The bearing of a life on a poet's writing should be taken with a grain
of salt. Especially with someone whose life was as complicated and as tragic
as Sylvia Plath's, despite the fact that the tragedy might be considered
as self-imposed. As her biographer, Anne Stevenson, writes, "her writings...conspire
to give her early death 'the illusion of a Greek necessity.'" Yet
no tragedy occurs in a vacuum. I probably would not have been tempted to
read any biographical material on Plath, had I not been translating her.
After reading the excellent biography, Bitter Fame, by Anne Stevenson,
for the purpose of shedding some light on certain dark areas of her verse,
I found myself wondering about the relevance of biographical data in relation
to the personal mythology that a poet creates in his writing. Which is
more real, in the end?
As Susan Sontag writes in her introduction to Marina Tsvetaeva's collection
of prose, "...to be a poet, requires a mythology of the self. The
self described is the poet self, to which the daily self (and others) are
often ruthlessly sacrificed. The poet self is the real self, the other
one is the carrier; and when the poet self dies, the person dies."
I am pleased to say that although I have learned more about Sylvia
Plath's life, I found that her personal mythology was the more relevant
one, in the end, as it is that which signifies and moves in her writing.
It is as if the poet is in a constant state of metamorphosis, a kind of
Sylvia Plath was born on October 27, 1932, in the state of Massachusetts.
Her parents were of German and Austrian extraction. Her father, Otto Plath,
had emigrated to the US in 1901 from the Prussian town Grabow. Aurelia
Plath's parents had emigrated from Vienna. Nothing unusual here, as supposedly
the highest number of emigrants in America in the early 1900's came from
Germany. Sylvia's upbringing was quite typical and traditional for her
generation. Other than the fact that her father died when she was ten years
I imagine that the 30's were like the 80's, to a certain extent, with
the 60's having extended their influence well into the 70's. The real fun
occurred in the 20's and 70's. The 60's had broken the mold and set the
tone for the rest of the century.
I cannot help but think that had Plath been born later and had a chance
to grow up in the 60's or 70's, she would be alive today. I swore I would
not do this, would not engage in dialectics concerning her life and death.
Yet, I cannot help but think that what killed her was the mendacity of
the era she lived in. Gruesome reality that rears its ugly head and makes
it impossible to ignore. I remember those black and white rigid films from
the late 50's, early 60's: "Splendor in the Grass," "A Taste
of Honey," "David and Lisa," all of them sad, idealistic,
hopeless, and evocative of the Victorian values in conflict with the post-industrial
world. "Splendor in the Grass," especially, with Natalie Wood
and Warren Beaty, was the movie that in my mind eventually became linked
with Plath's fate and novel, The Bell Jar, with that miserable, obsessive,
self-destructive and almost autistic kind of love that makes one want to
I must have first read Sylvia Plath as a teenager in 1970, for that
is when I first began reading modern poets. And in fact, I might have read
her collection, Ariel, at the same time as I had first read The Tempest,
by Shakespeare. It is not incongruous, as Shakespeare was required reading
in school, and we read at least three or four plays a year. The Tempest
was Shakespeare's last play, written in 1611. It is a mysterious play full
of cryptic references and alchemical symbolism. Though at first glance
it appears to be mainly about usurpation of power and magic. Its main character,
Prospero, reigns over an enchanted island with his daughter, Miranda. He
had been usurped from the dukedom of Milan twelve years prior. A boat washes
ashore during a tempest caused by Prospero's magical powers with the assistance
of the airy spirit, Ariel, who had spent twelve years imprisoned in a pine
rift by the witch Sycorax, until freed by Prospero. According to Judith
Kroll, Ariel is also the sacred flame of Leviticus and Isaiah. The sources
for the island and shipwreck scenes were drawn from the various published
accounts of an actual shipwreck endured by Sir George Somers, Sir Thomas
Gates, William Strachey, Sylvester Jourdan and Richard Rich, which took
place at the Bermudas during their voyage to Virginia, on July 25, 1609.
In the play, the boat is carrying some of the key characters who had usurped
Prospero. They are led by Ariel toward Prospero. What follows are resolution,
atonement, and Prospero's renouncing of his magic and freeing Ariel from
Ariel's first lines in The Tempest hail Prospero and offer to answer
his best pleasure, be it to fly, swim, dive into fire, or ride on the curled
clouds. Ariel thus urges Prospero to task him one more time, having just
implemented the cajoling of the tempest that wrecks the ship carrying the
suite of the King of Naples and Prospero's brother and usurper, the Duke
To which Prospero responds with the following assignment:
"Go, make thyself like to a nymph of the sea;
Be subject to no sight but mine; invisible
To every eye-ball else. Go take this shape
And hither come in it; hence with diligence."
