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Written by Connie Skibinski, Elizabeth Shaw
The horse is the central driving force of the poem, as it is a catalyst for action and has great symbolic significance. In a number of ancient mythologies, horses were symbols of immense power and divinity. This is expressed in the poem through the epithet "God's lioness" which conveys a strong mythic quality. Horses also represent traditional masculine qualities such as speed and strength, as well as traditional feminine qualities such as beauty and grace. This is evoked through the significance of the name 'Ariel', an allusion to the androgynous spirit in Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'. Explicit references to speed and strength - "the neck I cannot catch", "hauls me through the air", as well as beauty -" White Godiva" further illustrate this symbolism.
In the poem, "the dew that flies" (stanza 10) is symbolic of the ephemeral. The structure of the poem with short stanzas and irregular beats per line, coupled with the rapid pace of the poem, indicate its concern with temporality. The poem focuses on the transitory nature of existence and the speed at which life passes by. In this way, the dew is a significant symbol which echoes this key concern of the poem, as it symbolizes the fragile nature of human life and the certainty of change, as dew exists for an extremely brief time before it is evaporated.
There are numerous, significant references to disparate body parts throughout the poem. These include "thighs, hair", "flakes from my heels", "dead hands" and "pivot of heels and knees." These images are frantic and fast-paced, giving a quick snapshot of the riding experience. This emphasizes the speed at which the horse is moving and creates a sense of chaos. As well as this, the references are sexually charged, introducing crucial notions of femininity, sexuality and the role of the erotic in poetry. These are important ideas that Plath repeatedly draws upon throughout her poetry.
Much like the references to the human body, the poem is filled with clipped, frantic references to the natural landscape. These include "the furrow splits and passes", "nigger-eye berries", "foam to wheat" and "the dew that flies". On a literal level, these blurred and night-mare distorted images represent the rider's speed and growing sense of fear. As well as this, images of nature raise ideas regarding the wider natural world, in particular, the nature of humanity and man's connection with animals. Furthermore, the agricultural symbols of "foam" and "wheat" suggest a mythic appraisal of femininity, as they parallel the Goddess Aphrodite's conception in Greek myth and the tendency for myths and legends to equate agriculture and the harvest with feminine fertility.
Allegory for creative energy
'Ariel' is not just a simple poem about a horse ride. Some critics interpret the poem as an allegory for creative energy and poetry. The poem begins with an absolute lack of creativity and imagination - "stasis in darkness." The poem is then immediately propelled forwards by a creative surge, representing the power of poetry to transform the mundane. In this interpretation, the "shadows" and "child's cry" represent threats to creativity, such as the monotony of the everyday world. The rider/poet frees herself from these restrictions through the act of "unpeeling". It is finally through the metaphoric assertion "I am the arrow" that the speaker experiences true, creative freedom.
The child's cry
In this poem the child's cry symbolizes the everyday life of the speaker. Plath wrote most of her poetry in the 1950s, and her work is deeply affected by the traditional gender roles and expectations that restricted women. The speaker is not affected by the sound of the child's cry, and instead rides past as she embraces her new sense of freedom. This might represent the speaker's rejection of expectations that women should be good mothers and should be naturally maternal. In doing this, the speaker disowns the 'dead stringencies' of her everyday life, and finds a sense of empowerment and liberation in rejecting expectations.
The speaker describes herself as an arrow as she rides towards the rising sun. The arrow is an empowering image, and is symbolic of the speaker's sense of direction and decisiveness, in sharp contrast to her helplessness and vulnerability at the beginning of the poem. The arrow represents the speaker's shift from passivity to action, and is therefore represents her transformation.
Although this poem is concerned with rebirth, there are many references to death. The speaker regularly uses morbid, dark and violent images, such as her description of berries as 'black sweet blood mouthfuls.' Later, the speaker 'unpeels' the 'dead hands, dead stringencies,' another dark and gory image. By the end of the poem, she speaker describes herself as 'suicidal,' reminding the reader that in order to create a new self, the old self must first be killed. She heads towards the 'cauldron of morning', another dark description that has connotations of mourning and grief.
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