Plath Ariel Plath

Ariel #

I. Context & Subject Matter #

Ariel was the name of the horse Sylvia Plath rode regularly on Dartmoor near the Devon village where she and Ted Hughes lived in 1961, however this poem appears to be based on an earlier ride on a horse called Sam, when it bolted.

Ted Hughes, Plath’s husband, comments:

“ARIEL was the name of the horse on which she went riding weekly. Long before, while she was a student at Cambridge (England), she went riding with an American friend out towards Grantchester. Her horse, Sam, 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”.

Her poem, Whiteness I Have Known is likely also based on this ride. As well, you can compare Ted Hughes perspective at “[Sam”].

This poem is an example of Metapoetry – poetry that is aware of itself as a poem; how it is constructed and why it is being composed. The Thought - Fox by Ted Hughes is another good example. Plath wrote many of her poems early in the morning before the sun rose and we get the sense of poised, pent-up energy and then a burst of creative output similar to the mad runaway bolting of the horse. But it is also much more than that; it could be a celebration of life despite its trials and pain or the frenetic pace of our race towards death – as we get older we begin to cast off – “unpeel” habits, possessions, restrictions, encumbrances, friends…..

This poem can also be seen as a metaphor for a celebration of the ecstasy of her life - heading for death.

Ariel #

*Stasis in darkness.
Then the substanceless blue
Pour of tor and distances.

God’s lioness,
How one we grow,
Pivot of heels and knees! - The furrow

Splits and passes, sister to
The brown arc
Of the neck I cannot catch,

Berries cast dark Hooks -

Black sweet blood mouthfuls,
Something else

Hauls me through air -
Thighs, hair;
Flakes from my heels.

Godiva, I unpeel -
Dead hands, dead stringencies.

And now I
Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
The child’s cry

Melts in the wall.
And I
Am the arrow,

The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.

II. Sound Effects #

Read the poem aloud. Comment on the Sound Effects, verbal music. It’s rhyme. Rhythm and melody. Assonance, alliteration. Onomatopoeia. etc. (Blending repetition patterns. slow/fast movement, harsh, discordant, sibilance, sotto, allegro, Rhapsodic, lyrical, elegiac, upbeat, blue, staccato, dirge, ode, Melody. tone. mood. atmosphere. voice.

Poets can make words sing by blending meaning and using sound to convey mood in an emotive and suggestive manner. Some poets deliberately use incantation and repetition in an attempt to cast a spell over their readers, allowing them to escape reality and enter the world of dreams, imagination and fantasy. The subtle repetition of vowel sounds (rhyme, assonance) can create a distinctive mood or ambience. The repetition of consonants (alliteration) can also obliquely affect the emotions of the responders.

The first line of the poem describes the poised static energy of coiled spring about to be released. Then the poem moves at a frenetic pace recreating the sensation of an out of control horse.

Plath advises others to learn from the assonances and consonances of Emily Dickinson for subtlety beyond mere rhyme using sharp punch words to create the effect of hooftaps.

There is a powerful evocation of speed created by the quick impression of fleeting and flashing images and language – “furrow splits and passes”, “arrow”, “hauls” …..

III. Themes, Issues, Values, Concerns #

There is a strong sense of vitality and energy expressed in this poem. The persona gives us a first hand reflection of a terrifying yet exhilarating experience on a bolting horse. This poem expresses the feelings of a heightened death defying experience and how it focuses all our being in survival. It strips all other concerns as staying alive is paramount. The whiteness of Godiva could tie in with either the white light near death survivors allude to or the intensity and purity of the experience.

Gilbert and Gunbar in Brennan find many recurring patterns in Plath’s poem, i.e. “How to reactivate the myth of a flight so white, so pure, as to be a rebirth into the imagined liberty of childhood”?

Kierkegaard wrote:

“Death in earnest gives life force as nothing else does; it makes one alert as nothing else does.” When faced by death we suddenly begin to value life and an instinctive self preservation sets in. At times it creates a raised consciousness or awareness.

