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.

Analysis, meaning and summary of Sylvia Plath's poem Ariel


  1. Noraiz Hyder says:

    “Ariel,” the title poem of Sylvia Plath’s posthumous volume of the same name is one of her most highly regarded, most often criticised, and most complicated poems. The ambiguities in the poem begin with its title, which has a three fold meaning. To a reader uninformed by Plath’s biography “Ariel” would probably most immediately call to mind the “airy spirit” who in Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a servant to Prospero and symbolizes Prospero’s control of the upper elements of the universe, fire and air. On another biographical or autobiographical level, “Ariel,” as we know from reports about the poet’s life, was the name of her favorite horse, on whom she weekly went riding. Robert Lowell, in his forward to Ariel, says, “The title Ariel summons up Shakespeare’s lovely, though slightly chilling and androgynous spirit, but the truth is that this Ariel is the author’s horse.” Ted Hughes, Plath’s husband, adds these 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 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.

    These two allusions, to The Tempest and to her horse “Ariel,” have often been noticed and pointed out, with the emphasis, from a critical perspective, being placed on the biographical referent. But there is another possible referent in the title of the poem which no one has yet noted, although the poet, apparently, went out of her way to make reference, even obvious reference, to it. I refer to “Ariel” as the symbolic name for Jerusalem. “Ariel” in Hebrew means “lion of God.” She begins the second stanza of the poem with the line “God’s lioness,” which seems to be a direct reference to the Hebrew
    or Jewish “Ariel.”

    Plath’s obsession with Judaism and the Jewish people is clearly indicated in many of her poems.

    Indeed, some of the imagery which informs the passage concerning “Ariel” in the Book of Isaiah (29:1-7) appears to have been drawn on directly by Plath for her imagery in her poem “Ariel.”

    And in an instant, suddenly,
    You will be visited by the Lord of hosts
    With thunder and with earthquake and great noise,
    With whirlwind and tempest,
    And the flame of a devouring fire

    In short, then, the poet seems to be combining these three references to “Ariel” in her poem, and creating a context where each of the possible meanings enriches the others. She even seems to imply this when she says, in the second stanza, “How one we grow.” Each of the three “Ariel’s” contributes its part to the totality of the poem, and each of them merges into the others so that, by the end of the poem, they are all “one.”

    Now, of these three references to “Ariel,” the two that seem most fruitful in terms of an analysis of the poem appear to be the autobiographical and the Biblical In terms of the autobiographical overtones, the poem can be seen as what apparently it is in fact—an account of the poet’s going for a ride on her favorite horse. Each of the details she mentions with respect to the ride (at least through the first six stanzas) can be seen as exact reporting of what it is like to ride a horse. The last five stanzas of the poem obviously move beyond the literal telling of taking a horseback ride and move into something which partakes of the mystery whereby the rider experiences something of the unity which is created between horse and rider, if not literally, at least metaphorically. This change in the theme of the poem is signaled both by a change in tone and by a change in technique, and specifically by the break in the rhyme scheme.

    In talking of the rhymes in Plath’s poetry, John Frederick Nims points out that in The Colossus, Plath’s first book, she chooses to rhyme “atonally” using one of several variations:

    The same vowel-sound but with different consonants after it: fishes-pig-finger-history; worms-converge. Different vowel-sounds but with the same final consonant: vast-compost-must; knight-combat-heat (this is her most characteristic kind of rhyme in The Colossus). Unaccented syllable going with accented or unaccented: boulders-wore: footsoles-babel. She considers all final vowels as rhyming with all others: jaw-arrow-eye (perhaps suggested by the Middle-English practice in alliteration). Or she will mate sounds that have almost anything in common: ridgepole-tangle-inscrutable.

    Nims goes on to say,

    In Ariel, the use of rhyme is very different. In some poems it is ghostlier than ever. But more often it is obvious: rhyme at high noon. The same sound may run on from stanza to stanza, with much identical rhyme. “Lady Lazarus” illustrates the new manner. The poem is printed in units of three lines, but the rhyme is not in her favorite terzarima pattern. Six of the first ten lines end in an n-sound, followed by a sequence in long e, which occurs in about half of the next twenty-two lines. Then, after six more a’s, we have l’s ending eleven of fourteen lines, and then several r’s, leading into the six or more air rhymes that conclude the sequence. Almost Skeltonian: the poet seems to carry on a sound about as long as she can, although not in consecutive lines.

