Sue Vice

Sylvia Plath's Ariel (1965) is undoubtedly the volume of poetry for which she is best known. It includes her most famous late poems, such as 'Daddy', 'Lady Lazarus', 'Fever 103°' and 'Tulips'; even Annie Hall, eponymous heroine of Woody Allen's 1977 film, had a copy on her shelves.

There is a multitude of reasons for the popularity of this collection. No one would deny the distinctive, disturbing voice and surreal imagery of the poems; and their publication soon after Plath's death in February 1963 not only made Ariel a bestseller, but allowed readers to imagine they could see clear connections between the trajectory of the collection and that of its author's life, as for instance in 'Edge':

The woman is perfected.

Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,

The illusion of a Greek necessity.

To see her work in less biographical terms, the moment of Plath's writing offers a particularly stark combination of discourses, both socially - Betty Friedan's 'problem without a name' (Friedan, 1963), the start of the Swinging Sixties - and historically - the rise of the ecology and disarmament movements, the legacy of the Second World War and, in the US, the end of the McCarthy era. These sit alongside poetic influences and references to popular culture, including cinema (see Britzolakis, 1999). Such varied discourses appear strikingly in Plath's work, as does a distinct strand of autobiographical discourse. This is not to say that Plath's poetry is transparently 'confessional'; indeed, Stanley Plumly refers to it more aptly as 'persona poetry' (in Alexander, 1985, p. 16). Nor is it to say that reading Ariel gives us any direct insight into Plath's life. Rather, archetypal stages in a female biography inflected by the 1950s and 1960s appear in the poems. These stages include the acquisition of language ('Daddy'); Oedipal - or, as Plath has it, Electral - rivalry ('Daddy'); learning to acquire the veneer of adult femininity ('The Applicant'); married life ('Tulips'); maternity ('Balloons', 'You're') and other kinds of creativity ('Wintering'); disillusionment with a male partner ('The Rabbit Catcher'); speculation about the self's own role within these stages ('Lady Lazarus'); and deathly despair ('Contusion').

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