Hold onto your horses; you're in for a wild ride with "Ariel." When the poem starts out, the speaker is in quiet, still, early morning darkness. Then she, and we, are jerked to attention. The speaker's horse, Ariel, takes off at a crazy gallop, and the speaker is "haul[ed] through air." At first, she seems scared, but as she begins to take in the world flashing around her, she seems to develop a deep appreciation of her wild ride. She's lost control, but by the end of the poem, the speaker is "at one" with the drive of her wildly galloping Ariel.
Stasis in darkness.
Then the substanceless blue
Pour of tor and distances.
- "Ariel" begins on a quiet, somber, note. But Plath doesn't waste much time setting the scene, or giving us lots of details about our speaker or her setting. Instead, we jump right into what our speaker is feeling and sensing. In this stanza, picture her chilling in the pre-dawn morning, where there's "stasis in darkness." "Stasis" means that something's unchanged, at rest, not moving. So, for now anyway, nothing much is happening, and it's not happening in darkness.
- This line sounds still—the consonance of the S sounds in "stasis," and "darkness," the assonance of the short I sound in "stasis" and "in," and the slant rhyme of "stasis" and "darkness"—all those thick, repeated sounds give us a feeling like we're still too. Even on a sound level, everything's staying the same in this first line—no changes to speak of… yet. (Check out "Sound Check" for more on this poem's use of sound.)
- Then, in the next line, everything changes. Suddenly, our speaker is faced with the "substanceless blue" and the "pour of tor and distances."
- Huh? Confused about what's actually happened? Don't worry about it—being on unsure ground is one of the challenges, and pleasures, of "Ariel." What we can noodle through from just this line, though, is that we have any airy ("substanceless") impression of blue, as well as a hill ("tor" is another word for hill) and "distances." It seems like we're entering into some kind of landscape.
- Still not satisfied with what's going on? Well, a little bit of biography goes a long way with this poem. After Sylvia Plath's death, her husband (and fellow poet) Ted Hughes explained that Ariel was the name of Plath's horse. Understanding this poem is a bit tricky without this information; the word "horse" never appears in the poem. So, we can understand from these lines is that the speaker is moving off across this land on Ariel the horse. Our speaker herself is caught off guard, and, instead of explaining exactly what's happened, she shares with us just the vague images she sees flying by in the "substanceless," or thin, blue morning air.
- Notice even more repeated sounds in these lines? Good. The rhyme of "pour" and "tor," and all of the consonance of the S sounds make these lines overflow with repetitive sounds.
- Before we move on, let's take a moment to talk about our speaker. Plath was famous for writing what we now call "confessional poetry"—a type of poetry known to be deeply autobiographical and personal. And we do know that Plath herself once experienced a wild ride akin to the one in the poem. What we don't know is how accurate the poem is—it's not a newspaper article, it's a poem, after all. So we're going to go ahead and refer to the speaker as "the speaker," not as Plath herself. It's always a danger to mix up speaker with poet, so even though they might be closely linked, we'll keep them separate here.
- Finally, before we move to the next stanza, let's take note of "Ariel's" form. The poem is written in three-line stanzas, known as tercets. The lines are short, choppy, and sonically dense. We've already got tons of rhyme, assonance, and consonance, and we've only talked about the first three lines of the poem. (For more on how this poem is put together, check out "Form and Meter.")
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,
- Were you hoping for a bit more solid ground in these next stanzas?
- Sorry kiddos, it looks like you're out of luck. Ariel has taken off at an uncontrollable gallop, and we're losing our grip on what's happening right along with the speaker. By not explaining her every move, by not filling in all of the details, the speaker brings us right atop Ariel with her for a disorienting ride.
- In other words: feeling like you've lost your grip on the poem is kinda the whole point of the poem.
- So in this stanza, we're actually introduced to Ariel—the speaker's horse. The speaker calls her "God's lioness," perhaps to make her seem fierce, even otherworldly. (Let's face it: lionesses are way fiercer than horses.)
- Then, in the following lines, we are able to put together Ariel's appearance in a piecemeal way. We see the "pivot"—the movement—of the horse's "heels and knees." We see "the brown arc / Of the neck," which is "sister," or somehow alike to, the "furrow" or trail in the ground below. We've got a slightly clearer picture of Ariel now.
- We see these images as flashes, as the speaker does. Remember, we're galloping at a pretty fast pace. And it's hard to hold on; the speaker tells us that she "cannot catch" Ariel's neck. She has literally lost her grip on the horse.
