The poems in Sylvia Plath's Ariel, including many of her best-known such as 'Lady Lazarus', 'Daddy' and 'Fever 103 degrees', were all written between the publication in 1960 of Plath's first book, The Colossus, and her death in 1963. 'If the poems are despairing, vengeful and destructive, they are at the same time tender, open to things, and also unusually clever, sardonic, hardminded ...They are works of great artistic purity and, despite all the nihilism, great generosity ...the book is a major literary event.' A. Alvarez in the Observer
Sylvia Plath churned out her final poems at the remarkable rate of two or three a day, and Robert Lowell describes them as written by "hardly a person at all ... but one of those super-real, hypnotic, great classical heroines." Even more remarkable, she wrote them during one of the coldest, snowiest winters (1962-63) Londoners have ever known. Snowbound, without central heating, she and her two children spent much of their time sniffling, coughing, or running temperatures (In "Fever 103°" she writes, "I have been flickering, off, on, off on. / The sheets grow heavy as a lecher's kiss."). Pipes froze, lights failed, and candles were unobtainable.
As if these physical privations weren't enough, Plath was out in the cold in another sense--her husband, Ted Hughes, had left her for another woman earlier that year. Despite all this (or perhaps because of it), the Ariel poems dazzle with their lyricism, their surprising and vivid imagery, and their wit. Rather than confining herself to her bleak surroundings, Plath draws from a wide array of experience. In "Berck-Plage," for instance, clouds are "electrifyingly-coloured sherbets, scooped from the freeze." In "The Night Dances," the poet stands crib-side, reveling in her son's own brand of do-si-do: "Such pure leaps and spirals--Surely they travel / The world forever, I shall not entirely / Sit emptied of beauties, the gift / Of your small breath..."
Though at times they present the reader with hopelessness laid bare, these poems also teem with the brightest shards of a life, confounding those who merely look for the words of a gloomy, dispassionate suicide. Plath rose each morning in the final months of her life to "that still blue, almost eternal hour before the baby's cry" and left us these words like "axes/After whose stroke the wood rings..."