1. How does the structure of the poem create interest and convey meaning? In what ways does it reinforce the central mood and ideas of the poem?
The number of syllables in each line is greatly varied. For instance, some lines are monosyllabic, such as line 19, which contains the single word “white”. In contrast, other lines comprise of as many as 10 syllables, as can be seen in line 6, “pivot of heels and knees! The furrow”. This is unconventional, as it means there is no dominant metrical foot throughout the poem. This is effective as it creates a sense of chaos and rapid pace, reinforced by the poem’s subject matter. It also creates great suspense through the metrical unpredictability, paralleling the unpredictable nature of the frantic runaway horse. The poem is also comprised of three-line stanzas, called tercets. This can parallel the tri-fold connotations of the title ‘Ariel’ – the horse, the lion of God and the airy spirit from ‘The Tempest’. In this way, the tercets of irregular length reinforce the dominant tone of the poem and emphasise the allusions throughout.
2. Can ‘Ariel’ be considered a confessional poem? Why or why not?
There is great debate as to whether or not Plath can be considered a confessional poet. Plath is typically categorized as a confessional poet. This is because her poems are highly introspective, draw upon unique personal experiences and explore dark and taboo themes such as depression and suicide. There are a number of confessional elements can be seen in ‘Ariel’. This can be seen through the accumulation of the personal pronoun “I” throughout the poem, as well as the similarities between the events of the poem and Plath’s personal experiences during a ride in Cambridge. Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, described this real life experience as ’a kind of dawn ride towards death’ where ‘Her horse bolted, the stirrups fell off, and she came all the way home to the stables, about two miles, at full gallop, hanging around the horse’s neck’. This is clearly evoked in the poem, through the frantic pace, dawn setting and lines such as “the brown arc of the neck I cannot catch.” In this way, confessional elements play a large role in the poem. However, other critics argue that Plath should not be categorized under the strict label of Confessional Poetry, as her poems are multi-faceted, highly complex and explore a number of significant interrelated ideas. Evidence for this in ‘Ariel’ includes the crucial theme of psychological rebirth, as well as the focus on gender and oppression. Hence, there are many ways in which the poem extends beyond personal significance and has great meaning for wider society.
3. In what ways is the setting of the poem significant?
The setting of the poem is conveyed through the motif of nature and the numerous, scattered references to disparate elements of the natural world. This has both literal and metaphoric significance. On a literal level, the setting is exaggerated and amplified to further the sense of fear throughout the poem by creating a heightened sense of the horse’s frenzied speed. This is first seen in the line “the furrow splits and passes” (line 6). The term ‘furrow’ indicates the rural setting of the poem, while the personification creates a sense of distortion and fear. This can also be seen through references to the natural setting such as “berries cast dark hooks” (Stanza 4) and “the dew that flies suicidal” (line 28). In all these descriptions, the setting is portrayed as hostile and threatening.
As well as this, the setting has deeper metaphorical significance as it evokes ideas of introspection and self-hood. The landscape is clearly secluded, as the rider and horse are the only figures in sight. This, as well as the early morning atmosphere, suggest a meditative quality. Furthermore, the land is described as lush, as can be seen through the references to ploughing and berries. This represents the fertility of the imagination and poetic creativity.
4. What are the different allusions suggested by the name ‘Ariel’? Why are they significant?
There are three significant allusions suggested by the name ‘Ariel’. The most literal is that Ariel was the name of one of Plath’s favorite horses. This indicates the thematic concerns and subject matter of the poem. It also situates the poem within the context of confessional poetry.
Ariel is also the name of the androgynous ‘airy spirit’ in Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’. ‘The Tempest’ is characterized by a focus on magic and its strong ethereal quality. Plath’s poem adopts this ethereal tone, and the horse becomes like the powerful and graceful spirit. Like the spirit in ‘The Tempest’, the persona in the poem is not bound by physical form. Rather, she is compared to an arrow and dew, and “unpeels” her restrictive mortal form. It is also significant that the character in Shakespeare’s play way a slave, as Plath’s poem explores the theme of oppression. In this way, the allusion to ‘The Tempest’ introduces ideas of freedom, magic and the spirit that are central to the poem.
Ariel is also the Hebrew word for “lion of God.” Plath directly draws upon this idea when she refers to the horse as “God’s lioness” in line 4. This line is also a biblical allusion to Isiah 29: 5 – 6, which evoked images of earthquakes, whirlwinds and tempests that are further significant to the poem.
