Ariel

( 20 )

Overview

"In these poems...Sylvia Plath becomes herself, becomes something imaginary, newly, wildly and subtly created."
— From the Introduction by Robert Lowell

"Sylvia Plath's last poems have impressed themselves on many readers with the force of myth."--The Critical Quarterly.

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Overview

"In these poems...Sylvia Plath becomes herself, becomes something imaginary, newly, wildly and subtly created."
— From the Introduction by Robert Lowell

"Sylvia Plath's last poems have impressed themselves on many readers with the force of myth."--The Critical Quarterly.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Times Literary Supplement
"One of the most marvelous volumes of poetry published for a very long time."
George Steiner
It is fair to say that no group of poems since Dylam Thomas's Deaths and Entrances has had as vivid and disturbing an impact on English critics and readers as has Ariel. Sylvia Plath's poems have already passed into legend as both representative of our present tone of emotional life and unique in their implacable, harsh brilliance. . . These poems take tremendous risks, extending Sylvia Plath's essentially austere manner to the very limit. They are a bitter triumph, proof of the capacity of poetry to give to reality the greater permanence of the imagined. She could not return from them.
The Reporter
Critical Quarterly
Sylvia Plath's last poems have impressed themselves on many readers with the force of myth. They are among the handful of writings by which future generations will seek to know us and give us a name.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060931728
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/28/1999
  • Series: Perennial Classics Series
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 128
  • Sales rank: 124,889
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.32 (d)

Meet the Author

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath (1932-63) was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and studied at Smith College. In 1955 she went to Cambridge University on a Fulbright fellowship, where she met and later married Ted Hughes. She published one collection of poems in her lifetime, The Colossus (1960), and a novel, The Bell Jar (1963). Her Collected Poems, which contains her poetry written from 1956 until her death, was published in 1981 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Other posthumous publications include Ariel, her landmark publication, Crossing the Water, Winter Trees, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams and The Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950-1962.

Biography

"I was supposed to be having the time of my life," Sylvia Plath writes as her alter ego Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar. Like Esther, Plath was a bright young woman who had earned scholarships and awards, and had all the talent to back them up, and saw this—but could never enjoy it. Her struggles with depression were in fact what often motivated her to write, until she committed suicide at age 30 in 1963.

Plath is among the best-known confessional poets, coming from a school (at its peak in the ‘50s and ‘60s) that left few stones unturned when it came to self-examination and revelation. Though not always bald or literal in her expression, Plath chronicled her flirtation with death—and with life—in her poems. She writes in "Lady Lazarus," a verse about a woman rising from the dead yet again, "Dying/Is an art, like everything else./I do it exceptionally well./I do it so it feels like hell./I do it so it feels real./I guess you could say I've a call." She has an ability to convey deep, almost frightening emotion, but do it in a deceptively lilting, almost-but-not-quite humorous language.

"Lady Lazarus" was published in Ariel (1965), a collection that appeared posthumously, as did other well-known collections such as Crossing the Water (1971), Winter Trees (1972) and Collected Poems (1981), for which Plath was awarded the Pulitzer. Though not all death and despair, Ariel stands out among Plath's works because it represented a departure from the first collection that was published while she was still alive, The Colossus and Other Poems, but primarily because it was such an intimate record of the end of her life. As poet Bob Hass remarked in a PBS interview, "Readers in general discovered this book [Ariel] of a young woman with two babies, whose husband had left her, living in a cold house, trying to be a mom, trying to be a writer, trying to put her life together, who didn't make it—who killed herself—and wrote poems full of rage, bravery, and it electrified people."

Plath's father died when she was eight years old, an event from which the poet never quite seemed to recover. She writes in Ariel's "Daddy": "At twenty I tried to die/And get back, back, back to you./I thought even the bones would do." Oddly (or perhaps appropriately) for a woman so devastatingly able to feel and react to people, Plath often writes about humans as objects, things that make noise, can be broken or repaired, marked in a continuum from birth to expiration. A child on the floor is like "an unstrung puppet"; cats howl "like women, or damaged instruments"; people are compared to statues. The technique provides a twisted understatement to the emotional effects Plath writes about, in a world where even the states of love and motherhood are accompanied by darkness.

