Kathleen Margaret Lant

Kathleen Margaret Lant: On "Ariel"

The work which most perfectly embodies Plath's conflicting sets of figures concerning power and nakedness is "Ariel" (October 1962), for this poem shows how Plath's metaphorical universes collide but also how her mutually exclusive systems of representation give rise to some of the most effective and beautiful poetry she wrote. Plath noted in her journal that she was privileged to listen to Auden discuss his view of Shakespeare's Ariel as representative of "the creative imaginative" (Journals 77), so one might assume that in this poem she is revealing something about her own view of creativity.(17) What is curious is that the creativity which emerges so energetically here is ultimately undone within the context of the poet's own presentation of that creativity.

M. L. Rosenthal points to the basic conflict of the poem in observing that "In a single leap of feeling, it identifies sexual elation (in the full sense of the richest kind of encompassment of life) with its opposite, death's nothingness" (74). In fact, however, Plath is not conflating two opposing states of being; instead she is capering dangerously between metaphorical designs which seem to consume the poem from within. Obviously the movement of the poem is very powerful and very positive since the speaker proceeds from stillness and ignorance ("Stasis in darkness" [239]) toward light at a very rapid pace. The speaker moves with some potent force - a horse, a sexual partner, some aspect of herself - which compels her, and given the title and Plath's remarks concerning Auden, we can assume that this force must relate to some aspect of Plath's creative self. The speed of the journey is such that the earth "Splits and passes" before the speaker, and even those delicious and tempting enticements that come between the creator and her work are not enough to impede her; they may be "Black sweet blood mouthfuls," but the speaker of the poem consigns them to the category "Shadows," things which threaten the vision (light) and power of her creative surge.

The female force of the poem flies through air, and suddenly she begins to engage in that most essential of poetic acts - at least for the writers of Plath's generation; she removes those restrictions which threaten her gift. She tosses her clothing off like a rebellious Godiva and rides free, fast, unclothed, and fully herself toward her goal:

White

Godiva, I unpeel -- 

Dead hands, dead stringencies.

And she reaches a moment of apparent transcendence: "And now I Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas." Her epiphany is associated with traditionally female symbols. (We might make a connection between the wheat and Demeter, goddess of agriculture, or between wheat and the mother earth. The sea, moreover, certainly seems closely connected with female cycles and with the female symbol of the moon.) Her moment of triumph, moreover, is conveyed in verbs which may suggest - if sexuality is at all to be considered appropriate here - female rather than male sexuality. To foam and to glitter have arguably much more resonance when considered in terms of female orgasm than in terms of male orgasm. The energy of these verbs is great, but it is a more sonorous and sustained energy than a directed, explosive, and aimed burst. To make use of Luce Irigaray's paradigm, woman's sexuality and woman's pleasure are not "one" but "plural" because "woman has sex organs more or less everywhere" (28).

But now the speaker enters a different metaphorical paradigm. Her final "stringency" is removed, "The child's cry / / Melts in the wall," and she can become more powerful only by moving her fully exposed (naked) female self toward the power which she so covets, the power of light and heat and vision - the sun. To make this journey she must transform herself from wheat and water to something much more dangerous and traditionally powerful - an arrow. And here Plath is forced - by the desire of her speaker to assert herself, to move and fly - to appropriate an inappropriate figure for her speaker's flight: the speaker of "Ariel" becomes an arrow. She transforms herself into the most potent figure of the patriarchal symbolic order - the phallus. The arrow is clearly a figure Plath associates somewhat resentfully, with masculine power. In The Bell Jar, Buddy Willard's mother tells him that a man is "an arrow into the future" and that a woman needs to be "the place the arrow shoots off from" (79). Esther's response to Buddy's reiteration of Mrs. Willard's platitudes is that she, Esther, wants to be that arrow: "I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself" (92). In "Ariel," Plath demonstrates the consequences for the female artist of such proud and self-affirming desires when these desires are couched in the only symbolic structures available to her.