    Now up to the seventh stanza of the poem (and continuing on through the remainder of the poem once the transitions has been made in the seventh stanza, “White / Godiva, I unpeel— / Dead hands, dead strigencies”), the rhyme scheme has been, for the most part, “regular” in terms of the slant rhymes Nims has suggested, each stanza having two
    lines which rhyme, given Plath’s approach to rhyme. “darkness” / “distance,” “grow” / “furrow,” “arc” / “catch,” “dark”

    / “Hooks,” “mouthfuls” / “else,” “air” / “hair,” “I” / “cry,” “wall” / “arrow,” and “drive” / “red.” It is true that the rhymes do not all fit the categories Nims has set forth, although some of them do. Where the rhymes do not fit his scheme, another scheme, equally justifiable, could be suggested—one which the poet apparently used equally often, here as well as in other poems in Ariel. For instance, in the case of the rhymes “darkness” / “distance,” the rhyme works on the duplication of the initial “d’s” and the final “s’s”; in “arc” / “catch,” “arc” ends in the consonant “c” which is picked up as the initial letter in “catch” (also the sequence “ac” in “arc” is reversed in “catch” to “ca”); the “k” in “dark” and “Hooks” carries the rhyme for the lines ending in these two words; in the “wall” / “arrow” rhyme Plath has apparently worked the words so that the letters of the one word become inverted and duplicated backwards in the letters of the other, thus “w” begins “wall” and ends “arrow” and the double “1” in “wall” is duplicated by the double “r” in “arrow,” each of the double consonants following the vowel “a”; and the initial “d” of “drive” goes with the final “d” of “red,” and so forth.

    But, to show the change in theme in the Godiva stanza, Plath breaks the rhyme within the stanza itself, while, and at the same time, she joins this transitional stanza to what has gone before and to what will follow by interlocking its rhyme with the dangling or unused line in both the preceding and following stanzas. Thus “heels” from the preceding stanza is made to rhyme with “unpeel” in the Godiva stanza, and “seas” of the following stanza is made to rhyme with “stringencies.” The unity of the poem as a whole has thus been maintained while the shift in its theme is signaled both thematically and structurally by a shift in the rhyme scheme.

    In addition to this rather complex patterning of rhyme, Plath also has her own alliterative-devices to bind together individual lines and, at times, larger units of her poems. In “Ariel,” for instance, we find lines like, “Pour of tor and distances,” “Pivot of heels and knees,” and “Of the neck I cannot catch.” In each of these lines, the internal rhyme (“pour” / “tor”) or the alliteration (“cannot catch”) or the assonance (“heels and knees”) creates a kind of music which takes the place of exact or even slant rhyme.

    On at least two other occasions, then, Plath has set forth similar experiences to the one she details in “Ariel,” and in each case she has communicated her experience in terms of horses and horseback riding. All demonstrate a desire to have her reader feel, if not see, the unities of the interconnected emotions which she is attempting to express in these poems. Particularly in “Ariel,” she is careful to link the thematic and rhyme devices already mentioned to an overall structure which suggests the special kind of fusions that she intends. The poem is written in three line stanzas, and, in the sense that two of the lines in each stanza rhyme, the poem might be considered to fall into a loose terza rima. Another way in which the form works to complement the meaning is in the stanzaic form itself. The very fact that the stanzas are tri-fold parallels the tri-fold allusions to horse, Ariel in Shakespeare, and “Ariel” as a reference to Jerusalem, Therefore, the stanzaic structure as well as the structure of the individual stanzas corroborates the theme of the poem.

    But perhaps the most important structural, as well as thematic, line in the poem is the last line, which is also the final stanza of the poem. This line is important in a three-fold way: first, the “ro” of “cauldron” is inverted to “or” in “morning,” thus continuing the duality of the double, and here internal, rhyme that occurs throughout the poem, but at the same time tightening the rhyme even further into the space of a single line; second, the words “eye” and “morning,” carrying as they do the overtones of “I” and “mourning,” at once incorporate the personal activity (riding a horse) with the communal concern of the Biblical passage (where “Ariel” comes to signify the whole history of the Hebrew race and the suffering, the “mourning” so immediately identified with that history); and, thirdly, the word “cauldron” mixes all of the foregoing elements together into a kind of melting pot of emotion, history and personal involvement. Thus, the poem takes on the richness and complexity we have come to expect from the poet, and, not without reason, stands as the title poem of the book. As A. Alvarez has said, “The difficulty with this poem lies in separating one element from another. Yet that is also its theme.” Indeed, Plath seems to have always had a similar difficulty in separating one element of her life from another. But, that, too, was also, and always, her theme.

  2. Teresa Laye says:

    Absolute genius at work here. I am always speechless and a bit breathless when I read this, no matter how many times I reread it. I just want to savor and revel in its beauty, and whisper to Plath how grateful I am to be inspired by her voice.

  3. Emile Moelich says:

    Sylvia Plath wrote the poem, “Ariel” on her 30th and last birthday.

  4. Emile Moelich says:

    The poem Ariel shows that Sylvia Plath was a master of the metaphor.

