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Written by Connie Skibinski, Isabelle West, Elizabeth Shaw
The persona in 'Ariel' undergoes a transformative rebirth as she transitions from the banality of everyday life to a state of exhilaration and freedom. The poem presents this journey as difficult yet rewarding. This can be seen through the stark contrast between the "darkness" in the first line and the image of the rising sun at the poem's conclusion. The rising sun is a clear symbol of rebirth and new beginnings, and is described through rich, evocative language - "the red eye, the cauldron of morning." The idea of rebirth is also seen through the actions the persona undertakes to transcend reality, as she "unpeels" her bodily form (stanza 7) and "flies" (stanza 10). By abandoning her physical constraints, the speaker experiences bliss, as she is now, finally, "at one with the drive" (stanza 10). This indicates that she has overcome her previous fear in order to achieve elation. This can also be seen in overall mood of the poem, varying between excitement and panic.
Connection between human and animal
The poem explores a close, psychic connection between human and animal. The rider and horse are not described as separate beings, instead, they are depicted as one. The collective pronoun 'we' is used throughout the poem - "how one we grow" - to emphasize this closeness. This raises interesting questions regarding humanity. Emphasis on the horses' violence and humanity suggests that these aspects are inherent to humanity. The close connection between human and animal in the poem also represents the primitive, animalistic desires within the individual. This is significant, as when the speaker gives in to these desires, she is overcome by frenzied emotion.
This poem, like many of Plath's poems, condemns traditional, restrictive gender roles. Gender roles are clearly alluded to in the line "the child's cry", as women were typically encouraged to be maternal care-givers. This "cry", however, is a nuisance to the persona. She choses to go against the norm by disassociating herself from the expected maternal role. She ignores the cry of the child, causing it to "melt in the wall." It is immediately after this act of defiance and rebellion against traditional gender roles that the persona experiences a great sense of freedom, as she "flies, at one with the drive" towards the optimistic sun. Hence, it is only by challenging and usurping gender roles that the rider experiences individual fulfillment. These ideas are especially significant considering the historical context of the poem, as it was written during the 1950s, when feminist thinkers began to advocate for a world without gender restriction, and Plath was a prominent feminist poet of this time.
Oppression and subordination
One way in which the poem illustrates oppression and subordination is through the plight of women. It also explores ideas of racial discrimination. This can be seen through the controversial reference to "nigger-eye berries", which clearly evokes ideas of oppression and enslavement. As well as this, references to weaponry "hooks", "arrow" and blood - "black sweet blood mouthfulls" - further suggest oppression and subjugation.
The poem creates a sense of adventure by portraying the horse ride as both frightening and exciting. A strong sense of fear is conveyed through the pace of the poem, mirroring the fast movements of the horse. At the same time, a sense of empowerment and elation is created, as the persona becomes "at one with the drive." There are numerous ambiguous lines that can be interpreted as either frightening or exciting, such as "pivot of heels and knees" and "something else hauls me through the air." A sense of adventure is also conveyed through the distinct setting of the poem; a lush, deserted countryside at dusk. These ideas of physical adventure also lead into a personal or spiritual adventure, as the singular persona undergoes growth and change.
Fetishization of Death
Plath’s lifelong suicidal ideations are explored in her fetishization of death throughout Ariel. In "A Birthday Present," Plath's speaker expresses that she doesn't want birthday presents from anyone because no one can give her what she desires- death. Addressing Plath's suicide attempts, the speaker states that she is "...alive only by accident./I would have killed myself gladly that time any possible way." Fantasizing about death seems to bring Plath comfort as she graphically describes how she could kill herself in “A Birthday Present” as well as in “Tulips.” Recalling how close she was to death, she writes “I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted/To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty./How free it is, you have no idea how free-/The peacefulness is so big it dazes you.” When her suicide attempts are disrupted, she is crushed, and her cure for her resulting unhappiness is to continue fantasizing about her death.
Much of Plath's poetry can also be linked together by trauma. Ariel is devoted to Plath grappling with the memories of trauma and intergenerational trauma, as well as the trauma she observes around her. In her titular poem “Ariel,” Plath cryptically describes her pain by weaving images of darkness throughout it. In a rare, sobering moment, Plath's suicidal ideations appear to be motivated by outside forces, writing in the second to last stanza: "The dew that flies/Suicidal, at one with the drive/Into the red". Though it seems she might finally be free, Plath has to contend with the loss of motherhood death would bring, as “The child’s cry/Melts in the wall.”
Power is a key aspect of this poem. In the beginning it is the horse who is in power, while the speaker is disorientated and helpless. This is suggested by the word 'haul', as she has no control over her movements, and also the fact she 'cannot catch' the neck of the horse. The horse is referred to as 'God's Lioness', a strong and powerful figure.
As the poem continues, the speaker gains some confidence and becomes more comfortable with the speed of the horse. She calls herself 'White Godiva' representing her empowerment and confidence. Lady Godiva was a noblewoman during the 11th Century, and rode a horse naked through the streets to protest high taxes. The speaker is therefore depicting herself as being confident and powerful. Significantly, the speaker finds power in her lack of control of the horse in the same way that Lady Godiva found power in her nakedness, which is often associated with vulnerability. From a seemingly helpless and vulnerable situation, the speaker finds strength.
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