While the speaker of the poem may call herself the arrow, while she might arrogantly lay claim to that title, she is still female, still the wheat and the water, still naked and exposed and vulnerable. It is important to note that once the speaker begins her flight, she is no longer the arrow; her femaleness has ineluctably reasserted itself. Inescapably female, she is

The dew that flies 

Suicidal, at one with the drive 

Into the red

 

Eye, the cauldron of morning.

And dew must be consumed by the power of the sun. The speaker of the poem is fully aware that her urgent desire for the power she has arrogated for herself is destructive to her as a woman, for she refers quite deliberately to her journey as suicidal. What is perhaps most tragic about both the speaker of this poem and about Sylvia Plath as the creator of that speaker is that the impulse toward self-disclosure, the desire to move toward the eye/I of awareness, is destined to destroy both of them. In Western culture the unclothed female, whether it be the self-disclosing creator or the emblematic and naked female subject, can be a symbol only of vulnerability and victimization, even when the audience to the glorious and hopeful unveiling is the self.

Placing "Ariel" in a feminist context, Sandra Gilbert argues that the "Eye" toward which this poem moves is "the eye of the father, the patriarchal superego which destroys and devours with a single glance" ("Fine, White Flying Myth" 259). But such a reading, by ignoring the play on words of "eye" and "I," leaves unremarked a central ambiguity in the poem and underestimates Plath's commitment to her female subject and her wild and creative commitment to her own art. The speaking subject here is not just moving toward a powerful male entity, the sun; Plath's speaker is moving implosively toward herself as well, toward the eye/i that has become the center of her universe, the focus of her attention. The tragedy of Plath's work, however, is that she has conceived of this overwhelmingly omnipotent figure in the only metaphors available to her - those of the masculine poetic tradition. In this tradition, power is the sun/god, as Gilbert has observed, and to be fully revealed before him, to be naked before this God, is the most transcendently powerful act a human can perform. But when you are female, when you burn with your own sun and expose yourself confidently to that sun, you are consumed. Your body, your self, is still vulnerable. It will be destroyed. The most telling irony of the poem is that the masculine God of patriarchal discourse has been displaced here by the "I" which is the speaker herself. And the female speaker has become the phallic arrow which impels itself toward that sun. But such a journey into knowledge will prove deadly - because the language, the signifiers of that journey dictate that it must be so  for the speaking subject who is still "dew," still female. Even when the father is replaced, his words speak for him, his language secures his position: the dew will be dispersed by the sun.

From "The Big Strip Tease: Female Bodies and Male Power in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath." Contemporary Literature 34.4(Winter 1993)

Kathleen Margaret Lant: On "About the Bee Poems"

. . . In seeking to liberate the female body, Plath subjected it to a representational order which dictated its annihilation.

These dueling impulses clearly war in Plath's bee sequence - the poems with which Plath had intended to end Ariel (Van Dyne 156).  Plath's sense of female vulnerability, specifically, female vulnerability to physical nakedness, is clear in these poems, but her desire to unclothe and discover the disguised female self is powerfully manifest as well. The five poems ("The Bee Meeting," "The Arrival of the Bee Box," "Stings," "The Swarm." and "Wintering".), which Plath wrote in October 1962, deal with issues of power, and many sympathetic readers find these works triumphant and even feminist. However, a closer look at the metaphors of nakedness and disclosure makes clear that Plath cannot transcend or rewrite the figurative language which imperils her female subject. In the poem which opens the series, "The Bee Meeting," the speaker finds herself at risk because she is unclothed or inadequately clothed: "In my sleeveless summery dress I have no protection, ... I am nude as a chicken neck, does nobody love me?" (211). Not only is the speaker in danger because of her nakedness, but she is also somewhat ridiculous ("nude as a chicken neck"), and she associates her vulnerable nakedness not with the potential for closeness or intimacy, nor with the possibility of self-expression, but with the danger of violation (the bees, the gorse with its "spiky armory" [211]), with her alienation (apparently no one loves her), and with her potential sacrifice: "I am led through a beanfield.... Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold" (211-12). Throughout the sequence, the queen, with whom the speaker compares herself ("I / Have a self to recover, a queen" ["Stings" 215]), is safe because she is hidden; she will not make herself open or vulnerable to the younger "virgins" or to the peering "villagers." Clearly, to be seen is to be in danger; to remain passive and unnoticed is much safer: "If I stand very still, they will think I am cow-parsley" ("The Bee Meeting" 212).

