Without context, it is hard to understand what this poem is about. However, in an interview after Plath's death, her former husband Ted Hughes explained that she had owned a horse called Ariel. We can therefore assume that this poem recounts Plath's memory of an early morning horseride.
The poem begins with a calm and tranquil tone. The opening line 'stasis in darkness', suggests an absence of light and movement. The speaker and horse are completely still, surrounded by the stillness of the night, representing the seconds of calm anticipation before the ride begins.
With its second line, the poem immediately jumps into action. There is a rapid sense of movement as the horse gallops at great speed, frightening the persona. The speaker is suddenly confronted with 'the substanceless blue' and the 'pour of tor and distances,' suggesting she is passing the surrounding landscape at some speed.
Plath leaves the particulars of this horseride deliberately ambiguous. By not giving us all the details, she replicates the sense of disorientation and surprise she is feeling as the horse takes off. The speaker describes how the land rushes past her, as she gets glimpses of ploughed grass and black berries flashing past. During this process, the persona feels disconnected from the real world. She hears everyday sounds, such as a crying child, but is moving so quickly that these sounds become blurred.
The poem then takes a darker turn, as the speaker describes the 'shadows' as she rides past, and describes berries as being 'black sweet blood mouthfuls.' Later the speaker unpeels 'Dead hands, dead stringencies', suggesting she is confronting her own death.
The rider then compares herself to an arrow to emphasise how quickly the horse is moving, and how it is seemingly moving towards some indeterminate destination. She flies 'suicidal', which refers back to the darkness felt in the middle of the poem, and may suggest her actual death, or the death of a past self.
The poem ends with the horse continuing to run, at great speed, towards the rising sun. (“The red eye, the cauldron of morning.”) These last lines can be interpreted as being charged with action and suspense that is not resolved, or as representing the beginning of a new day, and of a new self.
Overall, the poem portrays a horse ride that began in the early hours of the morning while the world is still dark and continues into sunrise. The poem does not present this morning ride as a calm or enjoyable experience, rather, it is frantic, terrifying and characterised by a rapid sense of action.
This poem was based on a real life experience. Once, when Plath was enjoying her weekly ride at dawn, the horse bolted, the stirrups fell off, and she was clinging to the horse’s neck. This frightening experience clearly inspired the events of the poem.