Sylvia Plath's life has a tendency to overshadow her art. And we understand why—she was beautiful, wealthy, immensely talented, and immensely troubled. If you know just one thing about the poet Sylvia Plath, it's probably that she committed suicide when she was just 30 years old by placing her head in the oven and turning on the gas.
But to ignore Plath's poetry and focus only on her life would be a huge mistake. Why, you ask? Well, because Plath's poetry is just so darn good; she wrote dark, complex, wild poems that have been influencing poets for generations. Don't believe us? Take a look at "Ariel," the title poem of her book Ariel, which was published after Plath's death in 1965.
"Ariel," at the most basic level, is an account of a time when Plath was riding her horse Ariel (no surprise there) and lost control over the creature. Ariel took off at a gallop, and Plath was left holding on for dear life.
But "Ariel" is so much more than just a memory of a horseback ride. It's a mediation on fear and exhilaration, control and release, humankind and nature, life and death. Even the act of reading "Ariel" is thrilling; Plath's language is dense and compact, and it's what we like to call "sound-y" (very professional, we know). There are all kinds of crazy rhymes, repetitions, echoes, and weird reverberations in the poem. Plath was a poet who wrote not just for the reading eye, but for the listening ear.
Check out Plath reading "Ariel" here. We promise that this poem will take you on one wild ride.
Why Should I Care?
Have you ever lost control? Gotten that holy-mother-of-Shmoop feeling that you're losing your grip? That the world is going by too fast and you can't catch your breath? That you're losing control over your life? That your desires and choices don't matter? That you're not sure how long you can keep your firm grip on this wild ride we call life?
If so, don't panic. You're in luck. Sylvia Plath's poem "Ariel" dramatizes this very feeling, this oh-no-what-is-happening-to-me-make-it-stop feeling. And it works on two levels; it's both about losing your grip on a horse that is galloping way too fast, and about losing your grip in a more metaphorical way—losing your grip on life itself.
Plath, who suffered from severe depression and eventually killed herself, knew what it was like to lose her grip on her experience of the world. If you've ever felt a bit out of control, a bit like the world is flying by too fast, then "Ariel" is the poem for you.
But remember, kiddos: Plath's depression was an illness. Despite the mythology that has grown up around the poet, mental illness is not romantic. It's a disease. So we've got to be careful to treat Plath, and her poetry, with the respect it deserves. And hey, if you're relating to this poem in an extreme sorta way—if Plath is hitting a little too close to home—maybe it's time to check in with a parent or guidance counselor about those feelings. Plath's poetry has been known to bring out some pretty intense emotions.