The best way—actually, the only way—to get the full force of "Ariel" is to read it aloud. Seriously. Read it aloud to yourself right now. Don't worry. We'll wait right here while you do.
Back? Great. Do you hear all those repeated sounds? The long I rhyme of "cry" (21) and "I" (23)? The S sound consonance of "Stasis in darkness" (1)? The beginning B alliteration in "Black sweet blood mouthfuls" (13)? Sonic repetitions like these are all over the poem.
So much repetition can be found here, in fact, that reading "Ariel" aloud is like being in an echo chamber. The sounds of the poem don't let go of you—they repeat, disappear, return with a vengeance. And this is particularly interesting because "Ariel" is written in free verse, which means that it doesn't have a regular rhyme scheme. The rhymes in "Ariel" are frequent, but not regular, which means that they are unpredictable. You never know when a sound is gonna creep up again in the poem. The repetitions in Plath's poem can catch you off-guard, and draw you deep into its dense web. In this way, the form of the poem echoes its content perfectly; as Ariel takes our speaker on a wild ride, so the poem "Ariel" takes its readers off on a gallop.
Think we're exaggerating? Listen to Plath's recording of "Ariel." You'll be lucky to make it out of this recording on solid ground.
Here's the deal: in real life, Sylvia Plath had a horse named "Ariel." Her husband Ted Hughes explained that, one day, Ariel really did take Plath for a wild, galloping ride:
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.
Knowing this little biographical tidbit makes all the difference when reading "Ariel." We're not gonna lie: without this biographical fact, we're not sure we'd know what the heck was happening in such an impressionistic blur of a poem. Sometimes, a little bit of information goes a long way.
The cool thing about the title is that "Ariel" also has other connotations, too. Probably the most famous Ariel is the "airy spirit" from Shakespeare's play The Tempest. This Ariel is an androgynous figure who represents creative energy, but who is also a slave to the wizard Prospero. For more on Ariel, check out what we've got to say about the tricksy dude over at our study guide.
So what do you think? Is Plath's Ariel just her horse? Or does her Ariel also embody, or even channel, the creative spirit of Shakespeare's Ariel? It's certainly up for debate, but it makes sense to us that—since this poem is all about transformation, and since Shakespeare's Ariel is a transformative figure, too—this title was written with both horse and play in mind.
"Ariel" doesn't give us much in terms of setting. The poem begins before dawn, in darkness, and ends as the creepy, red sun is rising. We get only little flashes of the scenery around our speaker—the furrowed ground, the dark berries. Still, the poem uses those brief snippets of landscape to underscore the speaker's transformation from frightened rider to unrestrained spirit merging with creation.
You see, at the end of the poem, the speaker is "at one" with the "arrow" that is Ariel (26-27). Along the way, tough, she's also at one with the fields around here: "And now I / Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas" (22-23). Even the sound of the setting is fusing into one with the physical surroundings: "The child's cry / Melts in the wall" (24-25). In the way that the speaker joins the horse in a kind of cosmic fusion, she's anticipates that move by fusing into the setting as well. In a way, the setting is a way for the speaker to deliver the punchline to that old joke: "What did the wise man say to the hotdog vendor? Give up? Make me one with everything."
Sylvia Plath is known as a confessional poet, which means that she wrote highly personal, detailed, and emotional poems. For this reason, we might want to assume that the speaker of "Ariel" is Plath herself. (Plus, we also know from Plath's husband that she really did have a horse named Ariel who once took her on a wild ride. Check out "What's Up with the Title?" for more info.)
But, all this being said, we've got to admit to ourselves that we can't ever really know how accurately Plath represented herself in her poetry. Did she actually become one with her horse Ariel? What would that even look like? For these reasons, we don't refer to the speaker as Plath herself.