  5. Christopher King says:

    To understand the metaphors within this profound poem, it is important to look at the ORIGINAL narrative of ‘the little mermaid’ as written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837. The Mermaids inability to kill her true love in order to preserve her own life echoes the sentiments of martyrs that lived before Plath and indeed the fictional character Ariel is told using the beautiful metaphoric rhetoric of Plath. a true genius, it is scary how it could also be perfect example of Roman a’ Clef, whereby the narrative of Ariel Echoes her toils in her own turbulent marriage with Ted Hughes whom eventually left Plath for Assia Wevill. Perhaps ted is the prince, Ariel is Plath and Wevill represents the eventual spouse of the prince. This loss of the prince’s affection to Wevill could correlate directly to the eventual suicide of Plath. Plath was also a self confessed ‘Electra Complex’ sufferer. So maybe the prince could actually represent her father and the eventual wife of the prince could represent her own mother and the resentment she may have never resolved with her mother up to her eventual suicide. All in all, the poem makes you question the very nature of the selfless aspect of love and the sacrifice it makes a woman undergo through blind devotion to her man which was originally explored in the little mermaid fairytale, a theme which some may say remains timeless in the philosophical exploration of the nature of love itself.

  6. mira says:

    I just wanted to say that if you cannot appreciate what is beyond your ability of comprehension then don’t say sheety stuff, pretending to be a poet.

  7. Keira says:

    In this instance I am inclined to agree with Bilal Hasan. Though it is admittedly delightful to sum up the ideas expressed into neat little packages that can be easily referred to, this does not afford us an instantaneous understanding of the intentions of the author involved, no more than an icon affords us an instantaneous understanding of the personage of God. The reader still requires some collaborative objectivity on his/her part in order to just sit back and enjoy the ride the poet intended for him/her, which intense speculation can, if taken to the nth degree, spoil the effects of altogether — not to mention threatening the spontaneous effects of such superfluous niceties as beauty . Bu I know, it’s tempting, isn’t it? 🙂

  8. miranda moore says:

    hi i love sylvia plaths poems and i have a lot incomen with her

  9. Bridget says:

    this is in reply to valerie:

    If you’d actually take the time to learn about Plath’s background and try to understand the novel, you would find that it’s not just “random crap.” These are not just random metaphors- this is about her desire for rebirth in the form of death. Think before you speak. Not all poets who use metaphor have to be as bad at it as you are.

  10. me says:

    This is a reply to valarie’s comment:

    What an ignorant comment. This is not random stuff. For example: what do you think this means:

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

    This stanza is about the horse she had. “brown arc of the neck I cannot catch” obviously horses move much faster than a human being.

    Anyway. I don’t know where you get your information, but I’m not surprised that you write “crap.” You’re also shitty at interpretations. I’m not impressed by you. Next.

  11. Azoth says:

    I’d just like to say that although plath’s work is said to be the precursor of Feminism, most of her work, esp. short-stories, are written in a rather masculine voice

  12. Bilal Hasan says:

    I will dwell a bit on Jack Folsom’s comments; although overall it is an acceptable comment, there are some parts and opinins to which I disagree.
    First of all, I don’t think biographical criticism should used and applied extensively when discussing Sylvia Plath’s work, and neither when dealing with literature in general. Especially since there is no need for biographical information to justify Plath’s art; it stands on its own and speaks for itself. So Mr. Folsom’s side-info about Plath writing the poem on her b’day, “in a psychic rebirth” after her marriage failed is unnecessary and with no relevance for the perception of the poem. Not to mention that this “psychic rebirth” is highly questionable.
    Moreover, the reference to Plath’s breaking free from “the shoulds and oughts of a woman’s role in that time” – that time being her childhood- is again false. Feminism as a movement and critical trend emerged and developed in the late 1960s and 70s, after Plath’s death, and I think the goals of the movement were never fully attained. Although Plath criticised and opposed socially prescribed roles (some even argue that she was a feminist avant la lettre), she did live in a period when the image and the roles of women promoted by popular culture were highly stereotypical . Nevertheless, it is true that Plath invents and reinvents herself in her work, gaining power, but she never really ‘wins’, since most of the times her game is one of self-irony.
    Another passage, “The dew that flies/Suicidal”. But hold on there, you Plath suicide fans! It is the dew that is suicidal, not the woman–why? Because the dew evaporates into the heat of the sun as the morning progresses.” is not acurate, since she says she is the dew:
    “And I/Am the arrow,/The dew that flies/Suicidal, at one with the drive/Into the red/Eye, the cauldron of morning.”
    Another reproach to the comment above is that it attempts to be more an explanation or a retelling of the poem rather than a critical opinion, reaction or perception. I mean, literature should not be explained and retold in other words, but experienced and felt.

  13. memoona says:

    most ambiguous of all plath’s poems

  14. james reich says:

    James Reich provides an analysis of Sylvia Plath’s poem Ariel at Published on the anniversary of her death.

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