The bees continue to present a threat to the body of the speaker, and she incessantly - almost in an incantation or ritual - insists upon her unimportance, on her hiddenness as her protection: "They might ignore me immediately / In my moon suit and funeral veil" ("The Arrival of the Bee Box" 213). The queen is released finally from her isolation; she is permitted to unclothe herself from the honeycomb which has hidden and protected her, to fly naked and triumphant:

Now she is flying 

More terrible than she ever was, red 

Scar in the sky, red comet 

Over the engine that killed her -- 

The mausoleum, the wax house.

But the queen's triumph is qualified (as the triumph at the end of "Lady Lazarus," which this passage foreshadows, is qualified). The queen may now be her free, naked self, but she is a red scar, the result of a wound or some unidentified pain, and she flies only because she must die; she flies over the world that decrees that she must die. Her nakedness promises to undo her. It is too easy to say that Plath - as an artist - has found transcendence or triumph in death. The queen, who has lost her "plush," is, despite her flight, despite her majestic death, "Poor and bare and unqueenly and even shameful" (214). Even if we wish to read the poem as very positive, it is clear that the unclothed body of the female subject here - the queen/speaker  does not experience the exuberance or triumph that Whitman or Ginsberg could express. In fact, she cannot even speak that triumph from the uncovered female body.

It is significant, too, that the sequence ends not with an affirmation but rather with a series of questions. The queen, who was quite easily replaced, is dead, but the bees remain with a new queen: "The bees are all women, / Maids and the long royal lady. / They have got rid of the men" ("Wintering" 218). While the final lines of "Wintering" are poignant and lovely, and while they do imply a certain power in the female community of bees, the tone is so uncertain, so tentative, that the sense of ascendancy toward which Plath moves is hopelessly compromised. Ultimately, the sequence ends with an almost inarticulable sadness:

Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas 

Succeed in banking their fires 

To enter another year? 

What will they taste of, the Christmas roses? 

The bees are flying. They taste the spring.

Female nakedness, thus, is a liability in terms of Plath's poetry, and no matter how strongly she might long for the freedom and power of nakedness or confession, such freedom will not be hers.

From "The Big Strip Tease: Female Bodies and Male Power in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath." Contemporary Literature 34.4 (Winter 1993)

Kathleen Margaret Lant: On "Lady Lazarus"

"Purdah" and "Lady Lazarus" - written within a week of each other during October 1962 - further reveal Plath's conviction that undressing has become for her a powerful poetic gesture, and in these poems it is the female speaker who finally disrobes - and here she attempts to appropriate the power of nakedness for herself. Plath does not simply contemplate from the spectator's point of view the horrors and the vigor of the act of undressing; now her female subject dares to make herself naked, and she does so in an attempt to make herself mighty. At this point, nakedness has somehow become strongly assertive, at least at one level in these poems. "Purdah" and "Lady Lazarus" take up the power of the uncovered body that Plath began to explore in "A Birthday Present." But in these two later poems, that figurative nakedness is compromised by the metaphorical significance of the female body. The naked force in "A Birthday Present" is ultimately masculine since it has the potential to enter the speaker like a cruelly sharp knife; the body that is unclothed encodes the assertiveness of the revealed male body. The body made bare in "Lady Lazarus" and "Purdah," however, is female, and for that reason the power of that body's undraping must be - at least in terms of Plath's metaphorical universe - necessarily diminished.