Instead, here's what we do know about our speaker: she (and we're just assuming it's a she) goes through a transformation. When the poem and the horseback ride begin, our speaker's holding on for dear life. But, by the end of the poem, she's loosened—even let go of—her grip. The language at the end is steeped in deathly images. The speaker is "suicidal"—but not in an ordinary way. The speaker metaphorically kills her old self so that she can be born again as a powerful horse-woman. (So cool, right?) The speaker has transcended ordinary human life and summoned the power of nature. She becomes "at one" (26) with her horse's ride into the rising sun. She lets go of her inhibitions and has an Experience (with a capital E).
Not bad for an early morning horseback ride.
We're not going to lie, guys. "Ariel" is a tough poem. It moves so fast, it's hard to tell even what's going on the first time you read it. Never fear, though. We've broken this baby down in our "Summary" section, and we've unpacked all those tricky themes for you over in "Themes." Plath may be on a wild ride in "Ariel," but that doesn't mean that you have to lose your grip too.
Check out the other poems in Plath's book Ariel, and you'll see that our gal Sylvia was a fan of short lines. Seriously, check 'em out: we recommend "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy" for starters. Plath's lines in these poems barely have more than three or four words per line, and some have just one.
But the cool thing about Plath is that, though her lines may look spare on the page, when you read them aloud, you discover that they're actually really dense in terms of their sounds. As we discuss in the "Sound Check," there are tons of rhymes and other kinds of sonic repetition. This rare combo of sparseness and density characterizes many of Plath's poems, and almost all of her best-known poems. Plath really knew how to pack a poetic punch. Pow.
Plath's poem is organized into tercets, or three-line stanzas. And Plath's lines, though not metered, are almost all short and clipped. The poem itself is 31 lines long, but when you read it aloud, you realize that it goes by pretty darn quickly. (Check out "Sound Check" for more on the other stuff you hear when you read this poem out loud.)
While there is no regular rhyme scheme in "Ariel," there are rhymes all over the poem. Some are full rhymes—like "air" (16) and "hair (17) and "I" (19) and "cry" (21)—and others are slant rhymes, such as "flies" (25) and "drive" (26). The rhymes may not come regularly in this poem, but they come frequently. "Ariel" is known for the density of its language—the way both the sounds and the images pile up in such a confined space—which really adds to the speaker's jumbled sensation as she's bounced around on the top of a runaway horse.
"Ariel" is also known for its enjambments, or line breaks that end before the finished thought, pulling the reader along into the next line. Examples, you demand? Well, there's a pretty extreme enjambment at the end of the poem:
Into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning. (30-31)
See how Plath separates the descriptor ("red") from the noun it's describing ("eye")? It's a bold and daring line break (or, to be more exact, a bold and daring stanza break). Enjambments like these add to the hurried, jerky, uncontrollable, and uncontrolled feeling that we get when we read the poem. Plath knew how to make her form echo her content.
The central figure in "Ariel," other than the speaker, is Ariel the horse. Ariel is strong and fast, and, for some unknown reason, she sets off at a gallop and brings the speaker along for a wild ride through the countryside. By the end of the poem, the speaker becomes "at one" with the "drive," or the will, of the horse. In a way, the speaker becomes Ariel. So, for a terrifying near-death experience, this turns out to be pretty cool, if we do say so ourselves.
Though "Ariel" is a poem about a life-changing, transformative horseback ride, it's not a sunny poem filled with rainbows and dreams of the future. It's actually incredibly dark, and it's more than a little morbid. "Ariel" is haunted by death throughout, and it even conceives as the transformation at the end of the poem as a kind of death. Beware: you may need a pick-me-up after reading these morbid lines. Keep a kitten handy.
By the end of the poem, the speaker has stopped struggling against Ariel's crazy gallop, and she becomes "at one" with the horse. She embraces this experience, and she casts herself as "the arrow" heading "suicidal" toward the red rising sun. It's an intense and visceral image, and we feel like we're right there with the speaker, atop Ariel, heading into the bright red unknown. It's a moment of death, but also of rebirth: the speaker may have shed parts of herself, but she's become a powerful force of nature.
There's a whole lot of losing control in "Ariel," but there's nothing overtly sexual in the poem. We feel totally okay with you reading this one out loud to your little sisters and bros.