Anne Stevenson

Anne Stevenson: On "Ariel"

The title "Ariel," like "Medusa," carries multiple meanings; it refers to the ethereal spirit of Shakespeare's Tempest, but also significantly, Ariel happened to be the name of the (rather elderly, ponderous) horse on which Sylvia was learning to ride. Most potent of all, Ariel is the spirit of poetry, the romantic embodiment of inspiration or genius. In the canon of Sylvia's work, "Ariel" is supreme, a quintessential statement of all that had meaning for her. In it she rehearses the whole spectrum of her color imagery, moving from "Stasis in darkness" into the "substanceless blue" of sky and distance as horse and rider, "God's lioness," rush as one through clutching hostilities:


Berries cast dark



Black sweet blood mouthfuls,


"Something else," too, "Hauls me through air": the speaker, increasingly ethereal, unpeels, like the speaker in "Fever 1O3°," shedding "Dead hands, dead stringencies" as woman-horse becomes woman-arrow-dew, destroying herself in her unremitting drive toward resurrection. At the end, the "child's cry" that "Melts in the wall" is that of a real child, just as the "the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning" is the real sun rising as she writes. As always - and this is one of the sources of Plath's extraordinary power - every image is grounded in some thing, depicted as if with verbal paint.

From Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Copyright © 1989 by Anne Stevenson.

Anne Stevenson: On "Sylvia Plath's Life and Career"

Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on 27 October (she shared a birthday with Dylan Thomas), and spent her childhood in Winthrop. When she was 8 her German father, a professor at Boston University, died of diabetes. Two years later her mother moved the family inland to Wellesley, where she struggled to give Sylvia and her younger brother every advantage of a superior education. Self-consciousness and anxiety about status and money during adolescence contributed to the profound insecurity Plath concealed all her life beneath a façade of brassy energy and brilliant achievement.

From The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English. Copyright © 1994 by Oxford University Press.

Anne Stevenson: On "Daddy"

The Ariel poems emerged from an enclosed world - the crucible of Sylvia's inner being. Sometimes the enclosure is a hospital, sometimes it seems to be a fairground (as with "The Applicant" and "Lady Lazarus") or monstrous Grand Guignol ("Daddy") where fearsome, larger-than-life puppets cavort as they might before a mesmerized child. With "Daddy," written on the twelfth, the nursery-rhyme jingle is incantatory - a deadly spell is being cast. A ferocious rejection of "daddy" is taking place; the most damning charges imaginable are being hurled at him. Yet the wizardry of this amazing poem is that its jubilant fury has a sobbing and impassioned undersong. The voice is finally that of a revengeful, bitterly hurt child storming against a beloved parent.

[. . . .]

Anyone who has heard the recording of "Daddy" that Sylvia made for the British Council that October will remember the shock of pure fury in her articulation, the smoldering rage with which she is declaring herself free, both of ghostly father and of husband. The implication is that after this exorcism her life can begin again, that she will be reborn. And indeed on ethical grounds only a desperate bid for life and psychic health can even begin to excuse this and several other of the Ariel poems. . . .

From Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Copyright © 1989 by Anne Stevenson.