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.")