Whereas Plath's poems often seem strange and dreamlike, The Bell Jar is direct and accessible. It ranks with Catcher in the Rye in both literary achievement and status. Plath gets across not only what it feels like to struggle with the most deadly and devastating emotions, but also how hapless and impotent the people around her are in coping with her. She portrays a woman at odds with the world, but does so without affect or pretension. It's no wonder the book has become a classic, particularly among young female readers. At times of despair, readers find comfort and empathy in Plath's words. All of her painfully wrought "confessions" are of us, for us.

Good To Know

Plath married fellow poet Ted Hughes, whom she met while studying in Cambridge. At the time Plath killed herself, Hughes had left her for another woman (who also eventually killed herself). He wrote about his relationship with Sylvia in Birthday Letters, an autobiographical collection of poems published just before he died in 1998.

Plath was portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow in Sylvia (2003), a film produced by the BBC and Focus Features. The Bell Jar was adapted to the screen by director Larry Peerce in 1979.

The Colossus was Plath's literary debut in 1960, but she also published A Winter Ship that same year, anonymously. The Bell Jar was initially published under a pseudonym, Victoria Lucas.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Victoria Lucas (pseudonym)
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 27, 1932
    2. Place of Birth:
      Boston, Massachusetts
    1. Date of Death:
      February 11, 1963
    2. Place of Death:
      London, England

Read an Excerpt

Morning Song

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I'm no more your mother
Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind's hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat's. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars.
And now you try Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

Ariel. Copyright © by Sylvia Plath. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide

Plot Summary:
"Love set you going like a fat gold watch."
"From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars /
Govern a life."

Between the first and last words of this remarkable collection, between love and life, between the infant's "clear vowels" of "Morning Song" and the final poem's "white skull" and "Words dry and riderless," Sylvia Plath created an unprecedented poetic vision. First published in England in 1964, and in the United States a year later, Ariel was, in the words of then-editor Frances McCullough, "a sensation." The impact of these poems in England and America alike was astonishing.

Perhaps the most famous, still, of the Ariel poems are "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy," and those that present a sensitive young woman battling the forces of society and her own demons to achieve an imaginative transformation determined solely by herself. Grappling with both the minutiae of daily life and historical and mythic grandeur, these poems seem to be an attempt to raise existence--and the poet herself--to a new level of transcendence and intensity. Alternately brutal and gentle, slashing and caressing, Plath's verses have been seen as both out of proportion and unbalanced, on the one hand, and unprecedentedly focused and courageous. Whether speaking as Mary, Medusa, or herself, Sylvia Plath fashioned poems that remain "proof of the capacity of poetry to give to reality the greater permanence of the imagined" (George Steiner).

Topics for Discussion
1. In what ways do the Ariel poems speak directly to conditions and qualities of life in the late 1990s?

2.What images of the feminine appear in these poems? With what women from history, literature, religion, and myth do the speakers in these poems compare or contrast themselves? Do you agree with Robert Lowell's statement that, in these poems, "almost everything we customarily think of as feminine is turned on its head"?

3. What instances can you identify in the poems of the powerful, frequently destructive, devouring female or female spirit and of female embodiments of power and wisdom? In what ways might these be related?

4. To what extent do instances and images of disintegration, illness, and fragmentation define the basic vision of these poems and the conditions of life expressed in them?

5. In one of his "Birthday Letters" addressed to Plath, Ted Hughes writes, "Red was your color. /...[Red] Was what you wrapped around you." How does Plath use the color red in these poems? Does any other color attain a comparable importance?

6. In what guises and circumstances does death appear in these poems? Do any of the poems counter death and dying with intimations or hopes of resurrection, rebirth, or renewal?

7. What instances do you find of physical, emotional, and mental violence and destructiveness, including self-destructiveness? Are there equivalent instances of tenderness and nurturing?

8. How does Plath characterize "the Father" in "Daddy" and other poems? Do you agree with Ted Hughes when he writes, in The Birthday Letters, that "a god / That was not your [Plath's] father / Was a false god."

9. Are the numerous allusions to Nazi brutality and the Holocaust, in "Lady Lazarus" and other poems, justified? What is their purpose?