[. . . . ]

"Lady Lazarus" conveys the same sense of confusion or ambivalence in that the power of the speaking subject of the poem seems undermined by the melodramatic unclothing of that subject. Lady Lazarus is clearly - like the speaker of "Purdah" - meant to threaten; she asks rather sarcastically, "Do I terrify?", but the language by means of which she shapes her unclothing seems to compromise the grandeur of her act. She is not covered by grime or grit or falseness; her covering is somehow already too feminine, too ineffectual: My face a featureless, fine / Jew linen. // Peel off the napkin" (244). "Lady Lazarus" presents most clearly one of the central problems with Plath's use of the metaphor of nakedness, for in this poem Plath refers to this act of unclothing as "The big strip tease." And in this act, no woman is terrifying, no woman is triumphant, no woman is powerful, for she offers herself to "the peanut-crunching crowd" in a gesture that is "theatrical" (245) rather than self-defining, designed to please or to appease her viewers more than to release herself.

To strip is to seduce; it is not to assert oneself sexually or psychologically. And by the end of the poem, the speaker seeks to shame the male viewer who is exploiting her; she threatens him openly: "Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air" (247). But the threat is empty. Alicia Ostriker observes, too, that the rage here is "hollow" because the reader is fully aware that the speaker of this poem "is powerless, she knows it, she hates it" (102). But Ostriker does not name the source of this powerlessness - the speaker's physical vulnerability. The female subject has offered here pieces of herself, she has displayed herself not in an assertive way but in a sexually provocative and seductive way, and - at the very end - she resorts to descriptions of her appearance - her red hair - but not delineations of her reality - her anger. She does not convince the audience that she is, in fact, dangerous, for she must offer the female body as an object rather than assert it as a weapon. It is telling, too, that the speaker's audience in "Lady Lazarus" is made up entirely of men (Herr God, Herr Lucifer, Herr Doktor), for by revealing herself only before such an audience, she ensures that her unveiling will be read not as a powerful assertion of identity but rather as a seductive gesture of submission and invitation.

From "The Big Strip Tease: Female Bodies and Male Power in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath." Contemporary Literature 34.4 (Winter 1993)

Kathleen Margaret Lant: On "Daddy"

By the time Plath wrote "Daddy," her faith in the inevitability of this violent sexual dynamic apparently remained firm, but her attitude toward her place in this relationship had changed. Tragically, she still cherished the notion that masculine sexuality was the perfect emblem for power ("Every woman adores a Fascist") and that she was doomed to sexual and social victimization ("I think I may well be a Jew" [223]), but in "Daddy," she appropriates that power for herself or for the female voice in that poem, and she does so in sexual terms. She becomes the rapist who terrifies, who imposes himself upon others, who makes his imprint - both poetic and psychological - upon reality. She no longer hides because she no longer has to. She has shed the femininity which threatened to undermine her The existence of the poem itself, addressed to "Daddy," demonstrates that her silence has been broken, that the father who has rendered her speechless has lost his ability to erase her: "I never could talk to you. / The tongue stuck in my jaw" (223). The act of speaking, thus, is her first appropriation of the father/lover's power.

Both of the men against whom the voice rails in "Daddy" have committed crimes against the speaker's heart: Daddy is the one who "Bit my pretty red heart in two," and the lover who serves as a replacement for Daddy "said he was you / And drank my blood for a year." Thus the female subject's revenge must be structured similarly: she has killed Daddy and his representative ("There's a stake in your fat black heart" [224]) by means of a figurative rape. She thrusts a deadly force through Daddy's evil center, his source of power over her, his heart. And the very fact that she speaks constitutes a violation of Daddy's privilege and power. Plath here reverses the metaphorical expectations and writes a poem that is overwhelmingly powerful but also unsettling since the speaker of the poem does not undermine the system of control which violates her but rather turns the tables, accepting this gendering of violence as inevitable. If she will no longer be victim, she must become victimizer. If she will no longer be raped, she must become the rapist. If she will no longer subject her bared self to violation, she must herself become violator.

From "The big strip tease: female bodies and male power in the poetry of Sylvia Plath." Contemporary Literature 34.4 (Winter 1993)