- A brief note on form: did you notice all of Plath's enjambments? The way the lines break weirdly, against the natural grain of the sentence? All of these enjambments give the poem a rushed feel, as if the speaker has no time to compose her lines into neat little contained phrases: "The furrow / Splits and passes, sister to / The brown arc / Of the neck I cannot catch." The form of the poem is really matching up with the content in these lines. The rushed enjambments make us feel like we're being taken on a wild, rushed ride too. (And in a way, we are!) (Check out "Form and Meter" for more on this technique.)
- Before we move on, let's once again note how dense the poem sounds—just check out the thickness of the repeated hard C consonance in "arc," "neck," and "catch," for example. (Check out "Sound Check" for more on this.) Each image that we flash on has a certain sonic depth in addition to a visual depth. This is part of the reason that reading this poem makes us feel like we're actually sitting astride the galloping Ariel, holding on for our lives.
Berries cast dark
Black sweet blood mouthfuls,
Hauls me through air—
- Images continue to flash by our speaker's eyes as she's on her wide ride. She sees "Nigger-eye / Berries" that "cast dark / Hooks."
- Now, wait a minute, you're probably saying to yourself. "Nigger-eye berries"? Is Ms. Plath a racist? Why is she using such derogatory language?
- Well, as sad as it is, the truth is that the term "nigger," while still derogatory, was much more commonly used (and it was slightly less politically charged) in the 1960s when Plath wrote her poem. Putting the word "nigger" in a poem, while at best was a sign of obliviousness and at worst a sign of racism, probably wasn't particularly scandalous for Plath to do.
- In fact, Plath's just using the word "nigger" to describe some dark-colored berries that she sees fly by her. She's more callous than downright hateful, as she uses the word in an off-handed way as a descriptor. She doesn't use it to refer to African Americans.
- But let's be honest: whatever her intentions, Plath's use of this word is not cool. And by "not cool," we mean: it's racist.
- With that said, these dark berries make a lasting impression on our speaker, as she imagines that they "cast dark / Hooks" into her.
- In the next line, she even imagines that she can taste these sweet berries in "Black sweet blood mouthfuls." Now say that line out loud to yourself. Can you almost feel those berries in your mouth? The heavy alliteration of "black" and "blood" make us feel like we can taste those berries rolling around in our mouths. (Check out "Sound Check" to read more on this.)
- Also, let's be honest: this is a dark, even morbid, way to describe some delicious berries. "Blood mouthfuls"? Our speaker's got death on the mind.
- In the next line, Plath presents us with just one word: "Shadows." Are these the shadows that the speaker sees flying by her from atop her horse? Or are these shadows more metaphorical? Are they shadows of her mind (perhaps summoned by those bloody berries)? Let's keep reading.
- But—before we move along—let's just pause to take in those long em dashes after the words "Hooks—" and "air—": in these dashes we feel the quickness of Ariel's movement. Only these long dashes (and not words) can keep pace with the galloping horse.
Hauls me through air—
Flakes from my heels.
Godiva, I unpeel—
Dead hands, dead stringencies.
- In these lines, the speaker turns her attention away from her surroundings and back to her horse Ariel. But again, instead of a clear narrative or description, we get only flashes of jerky images—Ariel's "thighs, hair" which "haul" our speaker "through air."
- We feel a sense of resistance in these lines. The speaker is being "haul[ed]" by Ariel. The speaker hasn't exactly chosen this wild ride, and it looks like she's dug in her heels so tightly to hang on that either the horse's hair, the skin of her feet, or both is flaking off. Ew.
- But, in the next stanza, something changes. The speaker compares herself to Lady Godiva. Who's that, you ask? Could she be the queen of the delicious, decadent chocolates that we all know and love?
- Actually, Lady Godiva is an historical figure; she lived over 1000 years ago, and her story is legendary. The myth of Lady Godiva goes something like this: the town of Coventry, which Lady Godiva's husband ruled, was suffering under burdensome taxes. Lady G.'s husband said he'd lift the taxes if his wife proved her devotion by doing something nuts—by riding through the whole town naked! Lady Godiva accepted the challenge, saved her peeps from excessive taxation, and people have been telling the story of her nude ride ever since.
- When the speaker compares herself to Lady Godiva, she's both making herself a kind of folk hero (power to the people, y'all) and alluding to the sexuality of the myth. A beautiful nude lady riding a horse through town? It's a titillating tale.
- The speaker also describes herself as being "white"—or fair, good, and pure, like Godiva. Her whiteness contrasts with the earlier image of the "Nigger-eye / Berries." They, with their "blood mouthfuls," seem to represent death, or at least set up a visual, stark contrast with this whiteness.
