ARIEL: The Dialectic of Death
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.
Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”
The poems that are collected in Ariel, the last of Sylvia Plath's volume
of poetry, were all written in the last year or so of her life, between 1962
and 1963. They present an urgent and speedy tone that accommodate her
increasingly painful life and unbearable psychological state. In this period,
the poet lived a very miserable life, turning completely into an arrogant,
angry and tough person. After being abandoned by her husband who left her
alone with two children in freezing months, she began to lose her patience
and tolerance. Her usual reticence both in her social manners and literary
writing has been diminished.1
Describing the nature of the poems collected in Ariel, P. R King states:
They have an intensity and energy which suggest
she had really broken into a part of her sources of
feeling that required the most urgent release….
The heart of Ariel's poetry is life-blood indeed;
there she moves into a fully mature and individual
style which is expressed in a voice that rises out
of her deepest, most personal concerns.2
Concerning her poetic development, Plath acquired a notable position
as an established poet. After the publication of her first volume, The
Colossus, which received respectful reviews, she was enthusiastic to build
up her poetic identity. In this period, other writers did not influence her.
Rather, she managed to depict her individuality and inventiveness. 3 Hence,
the sense of urgency that resulted from her psychological disturbances, as
well as her poetic development, supported her with the freedom she needed
to express her inner struggle. It liberated her voice from the conventional
restrictions of writing that she adopted in her early poetry.
Actually, the poems in Ariel continue to express the fearful, gloomy
and bleak mood that was previously depicted in The Colossus. Themes of
alienation, despair, passivity, annihilation and destruction were clearly
reflected in her later poetry. Moreover, the images that prevail the poems of
this volume express fully the bleakness of the poet's mentality, and her
strong indulgence in the idea of the futility of man's existence and the
concept of death as an inevitable end.
As in the early volume, the images in this volume are employed to fuse
the external events with the feelings within the poet's own self. Images are
directly aroused from the outer world like nature, or from domestic
associations, to reveal her relationship to her family members. In Ariel, the
poetic imagery incorporates a natural and intimate identification between a
certain image and the theme she expresses or the psychological state she
reaches. The poems in Ariel "gain their curves of energy from a dazzling
display of metaphor and symbol which swing in and out of the lines,
creating poetry not of statement but of image."4
In point of fact, all the poems in Ariel are representatives of Plath's
ability to interweave her poems by a skein of associations and
interconnection of images. But the poems that are chosen to be discussed in
this chapter aspire to project Plath's development in treating the same kind
of images from her early poetry within a new context, and the ability to mix
different kinds of images in the same poem. For instance, "The Moon and
the Yew Tree" continues to explore the use of nature imagery, with a
notable identification that has been aroused between the elements of nature
and Plath's own mental state. "Tulips," also, incorporates images that reflect
the sense of her surrender, subjection and lack of responsibility. "Lady
Lazarus" and "Daddy," explore her ability to widen her own tragedy by
fusing it with global and historical figures of torturers and tortured as it is
further projected in the images of German concentration camps. It also
reflects her inventive attitude through relating herself and her own family
members to those figures. It is noticeable that the images, which express
Plath’s effort to build up her life and shattered soul, extend to her later
poetry in her epic poem "Daddy,"5 as she states: "…they pulled me together
out of the sack, / And they stuck me together with glue." (ll. 62-36)
Actually, the images in Ariel acquire a direct relevance to the poet's
experience, reflecting more strongly her emotional state. For instance, in
"Lady Lazarus," Plath identifies herself with the image of the Phoenix;
hence, she is "a red-hair demon" that will resurrect from the ashes, after her
death, to avenge herself from her torturers. In “Ariel,” the title poem, the
persona of the poem, the horse she rode, as well as the nature of her poetry
are strongly linked to make a physical and mythical unity. 6 Describing the
rush movement towards self-destruction and death, she says "How one we
grow, / Pivot of heels and knees." (ll. 6-5)
In this respect, Charles Newman, in his article "Candor is the Only
Wile," asserts that, in Ariel world, Plath "overcomes the tension between
the perceiver and the thing in itself by literally becoming the thing in
itself."7 This means that she obliterates the boundaries between the
perceiver and the thing perceived. The personal pronoun (I) and a certain
metaphor are strongly linked, constituting, thus, a feature that is quite
significant in Confessional Poetry.8
Nevertheless, in this volume, every incident or simple scene or situation
acquires a symbolic dimension until she replaces her ideas into a series of
images, which are not important as pictures of the external world but as
meaningful symbols that reflect the poet's gloomy and dissatisfied
mentality.9 It is in such ways that the images of the poems in Ariel focus on
their thematic aspects, giving the volume its continuous movement that
responses to the "accelerating power of the feelings generated by the
subjects of the poetry."10
Gradually, a handful of recurring images or frequent associations of
different kinds of images depict related meanings until they begin to
construct a personal mythology, and all images are stated to reflect one
single mind. For instance, in "The Moon and the Yew Tree," images of the
moon and the yew tree combine to reflect Plath’s mindscape: "This is the
light of the mind, cold and planetary/ The trees of the mind are black. The
light is blue." (ll.1-2)
Thus, in addition to its unity with the early volume, Ariel acquires a
notable atmosphere of continuity and progression that creates a complete
landscape of one particular mind. Repeatedly, if a single image is traced
through certain poems in the volume, the interconnected ideas become
visible. Tracing the moon, for instance, reveals the same constellation of
meanings that are associated with the same ideas of sterility and despair that
dominate her early volume, The Colossus. This is revealed in discussing
"The Moon and the Yew Tree."
