London Faber Faber 1965

Sylvia Plath took her own life on February 11, 1963, just three weeks after her novel The Bell Jar had been published in London, and having published one volume of poetry, The Colossus (London, 1960; New York, 1962). She had been preparing a volume of poems from those she had written in

1961 and 1962 to be titled Ariel, many of which have as background the break-up of her marriage with poet Ted Hughes, who had left her and the couple's two children for another woman. The couple had married in June 1956, when Plath, a native of Boston, was at Cambridge University on a Fulbright scholarship.

Plath arranged the "Ariel" poems in a black spring binder towards the end of 1962, including in the selection many of the poems she had written in a furious spurt of creativity following the couple's separation in October, when she wrote a poem almost every day for more than two months. But the published version of Ariel, when it appeared in 1965, edited by Hughes, differed in what some readers argue are important ways from Plath's

1962 ordering. Hughes removed 11 poems from Plath's arrangement, characterizing them in his introduction to Plath's Collected Poems (1981) as "some of the more personally aggressive poems," and added nine others - most of them written in January and February 1963 in the last weeks of Plath's life. The effect of these substitutions, some have argued, is to turn the book from a sequence about a betrayed spouse who finds a way to face the future without the adulterous partner to one illustrating an impassioned woman whose mental illness accelerates into self-destructive madness. Most of the poems missing from Plath's arrangement appeared subsequently in winter Trees and Crossing the Water, both published in 1971.

The volume as it was published established Plath's posthumous reputation as a major figure of mid-twentieth-century poetry. Its major themes are the tensions and losses of a marriage; maternity, often with ambivalence about childbirth (in January 1962 Plath's second child, Nicholas, was born); an awareness - sometimes accompanied by violence - of the body as object; the rituals of writing; domesticity, hospitals, and beekeeping (the last an interest of Plath's father); oppressive male figures; the pain that love can bring; escape, and death. Although the subjects and even the attitudes of many of the poems can be tied to the persons, places, and events of Plath's private life in the period in which she wrote Ariel, her placement within the mode of Confessional poet has sometimes obscured the ways in which the poems project a self or series of selves that are not necessarily the individual poet, but rather a more wide-ranging self facing the oppression of history, particularly that of the Second World War, in addition to private losses and betrayals. In particular, some of Plath's imagery of the Holocaust and of male oppression as historically associated with fascism, which has come in for some criticism as self-indulgent, insensitive, or excessive, could be seen instead in the light of the volume's appropriation of recent European history. One example is her poem "Getting There," while one of the volume's best-known poems, "Daddy," contains the lines:

I never could talk to you.

The tongue stuck in my jaw.

It stuck in a barbed wire snare.

I could hardly speak.

I thought every German was you.

And the language obscene

An engine, an engine

Chuffing me off like a Jew.

A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.

I began to talk like a Jew.

I think I may well be a Jew.

Here the lines could be describing a wider victimization rather than that only of the poet. In her own comments on the poem Plath spoke of it as an "allegory," and of the speaker's father as "a Nazi," which Otto Plath certainly was not.

Other well-known poems in the volume include "Lady Lazarus," a poem about surviving suicide, the wild horse ride of the title poem "Ariel," and "Fever 103°" where the speaker swings from hell to paradise. Part of the power of these poems comes from the intensity of the emotions described - disgust, despair, fury - and the startling juxtapositions of imagery that illustrate them. Two characteristics of the poems that further contribute are repetition of a single word to take up a single line, as in the quotation above, as if the speaker becomes trapped momentarily in the language of her own poem, or is positing a private crescendo of meaning associated with the repetition; and the surprise of a sudden matter-of-fact voice that undercuts the intensity produced by the heightened language, though that intensity immediately resumes. One example of many occurs in "A Birthday Present": "Is this the one for the annunciation? / My god, what a laugh!"

The last poems of the published volume are sparer than the earlier ones. The final 12 were added by Hughes to Plath's original arrangement, and, as noted above, most of them date from 1963. The last four poems concern isolation, refusing kindnesses, a shutting down of "the heart" ("Contusion"), of maternal care ("Edge"), and a fatalistic giving up of individual will "From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars / Govern a life" ("Words").

Plath's original ordering of the Ariel poems is recorded in the notes to her Collected Poems (1981). In the latter volume the poems are printed in chronological order of composition, and here the interested reader can find the 13 poems that the published version of Ariel omits: "The Rabbit Catcher," "Thalidomide," "Barren Woman," "A Secret," "The Jailor," "Magi," "Lesbos," "The Other," "Stopped Dead," "The Courage of Shutting-Up," "Purdah," "Amnesiac," and "The Swarm" (although the last-named appeared in the first New York edition in 1966, but not in the 1965 London edition). Many of these poems concern stark responses to maternity, and the body, and many concern the tensions of a marriage. "The Rabbit Catcher" is also the title of a poem in Hughes's 1998 volume Birthday Letters, which centers upon his life with Plath.

"The Swarm," is one of a sequence of five poems centered upon beekeeping that Plath intended to close the book. It concerns a procedure that allows the keeper to control a swarm of bees, moving them into a new hive. Plath's ordering of the poems invites us to read the last lines of "Fever 103°" - "(My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats) - / To Paradise" - as a prelude to the bee poems that immediately follow, and the determination to face isolation and adversity without the male figures, father and husband, who have peopled many of the earlier poems. In taking on the role of beekeeper, being initiated into beekeeping rituals, the poet takes on one of her father's major interests (he had written a book on the subject), and in "The Swarm" learns the secrets of male control. Most significantly, for this reading of Plath's ordering, her intended final poem, "Wintering," ends with her own bees, her own store of "honey," and a period of waiting through the winter - "The bees are all women . . . // Winter is for women" - that addresses the question of survival, and appears to affirm its possibility:

Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas Succeed in banking their fires To enter another year?

What will they taste of, the Christmas roses? The bees are flying. They taste the spring.

This poem is dated October 9, 1962, early in the almost daily series of poems that she would write through October and November. In December Plath moved with her children to London, leaving the house in rural Devon that she and her husband had purchased in 1961. She then wrote the final poems of January and February 1963, which close the volume as it appeared in print. The poet who wrote those verses, verses which Plath evidently thought of as belonging to a new and subsequent book, would not "taste the spring" of that year.

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