain a number of images that Plath draws on throughout the poem, such as ‘instantaneous movement’, ‘thunder’, earthquake ’and‘ great noise. In this way, the epithet “God’s lioness” is a powerful biblical allusion, and also introduces the important idea of feminine strength.
Stanza two also conveys a sense of ‘oneness’, as the horse and rider metaphorically become one; “How one we grow”. Finally, the end rhyme between “grow” (line 5) and “furrow” (line 6) create a sense of movement and forward momentum, while the assonance of “heels and knees” furthers this chaotic pace.
Stanza three conveys just how frantic this horse ride is, and illustrates the persona’s lack of control. The rider is moving so quickly that the earth “splits and passes” before her, evoking a strong sense of fear. The rider tries to gain control by reaching for the horse’s neck (the “brown arc”), but is unable to. The negative declaration “I cannot catch” illustrates the speaker’s inability to gain control over the situation, while the alliteration quickly moves the poem into the next stanza.
Stanza Four is slower-paced and focuses on specific images to create a menacing tone and a sense of oppression. The entire stanza is made up of only eight syllables, the typical length of a single line in stanzas one to three. In this way, Plath essentially slows down time to focus in on particular elements, manipulating the pace of the poem with great skill. The reference to “Nigger-eye berries” is a controversial pun on ‘black berries’, personifying the ominous setting. This is also evidence of what critics refer to as a ‘darker narrative of violence’ underpinning Plath’s Ariel poems.
The menacing tone of stanza four is further achieved through the return to images of darkness, “dark hooks”, and the sense of entrapment suggested by the idea of hooks. The alliteration of “cast dark hooks” further contributes to the dramatic slowing of pace in stanza four.
Stanza five continues the tone established in stanza four to give the poem a strong sense of suspense and fear. Again the stanza is quite short, comprised of only ten syllables, so that it hones in on these negative emotions. The first line draws upon the images of darkness and pain in the previous stanza, as the “black sweet blood mouthfuls” relate to the berry imagery. This is a clear evidence of enjambment, where a single thought or image is carried across more than one stanza. There is lots of enjambment in the poem, to pull the reader forward at a rapid pace.
Fear is emphasized through the reference to “shadows”, while the ambiguous, unfinished phrase “something else” creates a powerful sense of suspense. Here, pace is quickened by the clipped syntax, with lines fourteen and fifteen consisting of only one and two words respectively.
Stanza six departs from the previous stanzas focus on emotion and tone, and comes back to the sense of dynamic action that is central to the poem. This action and movement is described as equally frightening and exhilarating. The rider is overcome by passion and emotion, which “hauls” her “through air’. This ethereal imagery can be frightening, but also foreshadows her transcendence and freedom when she “flies” (line 28). The bodily imagery “thighs, hair” is erotic and suggestive of female sexuality and power. In this way, stanza six begins to suggest that the rider is overcoming her fear and giving into an animalistic sense of frenzy. Thus, stanza six begins the movement towards a transformative rebirth.
In stanza seven, the rider develops a strong sense of control and begins the process of transcendence. The stanza begins with the phrase “White Godiva”, an allusion to Lady Godiva, a historical female figure who rode naked on a horse. This carries on from the erotic undertones of stanza six, and also suggests rebellion, power, beauty and feminine strength.
The persona’s growing power in stanza seven is indicated from the shift from passive clauses to the active “I unpeel”, representing the rider’s control over her situation. She strips herself of “dead hands, dead stringencies.” This is highly symbolic language to describe the rider undressing herself, removing material restrictions to allow herself to fly, unclothed, like the rebellious lady Godiva. Here, the unclothed body is a metaphor for a state of freedom from societal conventions. By unpeeling her mortal form, the persona is able to rise.
Stanza eight describes the persona’s mythical ascension. A strong sense of female empowerment is also evident. The line “Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas” pinpoints her transition from the material to spiritual world. This line draws upon traditional feminine images. Wheat represents mother earth and the mythical goddess of the grain, while seas and waterways represent female cycles and transition. End rhyme between “I” (line 22) and “cry” (line 24) suggest a positive upwards movement, while the repeated ‘I’ sound emphasizes ideas of personal identity and selfhood.
In stanza nine, the rider’s transition is successful as she becomes ‘reborn’. The poem suggests that this process occurs after the rider completely rejects societal norms and human conventions. This is seen by how she ignores maternal and biological instincts, allowing “the child’s cry” to “melt in the wall”. She is thus reborn, represented by the declarative “I am the arrow”, where the arrow is a symbol of power and control. This is the climax of the poem, as the speaker has moved from powerlessness to a position of complete control.
Stanzas Ten and Eleven
The final stanza and additional concluding line end the poem on a very positive note, by emphasizing the rider’s new found sense of freedom. She describes herself as “the dew that flies suicidal”, suggesting a strong burst of powerful movement. Her position of absolute control is shown through the line “at one with the drive”, continuing the motif of ‘oneness’ throughout the poem.
Finally, the poem ends with the optimistic image of the rising sun. Plath’s description of the rising sun is grandiose, elaborate and metaphoric, as it is described as “the red eye, the cauldron of morning.” These images in the final stanza are all positively charged, illustrating the state of freedom that the rider has now reached.