Sylvia Plath's Ariel: An appreciation

by Blake Campbell / Arts Columnist • February 12, 2014

On February 11, 1963, at the age of 30, celebrated poet Sylvia Plath committed suicide in her London home, and subsequently became one of the most mythologized figures in the history of American letters. It’s no surprise that Plath and her work experienced a resurgence last year, the 50th anniversary of her death, with a smattering of revealing new books about her life, new editions of her works, and even a collection of her drawings featuring an introduction by her daughter, Frieda Hughes. The lurid realities of Plath’s life — her turbulent marriage to the English poet Ted Hughes, her persistent death-wish, and, of course, her daddy issues — continue to capture the imaginations of her readers and biographers, and doubtlessly contributed significantly to the heightened interest in her work.

When one reads Plath’s poetry, and in particular the intensely personal poems of her last book, Ariel, it is tempting to search for threads of the tragedy that cut her life so short. Indeed, those threads are ever-present, woven sometimes boldly and sometimes almost imperceptibly through Plath’s finest work. But lingering too long on the morbidity of Plath’s vision can blind the reader to her exquisite imagination, formal innovation, and reverence for the world of the living, a world that she didn’t so much want to leave forever as to reenter anew.

These aspects of Plath’s work are the reason why Ariel — whose manuscript she left on her desk before her death — remains one of the most influential collections of verse to come out of the 20th century. Even the infamous “Lady Lazarus,” in which the titular speaker (a grotesque stand-in for Plath herself) rises zombie-like from the grave to “eat men like air,” is driven by the tremendous energy of Plath’s imaginative powers and her judicious use of rhyme. It’s even funny at parts, with the speaker mocking “the peanut-crunching crowd” of voyeurs watching “the big strip tease” of her resurrection. What we’re left with is a modern dramatic monologue that is twistedly triumphant, darkly comical, and very much alive.

Plath’s children influenced her work considerably toward the end of her life, resulting in magnificent but rarely anthologized poems like “Nick and the Candlestick,” written about her then-infant son, Nicholas Hughes. Plath envisions herself as a miner navigating a subterranean ecosystem inhabited by eerie troglodytic life forms, turned white after generations of living in darkness. The cavern through which the speaker navigates is also her womb, where seminal “Waxy stalacmites / Drip and thicken,” and it is here that she finds her son. “The pain / You wake to is not yours,” the speaker tells her baby at the poem’s emotional peak, revealing her fear that her son will one day have to bear, Christ-like, the pain the she herself bore throughout her life. The final line, (“You are the baby in the barn”), affirms her son’s divine nature and brings the poem to a startling finish.

Although “Nick and the Candlestick” has dark undertones, it is also a poem of great happiness and exaltation. Plath’s imagination is awesome to behold in this poem that somehow manages to seamlessly intertwine parenting, ecology, and Christian symbolism. For Plath, motherhood — like imagination — is a state of wonder and primal creation, and though the specter of death peaks out from between the lines, it is ultimately a poem of new life and new potential. The same is true of “Morning Song,” a complementary work to “Nick and the Candlestick” in which Plath’s infant daughter’s “vowels rise like balloons” in the light of dawn.

By highlighting the more ‘positive’ (for lack of better word) aspects of Plath’s poetry, I don’t mean to ignore or criticize its darkness. Though Plath’s lofty metaphors for her depression have been met with controversy (namely that of her father sending her to a concentration camp in “Daddy”), her portrayal of her condition, of “the million / Probable motes that tick the years off my life,” as she defines it in “A Birthday Present,” is acute and honest. Ariel’s emotional sincerity, its ability to make something beautiful and truthful out of mental illness, is commendable and courageous in itself; indeed, Plath’s remarkable knack for translating her inner darkness into true works of art — lasting works of art — has probably saved the lives of more than a few of her readers during the five decades since her own death. Ariel, then, is no long suicide note, but a cry from the throat of a woman who won’t go down without a fight.