The poem was written in the summer of 1962, at the suggestion of Plath's
husband, when they were brooding over the image of the moon through the
branches of a yew tree in the neighboring churchyard.11 It reveals Plath's
continuous interest in nature imagery and her permanent feeling of the
cruelty of the natural elements, presented in the image of the moon,
approximating it to the state of her mind. The outer bleakness and
loneliness of the moon reflects the bleakness and solitariness of her own
mind and the gloomy thoughts that brought her grief and sadness. 12
Moreover, Plath elaborates her unbearable sense of fruitless isolation, cold
solitary feelings and meaningless existence through the image of the moon,
describing it as being "something beautiful, but annihilating."13 Hence, she
asserts that though her mind has creative abilities that provide her with a
strong imagination, it, also, alludes to her own annihilation and destruction.
That means its bleak thoughts do not provide her with a sense of optimism
or hopefulness. Rather, the darkness of her thoughts intensifies her
pessimistic view of life stirring her to end her life by committing suicide.
From the beginning of the poem, Plath identifies the setting of the poem
with her own mentality, emphasizing that the darkness of the night is as
bleak as her own mind. Hence, she spent her life living in this darkness,
which admits no relief.14 She says
The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
The above stanza recalls the image of the moon in the early poetry,
emphasizing the unity of Plath's poetry, in presenting the antagonistic
relationship between the image of the moon and that of the sea. By
describing the moon as “a dark crime” that drags the sea after it, she
emphasizes the dominance of the moon over the sea, which continuously
represents her freedom, as presented in her early poems like "Full Fathom
Five" and "Moonrise."
Hence, the poem emphasizes that the persona feels that this
environment is her only home and she reaches a state of ultimate despair
from which she can see no escape or progression: "I simply cannot see
where to get to." (l.7) With this growing despair, she can see no way, she is
confused by the bleakness of the moon, hence, of her own mind. Even the
image of the church, which is supposed to provide her with the security that
religion provides is accompanied by the image of the graveyard, which
serves only to intensify the idea of death in her mind. She says "Fumy,
spirituous mists inhabit this place / Separated from my house by a row of
headstones." (ll. 5-6) Yet, this growing despair and the indulgence in the
idea of death become tenuous by the image of the bells in the church,
emphasizing the idea that after death a kind of resurrection and rebirth is
possible. Moreover, the image of the “bells” serves to prove Plath's ability
to interweave the concrete images with those of nature.
Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky
Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection.
At the end, they soberly bong out their names.
Commenting on the complexity and interrelatedness of the ideas of the
poem, Aird states:
In general terms, "The Moon and the Yew Tree"
visualizes the proximity of two worlds, the world
of absolute despair symbolized by the graveyard
with its attendant yew tree and moon, and the
world of affirmation and tenderness represented
by the church and eight bells.15
This idea of resurrection and rebirth is closely attached to death in this
volume; and it becomes clearer in later poems like "Lady Lazarus."
Another aspect that proves Plath's ability to link her early poetry with
the later one is presented in this poem. Here, she also relates the image of
the moon to the image of her mother with all the aspects and connotations
of hatred and dominance she bears to her. In the previous volume, Plath
also related the moon to her mother in the mythological image of “Lucina,”
the moon goddess, in the "Moonrise." Whereas in "The Moon and the Yew
Tree," she directly refers to the moon as her mother: "The moon is my
mother." (l. 17) Being exhausted by the matriarch attitude of her mother,
Plath openly declares that
…She is not sweet like Mary
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls
How I would like to believe in tenderness.
The description of her mother’s dress as blue, with the colors’
indications of darkness and gloominess, reaffirms her feelings of intolerable
struggle that she has faced with her mother. The significance of the color
blue as the color black, reflecting negative associations that she presented at
the beginning of the poem when she describes the color of the moon and,
hence, of her own mind.16 Eventually, this poem asserts that there is a
definite person in Plath’s mind, who, like the moon represents a kind of
unbearable dominance over her identity. The images of the night animals,
“bats” and “owls” that fly from the blue dress of her mother confirm the
blackness of her life attached with her mother.17
Moreover, the flying of those birds pave the way for the images of
movement that is going to prevail the last poems of Ariel, suggesting her
rush movement, which is represented in her final decision of death just as
they foreshadow her tragic end, culminating in actual suicide and death.
