Bleakness and Hope in Ariel

‘For all its bleakness, Plath’s poetry is ultimately hopeful.’ In the light of this comment, consider the presentation of the mind and self in at least two poems in Ariel

2020 JC2 Preliminary Exam

While Ariel explores a desolate and oppressive world of black and white where its personae undergo suffering, the collection is ultimately a hopeful and uplifting one of rebirth, represented by the infusion of red that symbolises life, passion and energy. Plath explores how the creative mind imagines the possibility of recovery despite emotional despair, allowing for a redefinition and assertion of the self, reborn through suffering and death. Through the bleakness of a hostile patriarchal society, Plath suggests the hopeful possibility of an empowered female self. As a collection originally beginning with ‘love’ and ending with ‘spring’, Ariel is ultimately hopeful of recovery and renewal, having survived a bleak emotional winter.

Plath’s poetry is ultimately hopeful in showing how a fertile, creative mind imagines the possibility of recovery and renewal. Through the use of natural imagery, the personae transcend the bleakness and desolation they feel. In ‘Sheep in Fog’, Plath initially creates a desolate sense of resignation as the persona is synonymous with ‘a flower left out’. The singular flower evokes in the reader the image of cold loneliness, isolation and vulnerability, suggesting a fragile and alienated sense of selfhood. The hopefulness of moving from numbness to warmth and isolation to love resulting from the creative mind is seen in ‘Tulips’. Initially, the poem shows a bleak desire for detachment and a renunciation of social identity in order to succumb to ‘peacefulness’ and ‘numbness’: ‘I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.’ The use of negatives such as ‘nobody’ and ‘nothing’ convey a sense of lack and hollowness as the persona renounces her social relations and even her own selfhood. Despite this bleakness and stasis, the creative mind imagines the tulips, symbolic of emotional and familial connections, as ‘open[ing] and clos[ing] / Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love for me.’ The infusion of red, representing life and warmth is imagined as a tentative hope for recovery and reasserting a sense of selfhood, with ‘sheer love for me’ connoting an uplifting movement from numbness to love for life and herself. Thus, through the use of vivid imagery, Plath’s poetry ultimately offers the hope of transcending bleakness to renew the self resulting from the mind creatively reimagining identity.

Furthermore, despite a bleak struggle to define the self that threatens to be constricted or effaced, Plath’s poetry is ultimately hopeful in exploring a triumphant and transcendental rebirth after suffering, allowing its personae to redefine and assert the self. This is best exemplified through the titular poem, ‘Ariel’, where the persona casts off bleak and constricting social identities that threaten her redefinition of selfhood. The imagery of body parts such as ‘dead hands, dead stringencies’ are ‘unpeel[ed]’ by the persona. The repetition of ‘dead’ emphasises the entrapping and heavy nature of these aspects of identity, alluding to the bleakness of confining social roles that threaten to obstruct the persona’s flight to redefine the self. However, the poem is ultimately triumphant in renouncing and casting off feelings of oppression, which is conveyed through the rhythm of ‘Thighs, hair; flakes from my heels’. The fragments of images in rapid succession create a breathless, accelerated rhythm that replicates for the reader the freedom and wild energy the persona experiences in her galloping horse ride, where she casts off aspects of social identity that weigh her down. This precedes the transcendence of bleakness as the persona asserts that ‘I / Am the arrow, / The dew that flies / Suicidal, at one with the drive / Into the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning’. The hopeful assertion of the persona’s ‘I am’ is augmented by the ‘I’ sounds in ‘flies’, ‘suicidal’ and ‘drive’, creating a cumulative effect that builds the intensity of the persona’s assertion of selfhood through her exhilarating flight and transformation from self to pure energy. The imagery of the ‘red eye’ evokes the image of passion, vitality and a vividness conveyed through the warmth and richness of the chromatic imagery, while the ‘cauldron of morning’ suggests the hopeful rebirth and renewal of the self through a new beginning. Plath’s poetry therefore explores an increasingly empowered persona casting off the bleakness of confining social identities and redefining and asserting a transcendental selfhood.

Finally, while Path explores the bleakness and extreme suffering of the personae due to a hostile society, her poetry ends with a hopeful and uplifting assertion of female identity. In ‘Lady Lazarus’, the persona initially expresses a sense of bleakness: ‘My face a fine, featureless Jew linen’. The imagery of the persona’s selfhood as ‘featureless’ cloth evokes a dispossessed and disempowered identity that is a blank slate to be completely defined by her oppressive patriarchal forces of ‘Herr Doktor’ and ‘Herr Enemy’. Simultaneously, the persona’s identification with the suffering of the Jews, conveyed through the poet’s use of Nazi imagery, inflates and magnifies her narrative of victimisation and bleak effacement. However, Plath’s poetry and invariably offers a triumphant and uplifting sense of hope: ‘Beware / Beware / Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air’. The incantatory rhymes ‘Beware / Beware… hair… air’ create sense of dangerous, uncanny power, akin to a spell or curse, lending the previously disempowered female persona vengeance and agency over her male oppressors. The phoenix myth, as a symbol of rebirth, evokes the image of the female persona as a red-haired demon ‘ris[ing]’ out of the ashes of torture, immolation and suffering, creating a sense of elevation. Thus, while Plath’s poetry explores the bleakness of a hostile, threatening society, it ultimately provides a transcendental sense of assertion of a strong female identity with power over male oppressors, an undeniably uplifting and hopeful rendering of feminine power and autonomy.

Ariel as a collection invariably explores desolate and tormented states of mind, painting a confessional reflection of Plath’s bleak mental states in her writing of Ariel. Yet, her poetry offers so much more than that, creatively imagining transcendence and recovery of a self that is empowered, assertive and loved.

Desiree Chia (19-U1)