- Now comes one of the strangest phrases in the poem; the speaker tells us that she "unpeel[s]." But what does she unpeel? Her clothes? Is our speaker taking a naked ride, too? Or is she talking about something more metaphorical?
- The speaker tells us that she unpeels "dead hands, dead stringencies." Stringencies, b.t.w., are rigorous rules or standards.
- So, as she's on this wild ride, our speaker peels away the constrictions of life. She peels her "dead hands" off from the horse.
- She sheds, like Lady Godiva, the restrictions of a severe culture.
- These lines are all about letting go, about losing your grip—and sort of liking it. This unpeeling is a figurative way to describe how the speaker is feeling free. It's not meant to be literal.
- But don't think that freedom for our speaker means a change in her language. If anything, Plath's language in these lines becomes even more densely packed with repeated sounds, with the rhyme of "air" and "hair," of "heels" and "unpeel." These lines are as tightly packed as any others. (Check out "Form and Meter" for more on that rhyme in this poem.)
And now I
Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
The child's cry
Melts in the wall.
Am the arrow,
The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning.
- These last few stanzas of the poem are so interconnected that we're gonna take 'em all on at once. Saddle up, guys.
- In the previous stanza, our speaker has told us that she's found a way to let go of "dead hands, dead stringencies." She's letting go of her mundane life, and submitting to the experience of the wild ride on Ariel.
- And now she's undertaking a serious transformation. She imagines herself as "foam" among the wheat fields she's traveling through. She's "a glitter of seas." The sea is a pretty feminized metaphor—throughout all kinds of literature, the sea has been associated with the cycles of the female body. In this case, the speaker's letting go of her actual body, and imagining herself as becoming one with nature—with the sea, and also, with Ariel.
- Then, she tells us that the "child's cry / Melts in the wall." Whose child is she talking about exactly? Is our speaker a mother?
- Possibly. Is she talking about her own, childlike cry of fear and terror? That's also possible.
- Whatever the answer to these questions is, we know that the speaker's connections to the human world are "melt[ing]," even disappearing. The experience of riding on Ariel is overtaking her, and her connections to the human world, her fears of Ariel's wild nature are dissolving.
- The last six lines of the poem form a wonderful, overwhelming, intense conclusion to the poem. The speaker says that "And I / Am the arrow, / The dew that flies Suicidal." Did you hear that awesome slant rhyme of "arrow" and "suicidal"? Subtly, these lines are brought closer together, though not in perfect sonic harmony.
- But what do these words actually mean? Well, we now know that the speaker has shed her human connections. In these last lines, it seems like she's become one with Ariel, who is galloping with intense and focused speed.
- The metaphors here are deep and layered; the speaker is so closely intertwined with Ariel that it's as if the two of them together are the arrow, galloping with determined intent. And galloping how? Well, suicidally. (This is a Plath poem, after all).
- Is the speaker talking about actual suicide here? Probably not. She may be on a wild ride, but she doesn't seem to be planning on throwing herself from the galloping horse. Instead, she's using the word "suicidal" more metaphorically. She's talking about extinguishing her sense of self. She's no longer the self she was at the beginning of the poem, riding on her horse with "dead hands." Instead, she's the arrow, Ariel herself. (Notice how similar "arrow" and "Ariel sound"?) She's merged with the horse.
- Our speaker tells us that she is "at one" with "the drive" (Ariel's drive, meaning both her galloping and her instinct). And what's that red eye? Well, it sure reminds us of the red, rising sun. The poem begins in the early morning "substanceless blue," and ends with the speaker riding into flaming sunrise.
- And let's be sure to note that this is not a happy, yellow sun. Plath describes it as a "cauldron of morning," which has distinctly witchy undertones. (Macbeth, anyone?) And we can't help but hear the word "mourning" in this last line too, which doubles the dark feeling that we're getting here.
- All in all, this is an amazingly powerful image. It's an image of power, of control, of speed, of life and death all jumbled up.
- The speaker has shed her human skin (metaphorically, of course), and she's become one with her powerful, galloping horse.
- She's an arrow heading towards the bullseye of the sun. She "flies," "at one with the drive" (notice how the assonance of the long I sound there helps support her idea of oneness) and she's now all instinct, all power.
- In the end, the poem's about learning to let go, and finding power in that kind of release. Pretty intense, ain't it? "Ariel" simultaneously makes us crave, and fear, a wild ride on a horse like Ariel.