Furthermore, the image of the “bat,” in particular, will be further developed
in her poem "Daddy," when the “bat” image will be translated into the
legend of a "vampire." In "Daddy," she attaches this image with her father
and her husband, whom she regards as her immediate torturers, accusing
them of sucking her blood by their betrayal. Nevertheless, these striking
images prove Plath's development and inventiveness in poetic imagery as
well as they confirm the depth of her psychological state.18
In the final stanza of "The Moon and the Yew Tree," Plath once again
uses the adjectives, “bald” and “wild,” with their negative connotations,
describing her own mother, the same adjectives she has used in her early
poetry to describ the bald muses who are the inhabitants of her world in
"The Disquieting Muses." This also proves Plath’s ability to unify her
At the very end of “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” Plath moves the poem
back to the first description of her mind and thoughts, asserting the
bleakness and coldness of her mental state: "And the message of the yew
tree is blackness-blackness and silence." (l.28) Hence, the branches of the
yew tree are her own thoughts, which are as black as the yew branches, as
King asserts that
… the scene described in the poem is the perfect
embodiment of the state of mind that is expressed
through it…The blue-black light of the sky, which
illuminates the tree, the clouds and stars is the
light of the mind of the poet and these colors
modulate throughout the poem.19
Significantly, the poem presents a complete picture, in which the
black-blue light of the sky that illuminates the yew tree in the churchyard is
the light of the mind of the poet herself. The moon does not provide the
persona with any sense of relief; it symbolizes a world of complete despair.
Hence, Plath emphasizes that the thoughts, which are grown in the mind,
are as black as the branches of the yew tree. Emphasizing the passive color
of the moon as it is not originally white, the moon is described as black and
dishonest since its color is borrowed from the sun. So, it cannot illuminate
its surroundings, thus, everything looks black.20 Bennett Lavers in her
article "The World As Icon," asserts that
… white is also an absence of color, and is indeed
the symbol of death in some civilizations. This,
coupled with the other attributes of death, makes
the moon the perfect symbol for it: it shines in the
night, its light is borrowed, its shape regular, well-
defined and self-contained, and its bald light turns
everything into stone and death.21
This unbearable struggle and inner torment is also revealed in another
poem entitled "Tulips," which was written in March 1961. Based on a
personal experience, the poem projects the poet's reaction to the image of
the tulips, brightly colored spring flowers, which she received as a gift at
hospital, where she was recovering from an appendectomy.22
The poet's inner struggle has been presented in the contradictory images, of
the red tulips and the prevailing whiteness of the hospital: "The tulips are
too excitable, it is winter here. / Look how white everything." (ll. 1-2) This
contrast unifies the poem with Plath's early poetry, especially in
"Moonrise." In both poems the red color represents life, vitality and social
commitment, whereas the white represents purity, death and peace that the
poet yearns for.
"Tulips," in general, depicts themes of passivity, nothingness, despair,
loneliness and more prominently a welcomed sense of irresponsibility,
feelings that the patient enjoys in his presence in the hospital
The world of the hospital ward is a welcome one
of snowy whiteness and silence, in which the
woman grasps eagerly at the ability to relax
completely because nothing is required of her.
She has removed beyond normal activity, and
relishes the opportunity to relinquish all
responsibility, to become a body with no personal
As a patient, Plath reflects a notable satisfaction with her sick state because
nothing is required of her. She expresses the desire for peace of non-
existence by regarding illness as a means to achieve freedom from any
human claim. It liberates her from all feelings, responsibilities and
reciprocal relationships, thus, she is utterly free
I have nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses.
And my history to anesthetist, and my body to surgeons.
The prevailing whiteness, the “quiet” and “snowed in” atmosphere of
the hospital reflect a sense of passivity and relief. She refuses health
because it brings her back to her painful life and social responsibilities. This
echoes the same sense of passivity and nothingness that is presented in the
image of the white leaves in the “Moonrise” from the previous volume,
when Plath identifies herself with those leaves, saying: "I’ll go out and sit in
white like they do, / Doing nothing.” (ll. 2-3) In both poems Plath
welcomes her state of being passive and irresponsible.
Moreover, the hospital environment with its nurses and doctors extend
the poem back to Plath's early volume, especially to its last poem, "The
Stones," in which she presents the striking images of the surgical
instruments. Yet, in "The Stones," the poet rejects these instruments and the
electrical way of treatment, which the doctors use to re-establish her
disintegrated personality, because they bring her back to life. Whereas in
"Tulips," she willingly accepts the "bright needles" of the nurses because,
by such anesthetic tools, they send her, though temporarily, beyond all the
“loving associations" and family commitments to a world in which she
would not be obliged to respond or care.24
In "The Stones," the nurses are insincere and "bald", while in "Tulips"
The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble.
They pass the way gulls pass in land in their white
They bring me numbness in their bight needles, they
bring me sleep.
(ll. 11-12 and ll.17)
However, Plath, in both poems, "Tulips" and "The Stones," accepts to be
treated as a concrete inanimate object, which reflects a sense of
depersonalization and passivity. In both poems she appears as a "pebble"
that is worked upon.25
Thus, she prefers to be anaesthetized and kept sleep. She welcomes her
gradual loss of conscience, enjoying a sense of living in death, when her
possessions "Sink out of sight and the water went over my head."(l. 40)
This expressive image of water reaffirms Plath's continuous and desperate
desire for committing suicide in the sea. It also emphasizes the idea that the
sea is a symbol of her freedom. This freedom is "the immediate metaphor of
the hospital and the ultimate metamorphosis of death." 26
How free it is; you have no idea how free-
The peacefulness is so big it dazes you,
It is what the dead close on,
(ll.31-32 and 34)
This state of peacefulness is also alluded to at the end of the poem, where
the sea is warm and tasty because it provides her with "peacefulness,"
freedom and security. All these features allude to death, and therefore, she
declares "The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea / And comes from
a country far away as health." (ll. 62-63)
Turning to the central image in the poem, the tulips, that the persona in
the poem reluctantly rejects, it is obvious that it reflects Plath's refusal of
life, health and intimate relationships. In the peaceful and restful
atmosphere of the hospital, the tulips are the last things that she needs; "I
didn't want any flower."(l. 37) The white atmosphere of the hospital enables
her to enjoy the sense of forgetfulness, but the tulips’ red color reminds her
of her wounds, her suffering and torment. "Their redness talks to my
wound, it corresponds." (l.39) Hence, the image of the tulips imposes upon
her a sense of reality that hurts her:
…because they require the emotional response which
will rouse her from the numbness of complete mental
and physical inactivity; she feels that the flowers have
eyes which watch her and increase her sense of her
She enjoys the sense of being out of sight and unwatched. But, the
tulips are personified and, she imagines them, as having “tongues” and
“eyes” that watch her while she was unwatched and free. Before a while, in
her anesthetic case, she was without identity a sense that she greatly needs:
Nobody watched me before, now I am watched
And I have no face; I have wanted to efface myself.
The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.
(ll. 43 and 48-49)
The tulips suffocate her with their vividness and realistic existence that they
incorporate. They strived, as she perceived, to awaken her and revitalize her
sense of reality.28
In fact, Plath, through a scheme of associated images, reveals gradually her
sense of hatred towards those tulips, which figuratively stand as emblems of
life and social commitments. She is exhausted by their sharp redness that
reminds her of her responsibilities.
Moreover, those tulips remind her of her past life and her life-long
agony. She feels that they control her like the complete dominance of the
past over her identity, a sense that prevailed the poems of her early volume,
The Colossus. She associates the image of the tulips with a "sunken rust-red
engine." This old and consumed engine, as the adjective "rust" indicates,
reflects her past time that continuously pressed and suffocated her,
depriving her from enjoying the present.
Being pressed by the idea of the peacefulness of death, she is unable to see
the beauty of the tulips. Their redness does not provide her with an
optimistic view towards life. Rather, their color depresses her like old and
corrode engine, hence, refusing them is a refusal of her life-long agony.29
The connotation of the image of the engine is overtly revealed in
"Daddy," when she describes the same sense of suffocation in her life,
caused by her own father, who is portrayed as "An engine, an engine /
Chuffing me off." (ll. 31-32)
Actually, with this highly interwoven image cluster, Plath reveals her
ability to command over different kinds of images that can help to reveal
her great sense of pain and agony. Finally, her increasing sense of hatred
towards those tulips makes her describes them "like dangerous animals; /
They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat." (ll.58-59).
This symbolic dimension of the tulips reaffirms her inner struggle and the
tribulation of her life, since the tulips stand as a reminder of her social and
family responsibilities that she tries to escape from. Thus, she prefers to
imprison those animals, i.e., those tulips in order to eliminate their strength
and "colorful world, so that she may remain passively white." 30 By using
the image of the imprisoned animals, she wants to imprison and get rid of
her life since the tulips and the dangerous animals are symbols of her life
and social commitments.
Generally speaking, "Tulips," as most poems in Ariel, projects Plath's
strong attachment to the idea of death as a solution to her dilemma. In
"Tulips," she still portrays the struggle between life and death, imagining
herself as a student who tries to practice the knowledge of death: "I am
The following poems; namely, "Lady Lazarus," "Daddy" and "Ariel,"
portray a persona who realizes her way very well. Through striking and
audacious images, Plath expresses her unhesitant and rush movement
toward self-destruction and death. In those poems death is accompanied
with an apparent resolution and determination. Moreover, it is not
necessarily seen as a destructive agent, rather, it is regarded as an active
agent which could both puts an end to her suffering and transmutes her,
through resurrection and rebirth into a new personality.
"Lady Lazarus" was written in autumn of 1962, incorporating mainly a
biblical image of Lady Lazarus, whom Christ raised from death. Hence, it
directly reveals Plath's interest in the idea of death and rebirth. 31 Not as the
title indicates, the poem reflects a great amount of autobiographical
information and the repeated attempts of suicide that Plath has actually had
done in her life. She directly describes her suicidal attempts, which
occurred every decade of her life. The first of these attempts took place
when Plath was only ten. She explains that it was an accident. The second
happened when she was twenty years old and that attempt was intentional in
committing suicide. She was resolute to die, initiating “Lady Lazarus” by
I have done it again
One year in every ten
The first it happened I was ten
It was an accident.
The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut.
( ll. 35-39)
Plath examines the reaction of other people to her suicide, who were
obviously indifference. This reaction intensifies the absence of attention to
the causes of her suffering. The same idea is presented in the first volume,
in "Aftermath," when she tries to reveal the theme of people's indifference
towards individuals' struggles. However in "Aftermath," Plath's own
character is hidden behind a mythological image, "Mother Medea," who
stands as a symbol of a tortured person. While in "Lady Lazarus," she
directly projects herself and talks freely about her suicidal attempts.
Nevertheless, Plath's central obsession with the idea of suicide lies in her
desire "to eliminate her old body and self (which is incapable of giving her
a sense of significance) in the expectation of creating a new identity that
will confer a meaning on her."32
This sense of rebirth or recreation is clearly illustrated in the image of the
“phoenix” in the last lines of the poem:
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
These lines definitely reflect a sense of revenge that Plath would do against
The most important development in Plath's poetic imagery is initiated
in "Lady Lazarus." She invests the universal image of the German
concentration camps to portray her own suffering, identifying herself with
the image of the tortured Jew
… my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot
My face is featureless, fine
This identification between Plath and the tortured Jew has an
autobiographical dimension. Her father, Mr. Otto Plath is of German
ancestors and since Plath feels that her father took a notable part in her
tragedy out of his early death, the poem is "developed through the father-
daughter, Nazi-Jew complexity,"33 yet, this idea will be clearly presented in
Hence, in addition to the use of the legendary image of "Lady
Lazarus," Plath uses a series of images attached to the tortured Jew that
serves to reflect her own torment and life-long suffering.
First, the poet sees herself as one of the materialistic objects like "a Nazi
lampshade," a "paper weight" and a "Jew linen:" all are things "that are
made from the remains of camps victims."34 She portrays herself like
remnants and trivial objects, a matter that reflects her sense of
insignificance. Plath does not enjoy the wholeness of self; rather, she is
disintegrated and shattered under the shadow of her father, just like the
tortured Jew who is destroyed by the "demonic characters of the Nazi."35
Then, in another set of images of separate organs that refer to the remnants
of the tortured Jews, Plath reveals her awareness of her disintegrated
personality. She says
The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
will vanish in a day.
The shattered parts of the body are shown by the poet as fragments of her
destroyed personality. Realizing the fact that this personality is no more
than remnants of an old disintegrated one, Plath decides to get rid of this
life and commits suicide, "and sadistically punishes her body in the process
of recreating it."36
I turn and burn.
Do not you thing I underestimate your great concern.
You poke and stir
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there. (ll. 71-75)
Hence, she figuratively burns her old body, turning the materialistic and
organic images that previously describe her shattered and fragmented
personality into "ash." Out of this “ash,” "Lady Lazarus" in a phoenix-like
way resurrects to avenge her torturers. This image of movement is also
shown in "Ariel," when she identifies her rush movement toward death with
the movement of her horse. Hence, in "Lady Lazarus," Plath projects her
own dilemma in a combination of the legendary image of Lady Lazarus and
a global pattern of torture. Commenting on the link between the title of the
poem, Plath repeated suicidal attempts, and the complex image of a Nazi-
Jew pattern, or the holocaust, John Rosenblatt states that
The lady is a legendary figure, a sufferer, who has
endured almost every variety of torture. Plath can
thus include among Lady Lazarus characteristics,
the greatest contemporary examples of brutality
and persecution: the Nazis' use of their victims’
bodies in the production of lampshades and other
objects…. The drama of external persecution,
self-destruction and renewal, with both its horror
and its grotesque comedy, is played out through
social and historical contexts that symbolize the
inner struggle of Lady Lazarus.37
Generally speaking, in "Lady Lazarus," Plath is universalizing a
personal conflict, trying to enlarge the personal plight, and giving meaning
to her own outcry. This use of instantaneously public images as an
embodiment of Plath's inner struggle is further illuminated in her epic poem
Written in October 1962, "Daddy" reasserts her complete subjection to
her father's memory and his dominance over her identity. From the very
beginning of the poem, Plath uses disgusting and extraordinary images of a
"black shoe" and "foot" which suggest her submissiveness, entrapment,
misunderstanding and suffocation, because of the complete dominance of
the father's image on her identity.38
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
The above stanza also reveals Plath's use of the color black which indicates
a gloomy and bleak mood that prevails her life as well as her poetry,
reflecting a great sense of psychological disturbances. The above images
link the poem to Plath's early poetry especially to "Man in Black," as she
portrays the man who stands against the harshness of the sea: "Black coat,
black shoes and your / Black hair till there you stood." (ll.17-18)
Nevertheless, in both poems, the black man is Plath's own father, as she
reveals openly in "Daddy." In "Man in Black," the father wears “black
shoe," while in "Daddy," he is the "black shoe," in which she lives as a
"foot / For thirty years." This proves Plath’s increasing sense of hatred
towards the dominance of her father on her identity. Throughout "Daddy,"
Plath keeps attaching the image of the black man to her own father,
projecting a great sense of inner torture: "Any less the black man who / Bit
my pretty red heart in two." (ll.56-57).
Actually, Plath's father played a notable part in her life. He suffered
from fatal illness, closely before his death, when he developed a sore on his
toe [gangrene] in the middle of 1940, and neglected it completely until he
required hospitalization, eventually his leg was amputated and then he died.
This left the daughter with mixed feelings of love and anger that she clearly
reflects in her poetry, in general and in "Daddy," in particular. The abrupt
opening of the poem shows Plath's anger towards her father, but in the
second stanza, she modulates the images of anger with the images of
glorification and sacredness. Thus, she states
You died before I had time-
Marble_ heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one grey toe
The images of this stanza clearly reveal Plath's mixed emotions of
estimation and inner burden. She sees her father as huge as a "Ghastly
statue" that reflects her admiration of his power. But the word "statue,” as it
is repeated in many of her poems, together with the "Marble heavy" image
present something or someone that forms an obstacle in her life. This image
reflects her sense of suffocation or heavy burden accounting for the
negative influence of the image of her father. This is also presented in the
very title of the early poem, "The Colossus," which, as the mythological
figure of the Colossus indicates, a huge but broken statue, hence, her
father's image controls her identity and shapes her life. As Aird asserts
The image of the father as a statue echoes the
similar conception of “The Colossus”; here, as in
the earlier poem, the statue is of huge and
awesome proportions. The ambivalent feelings of
fear and love have remained with the daughter as
an obsession, which dwarf and restricts her own
Plath portrays her father as "a bag full of God," because, she spent the
first years of her childhood under his supervision and protection. Hence, she
deeply honors and misses his "chockfull of power over [her], precisely
because of his deadness, or ultimate inaccessibility." 40 By his death, she
misses the guide figure in her life.
Moreover, her admiration of her father lies in her imaginative idea that
her father, by dying, was able to achieve what she can not achieve, that is
death and freedom. As in the “Full Fathom Five” and in “Man in Black,”
her admiration was directed to her father’s heroic deed which is reflected in
his semi-suicide death. Hence, her central struggle with the image of her
father reflects her struggle with the idea of death itself. Yet, those images of
sacredness are rare in her contemporary psychological state.41
Nevertheless, the image cluster, that is associated with Plath's father in
"Daddy," is shifted to a political dimension. As in "Lady Lazarus," she once
again unifies her father with a German-Nazi, and her own self with a
tortured Jew, aiming to invest a universal image of agony and suffering to
magnify her own personal tumuli. Thus, the image of the imagined Nazi
Father becomes that of
An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsin. 42
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.
She is suffocated and pressed by the controlling image of her father in
her life, she cannot overcome his dominance. This image of the "engine" is
previously hinted at in "Tulips," when Plath was suffocated by the redness
of the tulips, describing them as "rust-red engine." Commenting on the
political dimension of “Daddy,” Plath indicates that
The poem is spoken by a girl with an Electra
complex. Her father died while she thought he
was God. Her case is complicated by the fact that
her father was also a Nazi and her mother very
possibly part Jewish. In the daughter the two
strains marry and paralyze each other- she has to
act out the awful little allegory once before she is
free of it.43
Hence, the brutality of the Nazi officers is clearly attached to Plath’s father,
reflecting a heavy and unbearable sense of torture and pain
I have always been scared of you,
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O you
(l. 42 and ll. 45-46)
Then, she uses the black motto of Nazism to portray the blackness and the
cruelty of her father, declaring that her father
Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
(ll. 47-48 and ll.50-51)
The image of the "swastika", which is an ancient symbol, used in the
twentieth century by the German Nazi party in the form of a cross with its
ends bent at an angle of 90, intensifies the black and dark atmosphere of the
poem and, hence, of Plath's own life. It reaffirms the first image of the
"black shoe" in which the persona of the poem lived like a "foot" for thirty
years. Therefore, the cruelty and blackness of the father is like the cruelty
and blackness of the Nazi officers that suffocates the Jews. Furthermore the
description of her father as a "brute" and "devil" intensifies the imagined
aggressive attitude of her father.44
Thus, in "Daddy," Plath portrays her father as a representative of any
restricting, controlling and oppressing power. Yet, at this stage of her life,
the image cluster involves another man, whom Plath chooses to be a model
of her father and whose cruelty is as strong and destructive as her father's.
Being unable to obliterate the image of her father from her mind she
substituted the father figure in her life. This man is Plath's husband, Ted
Hughes, who betrayed her and left her alone with her children:
And then I know what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf45 look.
Hence, by the image of "a Meinkampf," Plath also associates the starkness
and cruelty of her husband with that of the Nazi officers.
Plath reveals the clue that indicates this model as her husband when
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know,
She was married to the poet Ted Hughes for seven years, enjoying the
protection and intimacy of a marriage life. But, after seven years, Hughes
developed a love affair with another woman, a matter that brought about the
collapes of her happy marriage life. Thus, Plath
imagines that a vampire-husband has
impersonated the dead Nazi-father for seven years
of marriage drinking the wife's blood, until she
has finally put a stake through his heart (the
traditional method of destroying the vampire."46
The image of the "devil" and, later, of the "vampire," show Plath's
inclination to unify the cruelty of her father with that of her husband; both
of whom she decides to terminate and free herself from: "If I've killed one
man, I've killed two." (l. 72)
By using the "Vampire" legend, Plath metaphorically succeeds to
revenge from her torturers, asserting that she has turned to be a cruel person
out of the cruelty of her torturers, so
The ending of "Daddy" goes back to her "pretty
red heart" being broken retaliates with a stake in
the vampire's “bat black heart,” to kill him. Plath
transmutes her anger at her father and her
unfaithful husband into a "stake" which pierces
Hence, Plath ends "Daddy" in the same way she ends "Lady Lazarus,"
she imaginatively succeeds to use legendary images to achieve her end;
namely, to resurrect and defeat her oppressors. In both poems the persona
uses an annihilating way to get her aim. In "Lady Lazarus," she burns
herself and out of the "ash" she resurrects to avenge herself from her
torturers, whereas in "Daddy," she turns into “vampire" and kills them.
In fact, Plath's incorporation of the public and complex images of German
concentration camps is intended only to magnify her own dilemma, as well
as proving the dynamic principle of her art that moves "from a mythic and
natural landscape to one with social and political boundaries." 48 Plath’s
father “was not a Nazi, nor was his daughter Jewish, nor is their evidence
that he mistreated her,”49 hence “Daddy” aims only at transforming the rage
of the abandoned child into qualities attributed to its object. Furthermore,
Newman asserts that:
She is not relating herself to history or to any
systematic philosophy in those last poems,
anymore than she related herself to nature in her
early work. She is using history like nature, to
explain herself. It is the Transcendental vision that
history is within ourselves, and that history is the
flux of compensation.50
Nevertheless, those aggressive images intrude into Plath's poetry and her
life, paving the way to her final and rush movement toward suicide and
death. This rush movement is clearly revealed in the title poem, "Ariel."
Written in mid-January 1963, "Ariel" depicts Plath's resolution and
dedication to the idea of suicide and death. She reaches a point 0f a
complete conviction in the inevitability of death; hence she forsakes the
previous images that portray her inner struggle or her oppressors. Rather,
her subjectivity becomes the center of her poem, projecting, through a
series of images, her pushing way toward self-destruction and death.
Critics see the title of the poem through three perspectives. The first is
directly related to Plath's favorite horse, which she used to ride weekly.
This horse once bolted to expose the poet to an experience from which the
poem is derived, Hughes asserts that
Her horse bolted, the stirrups fell off, and she
came all the way home to stables, about two
miles, at a full gallop, hanging around the horse's
The second perspective immediately recalls Shakespeare's Ariel in The
Tempest, who is an ethereal spirit, that "symbolizes Prospero's control of
the upper elements of the universe: fire and air."52
The third perspective alludes to a biblical allusion that makes of Ariel, the
horse, the "lion of God," as the Hebrew word is translated and used in the
Bible. Plath, identifying herself as “God’s lioness” directly uses this third
Actually, it is impossible to separate the above three perspectives
because they are emblems of the poet's emotional states that push her
towards destruction and death. As A. Alvarez asserts that the difficulty of
this poem lies in separating one element from another. Yet that is also its
theme; the rider is one with the horse, the horse is one with the furrowed
earth, and the dew of the furrow is one with the rider. The movement of the
imagery, like that of the perceptions, is circular.54
The whole poem, hence, is a kind of a moving picture that the reader
watches with suspense and emotional involvement. Plath asserts that she is
identified with her horse; they become one entity:
How one we grow,
Pivot of heels and knees! The furrow.
Splits and passes, sister to
The brown arc
Of the neck I cannot catch. (ll. 5-9)
The image of the movement of the horse reflects Plath's movement toward
death, asserting that after being exhausted by this static, gloomy and
insignificant life, she has to rush towards another life:
Stasis in darkness.
Then the substance less blue.
Pour of far and distance.
Her rush movement toward death turns everything around her into white;
she is not interested to see the redness of the “Berries.” She finally enjoys
the whiteness, the sense of freedom represented in her way toward death, as
King asserts that "Ariel" is
…one of the poems which deal directly with
death- and in particular, temptations of suicide….
The flight into death is celebrated as the new
means whereby a fragmented sense of identity can
be unified in a totality of meaning.55
This fragmented personality is shown through images of the body and of
concrete objects, all of which refer to Plath's disintegrated personality;
"heels," "knees," "the furrow," and the "brown arc." They represent the
tangible existence that the persona willingly wants to leave.
Unlike the environment that prevail "Tulips" with its slow movement
The movement in which the poet at least seems
able to relate to her surroundings and to affirm her
sense of existence appears, ironically, only in its
extraordinary flight toward death and destruction.
That it is a destructive flight, despite the
excitement, becomes evident in the closing lines.
In addition to her identification with her horse, Plath portrays herself
as well as the kind of poetry that she writes in this period, in this journey,
through a cluster of images. First, she identifies herself with a rebellious
figure, "Godiva," who decides to take off her clothes to be white and pure.
Commenting on this image Kathleen Lant states
The female force of the poem flies through air,
and suddenly she begins to engage in the most
essential of poetic acts- at least- for the writers of
Plath's generation; she removes those restrictions,
which threaten her gift. She looses her clothing
off like a rebellious Godiva and rides free, fast,
unclothed and fully herself towards her goal.57
Getting rid of her responsibilities and restrictions, Plath becomes
Godiva, I unpeel
Dead hands stringencies.
Then, after being free and irresponsible, she becomes an intangible thing,
acquiring an ethereal spirit, and, hence, the link with Shakespeare's Ariel.
Plath asserts "And now I / Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas." ( ll. 22-23)
Actually, the above images allude to the state of death in which Plath feels
the utmost sense of relief and freedom. The image of the sea with its
recurrent motif appears here to reaffirm Plath’s longing for death.
After achieving this death and getting rid from her weak, fragile and
disintegrated personality; she imagines that, through rebirth, she acquires a
new and strong identity, thus, she
Melts in the wall
Am the arrow,
Many critics suggest that the image of "arrow" is a symbol of manhood, of
man's superiority that Plath yearns to obtain, in order to avenge her
Thus, like "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy," Plath shows her permanent
desire for death and rebirth. But in “Ariel," she flies away like an arrow
towards the sun, which is a symbol of man, that means she flies toward her
oppressors to kill them. Yet, in this poem, she finally realize her tenderness
as a female whose soul is as beautiful as "The dew that flies, / Suicidal, at
one with the drives." 58 (ll. 28-29)
In such pictures, Plath culminates her life as well as her poetry. She
finally achieves her goal and dies, acquiring a sense of freedom from her
painful life. She, actually, commits suicide and dies in February 1963.
Christina Patterson, “Ted on Sylvia, for the record” (August
Ted Hughes), retrieved July 7, 2004, pp3-4.
P. R. King, Nine Contemporary Poets: A Critical introduction
(London: Methuen & Ltd., 1997), p. 168.
A. Alvarez, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide (England: Penguin
Books Ltd., 1971), p. 138.
Annette Lavers, “The World as Icon: On Sylvia Plath’s themes,” in
The Art of Sylvia Plath, ed. Charles Newman (London: Faber and Faber
Limited, 1970), p. 106.
William V. Davis, “Sylvia Plath’s ‘Ariel’” (URL: http://www.
english.uiuc.edu/maps/index.htm), retrieved January 16, 2006, p.1.
Charles Newman, “Candor is the Only Wile”, in The Art of Sylvia
8 Ibid. p,34.
9 Lavers, p.102.
Ted Hughes, “Notes on the Chronological Order of Sylvia Plath’s
Poems,” in The Art of Sylvia Plath, p.193-194.
Eileen M. Aird, Sylvia Plath: Her Life and Work (Edinburgh: Oliver
and Boyd, 1973), p.102.
Michael Kirkham, “Sylvia Plath Revisited”, in The Temperate Zone:
Essays on Post-Second-War Poetry, ed. Surya Nath Pandy (Bareilly:
Bareilly Express Printing Press, 1987), p. 151.
Aird, p. 75.
Gail Caldwell, “The Darkening World of Sylvia Plath” (August 6,
1989, URL: http://www.plathonline. com/articles.html), retrieved March
King, p. 176.
Ibid. , P.177.
Newman, p. 193.
Aird, p. 72.
Richard Gray, “American Poetry of the Twentieth Century” (URL:
http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/index.htm ), retrieved February 22,
Aird, p. 72.
Gray, p. 6.
Aird, p. 73.
Barbara Hardy, “The Survival of Poetry” (URL: http://www.
english.uiuc.edu/maps/index.htm), retrieved February 22, 2005,p. 5.
Renee R. Currry, “White Women Writing White: H. D., Elizabeth
Bishop, Sylvia Plath, and Whiteness” (URL: http://www.english.uiuc.
edu/maps/index.htm), retrieved February 22, 2005,p. 7.
John Rosenblatt, Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation, (Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 1979), p. 39.
King, p. 183.
Aird, p. 78.
King, p. 184.
Rosenblatt, p. 40.
Lynda Bundtzen, Plath’s Incarnation: Women and the Creative
Process (New York: University of Michigan, 1988), p. 237.
Rosenblatt, p. 41.
Aird, p. 80.
Judith Kroll, “Rituals of Exorcism: ‘Daddy,’” in Understanding
Poetry, eds. Reza Deedari and Mojgan Mansouri (Tahran: Kitab Khan,
2003), p. 309.
Anne Stevenson, “Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath” (URL:
http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/index.htm), retrieved February 22, 2005.
Dachau, Auschwits, Belsin are German words that represent sites of
World War ll German death camps. They are used by Plath to affirm the
identification between Plath’s father and the Nazi officers. For further
information see, Understanding Poetry, p. 297.
Quoted in Paul Alexander, “Holly Secrets” in The Nation, vol. 254,
Issue: 11( March 23, 1992): 385.
This German word refers to Adolf Hitler’s autobiography and
manifesto (1925-1927) essay “My Struggle". For further information see,
Understanding Poetry, p. 298.
Rosenblatt, p. 44.
Pamela J. Annas, “A Disturbance in Mirrors,” in Understanding
Helen McNeil, “Sylvia Plath,” in Voices and Visions: The Poet in
America, ed. Helen Vendler (New Delhi: Random House, 1987), p. 44.
Newman, p. 51.
Hughes, p. 194.
William V. Davis, “Sylvia Plath’s ‘Ariel,’” in Modern Poetry
Studies (1972, URL:http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/index.htm),
retrieved May 26, 2005, p. 4.
A. Alvarez, Sylvia Plath: A Memoir (New Your: Harper and Row,
1985), p. 179.
King, p. 180.
Ibid., p. 181.
Kathleen Margaret Lant, “The Big Strip Tease: Female Bodies and
Male Power of Sylvia Plath,” in Contemporary Literature, (Winter 1993
URL:http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/index.htm), retrieved May 26,
2005. p. 8.
Ibid., p. 10.