5. How are ideas of power and control evident in the poem?
The rider in the poem fluctuations between moments of power and powerlessness. This means that the persona is depicted as both in control of the situation and, in other times, completely helpless. These fluctuating power dynamics can be seen through the contrast between the beginning and end of the poem. Towards the beginning, the rider lacks power and control. This is clearly conveyed through the passive construction “something else hauls me through the air” (line 15), and the sense of panic in the line “Pivot of heels and knees! The furrow splits” (line 6). At the end of the poem, however, the persona is portrayed as being in control. She is “at one with the drive” (line 29) and conveys strength through the empowered declarative “I am the arrow, the dew that flies suicidal.” In this way, as the tone of the poem shifts from fearful to exhilarating, the persona moves from a position of powerlessness to empowerment.
6. In what ways is the poem an exploration of the theme of selfhood?
The poem is highly introspective. This can be seen through the repetition of the personal pronoun ‘I’ throughout the poem, as well as assonance of the ‘i’ sound. “White Godiva, I unpeel”, “the dew that flies suicidal with the drive.” Intensified selfhood is also evident through the persona’s transformative rebirth and the fierce velocity of the poem. Crucial ideas of selfhood and personal identity are also conveyed in the line “I unpeel dead hands, dead stringencies” (line 20). This line suggests deliberate effacement, as the rider erases or destroys her physical self. However, this act of shedding the physical enables the rider’s true spirit to rise. It is by removing the physical self that the psychological self can flourish and attain freedom. This same idea is central to many of Plath’s other notable poems, such as ‘Lady Lazarus’ and ‘Fever 103’.
7. The notion of ‘oneness’ is central to the poem. Explain.
The poem focuses, on the ‘oneness’ of the horse and rider, exemplified in the line “how one we grow” (line 5). There is also a deliberate parallel between the actions of the horse and human. While the horse “pivots” “heels and knees”, the rider “unpeels” “dead hands”. The horse and rider are not described as separate entities, rather, they exit and move together. ‘Oneness’ is also evoked through the ecstatic connection between the rider and the external world, as she moves “at one with the drive into the red eye, the cauldron of morning” (line 29). Here, the rider is inextricably connected to the transcendental experience represented by the rising sun. Both instances of ‘oneness’ are highly significant. The close connection between rider and horse illustrate the passionate, animalistic nature of humankind, while the rider’s connection with the elements emphasizes her attainment of personal freedom.
8. In what ways does the poem react against gender roles, stereotypes and subjugation?
The poem reacts against gender roles and stereotypes by critiquing commonly hold perceptions of gender, for instance, the assumption that women are maternal beings. Plath suggests that these gendered expectations are essentially restrictive, as they can clash with an individual’s aspirations and desires. This can be seen in the poem when the rider ignores “the child’s cry”, causing it to “melt in the wall.” By subverting the role of women as caregiver, the persona is able to nourish her own creative potential. This leads to the discovery of genuine freedom, as she “flies” towards the optimistic rising sun.
The poem also reacts against other forms of subjugation, such as racial oppression. This can be seen through the reference to “nigger-eye berries” (line 10), a controversial allusion to the mistreatment of indigenous peoples during as a result of colonization. This is also evident through the dark and brutal tone of the subsequent stanzas, with references to “black sweet blood” and “shadows”.
9. How does the poem blend traditional masculine and feminine imagery? Why is this significant?
In ‘Ariel’, Plath skilfully merges traditional masculine and feminine imagery to create a sense of androgynous creativity and the creative potential. The rider is associated with femininity in the direct allusion to “White Godiva”, a powerful appraisal of feminine beauty and strength. This can also be seen through the agricultural imagery in the line “Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas” (23). This description draws against the image of the primordial goddess of the harvest, as well as the Greco-Roman image of the goddess Aphrodite/Venus ascending from the sea.
The poem also heavily draws upon masculine images. These include the phallic arrow, which the persona ties to her identity – “I am the arrow” - as well as the “red eye”. By drawing upon both modes of representation, Plath further critiques the strict gender roles of her time. She praises traditional notions of feminine beauty and grace through the comparison to Lady Godiva, while also adopting notions of strength and potency. This is also significant as it strengthens the allusion to the androgynous spirit Ariel in ‘The Tempest’.
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