This poem can be read on a number of different metaphoric levels:

  1. The literal account of a run-away horse ride

  2. The hectic rapid pace of life in general

  3. The consummation in the act of love-making – the poem is very sensual and would explain the oneness of :

How one we grow, Pivot of heels and knees! - The furrow
Splits and passes, sister to

The brown arc
Of the neck I cannot catch,
And the “child’s cry”.

4.The process of writing a poem.

It is evident that Plath uses her writing to give vent to some excruciating interal pain. Like **Kathy Lette **claims she writes because “it’s cheaper than therapy”.


Structure*: linear, circular, episodic, flash backs, climatic.
Images: (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, gustatory) figures of speech: similes, metaphors, personification, analogy, synecdoche, contrast, antithesis, unity, irony, Allusions, etc*

The structure is linear with a pause and then a straight forward dash homeward gallop at a terrifying speed. It appeals to four of the five senses:

Visual: - Pour of tor (hills) , Nigger – eye berries, red eye cauldron

Auditory - The child’s cry

Tactile - Pivot of heels and knees, Hooks of Berries, cauldron of morning

Gustatory - Black sweet mouthfuls, I foam to wheat

As an admirer of Yeats she adopts the multiple meanings of images:


  • the androgynous ethereal sprite of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”,

  • the name of a horse she rode most days,

  • Hebrew for “God’s Lioness”.

  • It is also possible to see the horse as Pegasus from Greek mythology.


Literally the foam from the horse’s mouth

Foam of the sea from which Aphrodite emerged


      A large metal pot (kettle) for cooking and/or boiling over an

open fire

      A witches’ cauldron for creating a witches’ brew – a charm

      A pot or crucible for purifying or refining metal

Lady Godiva:

An allusion to a proud, wealthy and pious lady who rode through Coventry on Market Day completely naked, covered by nothing but her long hair! In the eleventh-century She was married to Leofric, a tyrant, who tyrannised the Church and attempted to impose heavy taxes on the people of Coventry. Lady Godiva pleaded with Leofric to stop this hated tax and he is reputed to have said, “You will have to ride naked through Coventry before I will change my ways”. She accepted the challenge and the taxes were withdrawn.

Plath compares herself to Lady Godiva to illustrate the power or the vulnerability of women. She is conscious of their celebrity marriage and they are in the spot light of a voyeuristic “Peanut crunching crowd” referred to in Lady Lazarus.

For a full account see:


Approach*: Subjective/Objective, Attitude or Tone, Audience,
Style: diction, word play, puns, connotative/denotative, emotive (coloured biased,) /demotive, (technical, dispassionate) clichés, proverbial, idiomatic, expressive, flat, Jargon, euphemisms, pejorative, oxymoron. Gender biases. Register: formal, stiff, dignified or Colloquial; relaxed, conversational, inclusive, friendly or Slang; colourful, intimate, Rhetorical devices; Questions, exclamations, cumulation, crescendo, inversion, bathos, repetition, 3 cornered phrases. *

The language is not clichéd - rather fresh, original.

Plath uses bold, blunt, direct and minimalistic language to recreate the sensation of a scary ride by the cascade of impressions that pass through her mind. The spare fragmented language is disciplined and free from constraint. It may not be elegant or elegiac, but it effectively recreates the terror of the ride – life(?)

VI. Evaluation: #

Jon Rosenblatt:

. . . A poem like “Ariel” possesses power and importance to the degree to which the horseback ride Plath once took becomes something more—a ride into the eye of the sun, a journey to death, a stripping of personality and selfhood.

. . . “Ariel” is probably Plath’s finest single construction because of the precision and depth of its images. In its account of the ritual journey toward the centre of life and death, Plath perfects her method of leaping from image to image in order to represent mental process.

[Sam”]: /poetry/hughes/sam-ted-hughes.html or: