Comparing Suffering in Plath's Ariel, Stings, Lady Lazarus, Wintering, and Fever 103°
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Portrayal of Suffering in Plath's Ariel, Stings, Lady Lazarus, Wintering, and Fever
Sylvia Plath's poems evoke the worst of subjective fallacies. Probably some of our charged reactions are symptomatic of the times and the culture; but more of them seem to stem from the always-too-easy identification between troubled poet and what might be the tone of imagery and rhythm of the poem considered. Because Plath worked so intensively in archetypal imagery (water, air, fire as bases for image patterns, for example), many of her poems could be read as either "dark" wasteland kinds of expressions, or as the reverse, as death-by-water, salvation poems--destruction implied, but also survived, phoenix-like.
"Ariel," the title poem of the collection that made Plath known to the reading world so soon after her 1962 suicide, is a similarly ambiguous poem, rich in its image patterns of movement-stasis, light-dark, earth-fire. The progression in the poem is from the simply stated "Stasis in darkness," a negative condition as Plath indicates in the very similarly imaged poem "Years," to the ecstatic transformation-through-motion of the closing. That this is a poem about motion is clear from the second image, which seems to be a depiction of the faint light of morning ("substanceless blue pour of tor and distances") yet also stresses the movement of the image--pour, distances. The eye of the reader, like that of the poet, is on what is coming, and the scene that appears is always couched in imagery that includes motion words or impressions. Even the furrows of earth are moving ("splits and passes").
The antagonistic forces in the poem are those contrary to the motion that is so passionately evoked. Set against the unity of...
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...e close of "Ariel" suggests the same benizon, "I / Am the arrow, // The dew that flies / Suicidal, at one with the drive / Into the red // Eye, the cauldron of morning." "Then to the elements be free" . . . "at one with the dew." Plath's drive to motion, that sheer impact of energy and force, beyond the "Dead hands, dead stringencies," is the power behind not only "Ariel" but also "Stings," "Lady Lazarus," "Wintering," and "Fever 103°." That she, with Shakespeare, found such violence as the gale winds "auspicious" is an important index to these passionate and sometimes difficult poems, poems important enough to us that we must learn to read them with an insight closer to Plath's own emphasis, and to her equally personal thematic direction.
Linda Wagner, "Plath's 'Ariel': 'Auspicious Gales,'" in Concerning Poetry, Vol. 10, No. 2, 1977, pp. 5-7.