10. What characterizes many of the poems' natural settings and elements drawn from the natural world? Do qualities and conditions of nature invoked contrast or accord with the poems' primary themes?

11. Is there a single poem in Ariel that you think is more representative than any other poem of Plath's art and poetic voice? In what ways does this poem seem representative?

About the Author: To this day, Sylvia Plath's writings continue to inspire and provoke. Her only published novel, The Bell Jar, remains a classic of American literature, and The Colossus (1960), Ariel (1965), Crossing the Water (1971), Winter Trees (1971), and The Collected Poems (1981) have placed her among this century's essential American poets.

Sylvia Plath was born on October 27, 1932, the first child of Aurelia and Otto Plath. When Sylvia was eight years old, her father died--an event that would haunt her remaining years--and the family moved to the college town of Wellesley. By high school, Plath's talents were firmly established; in fact, her first published poem had appeared when she was eight. In 1950, she entered Smith College, where she excelled academically and continued to write; and in 1951 she won Mademoiselle magazine's fiction contest. Her experiences during the summer of 1953--as a guest editor at Mademoiselle in New York City and in deepening depression back home--provided the basis for The Bell Jar. Near that summer's end, Plath nearly succeeded in killing herself. After therapy and electroshock, however, she resumed her academic and literary endeavors. Plath graduated from Smith in 1955 and, as a Fulbright Scholar, entered Newnham College, in Cambridge, England, where she met the British poet, Ted Hughes. They were married a year later. After a two-year tenure on the Smith College faculty and a brief stint in Boston, Plath and Hughes returned to England, where their two children were born.

Plath had been successful in placing poems in several prestigious magazines, but suffered repeated rejection in her attempts to place a first book. The Colossus appeared in England, however, in the fall of 1960, and the publisher, William Heinemann, also bought her first novel. By June 1962, she had begun the poems that eventually appeared in Ariel. Later that year, separated from Hughes, Plath immersed herself in caring for her children, completing The Bell Jar, and writing poems at a breathtaking pace.

A few days before Christmas 1962, she moved with the children to a London flat. By the time The Bell Jar was published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, in early 1963, she was in desperate circumstances. Her marriage was over, she and her children were ill, and the winter was the coldest in a century. Early on the morning of February 11, Plath turned on the cooking gas and killed herself.

Plath was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1982 for her Collected Poems.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 14, 2010

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    I Also Recommend:

    Highly recommend for anyone interested in poetry.

    Sylvia Plath's book Ariel is haunting and beautiful. The words reach out and touch the reader. For me they also draw out the muse and I find myself compelled to sit and write. Very good book for anyone interested in poetry.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 3, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Children under eight, stay away from this book, even if it sounds like a lullaby!

    These poems did not make me cry. Instead they made me bleed, they left my hands to scorch, they sterilised my mind of 'normal' thought for hours, perhaps days, & eventually those poems would bring me to my knees. The edges of each line, the edges of each stanza, what were they but blades from which steam would glow, very hot. Indeed there is an inhuman element in the fuel of such lyricism. Inhuman, alien, animal, supernatural? By the end of the book I was quite nearly consumed by a desire, even a feral lust, to worship, to worship a pure entity whose name, the relentless incantation, must signify, for lack of better vocabulary, 'that sorceress, the one which is driven by the Implacable Contained Fury'. ++MY FAVOURITE LINES++ From 'Cut': What a thrill--My thumb instead of an onion. The top quite gone Except for a sort of a hinge Of skin, A flap like a hat, Dead white. Then that red plush. From 'Lady Lazarus': Dying Is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well. I do it so it feels like hell. I do it so it feels real. I guess you could say I've a call. From 'Fever 103': Pure? What does it mean? The tongues of hell Are dull, dull as the triple Tongues of dull, fat Cerebus Who wheezes at the gate. Incapable Of licking clean The aguey tendon, the sin, the sin. From 'Ariel': White 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.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 21, 2004

    Poetry At It's Best

    Sylvia Plath is one of the most orginal poets. What is interesting about Plath's poetry is the fact you have understand her biography to understand the poetry. Her poems 'Daddy' and 'Lady Lazarus' display her raw talent and it will continue to awe audinces of all ages.

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