Ariel sings to Ferdinando, son of Alonso, King of Naples, whom Ferdinando
believes to be drowned:
"Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffered a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs barely ring his knell."
Plath's title poem, "Ariel" was written on her last birthday,
27 October 1962. On that day she also wrote "Poppies in October."
Ariel was also the name of a horse she had been riding. Though most of
the poems in the Ariel collection were written in England, one gets the
sense of timeless magic as a background. It is as if the setting for her
poems were that of the magical uninhabited island (Bermuda) in The Tempest,
where Shakespeare for some reason decided to place the usurped Duke of
Milan. Usurpation is the theme of the day, for Plath. It spins itself throughout
many of her poems. She identifies with the old Queen Bee, for example,
that she imagines will soon be deposed. She identifies so well because
she believes that she too is like a queen that has been desposed, usurped.
Though she is Ariel, she longs to be Prospero's daughter, Miranda; Prospero
being a kind of deposed Poseidon-Neptune. She would rather her mother were
absent than her father lying full fathom five. Her mother, being the Medusa.
"My mind winds to you / Old barnacled umbilicus, Atlantic cable...
Off, off, eely tentacle! / There is nothing between us."
Stasis in darkness.
Then the substanceless blue
Pour of tor and distances.
The scene is set for Ariel who has just completed the logistic task
of creating the tempest. The sea is now calm, it is night, probably the
darkest hour. The sun has not risen yet. Gradually the darkness acquires
color, the blue of the sky and sea spills like ink over hill and crag.
The stasis, then the lioness, the horse's hooves all echo with the
following stanzas from "Years", where Stasis is how she addresses
And you, great Stasis --
What is so great in that!
Is it a tiger this year, this roar at the door?
Is it a Christus,
God-bit in him
Dying to fly and be done with it?
The blood berries are themselves, they are very still.
The hooves will not have it,
In blue distance the pistons hiss.
Enter Ariel, a kind of woman/lioness/horse all in one:
How one we grow,
Pivot of heels and knees!--The furrow
The lion is a symbol of the Resurrection. Legend has it that the lion's
cubs are born dead, three days later the father lion breathes on them to
revive them. Also the lion supposedly sleeps with the eyes open and can
look straight into the sun without blinking. St. Mark, the Evangelist,
is symbolized by a lion, and the emblem of Venice is the winged Lion of
St. Mark. The lion also represents the constellation of the sun, as well
as the sky which swallows the sun at night. In alchemy its symbolism is
that of the philosopher's fire, the original substance of sulphur, as in
the red lion, whereas the green lion is associated with vitriol, which
in alchemy is the symbol of the union between low and high. The goddesses
Cybele, Artemis, and Fortuna are traditionally represented with a lioness
by their side. In the Mithraic mysteries, initiates were often called "lions"
and "lionesses", Mithra being the "Invincible Sun"
Splits and passes, sister to
The brown arc
Of the neck I cannot catch,
The metamorphosis of Ariel occurs in flight, the winged lioness chasing
dawn across the sky lands and becomes Ariel, the horse galloping over furrows
that split and pass. The lioness is sister to the brown arc of the neck
that she, Ariel the rider, Fortuna, and poet at one with the lioness, cannot
catch. So what is this horse? Poseidon-Neptune, the god of horses, who
created the horse to mimic the movement of the sea on land. Cybele, the
horse-headed goddess, with the lioness by her side. Blood? The ancient
sacrifices of the horse to Apollo, the divine charioteer of the Sun. The
Bestiary of Christ, by Louis Charbonneau-Lassay, notes that "In Gallic
mythology, horse and rider were joined as a huge snake-tailed monster symbolizing
the earth, carrying the sky on its shoulders." It is significant that
the horse she rides is not white, and therefore is not the horse of the
Apocalypse. It is brown, or russet, hence the connection with blood, for
in Christian symbolism, Christ in red rides a russet horse stained with
His blood. Both the horse and the arrow in the scriptures symbolize the
Word, the horse especially being emblematic of speed and carrier of the
Divine Word. And if this horse be considered a winged horse, in Roman Christianity
it can be seen how "the Sun-god becomes Christ who lifts himself form
the earth with the sun's glory." (The Bestiary of Christ).
Berries cast dark
See above quote from "Years", where "The blood berries
are themselves, are very still." What are these berries? Caliban says
to Prospero, bitterly, "You used to give me water with berries."
Thistle, thorns, briars, and brambles are symbols of the Passion of Christ.
The bramble is the blackberry bush. The crown of thorns which Christ was
crowned with before the Crucifixion, as the traditional symbol of the marytrdom.
St. Catherine is often depicted with the stigmata and the crown of thorns
which she received from Christ.
Galloping through the forest, the blackberry bush casts dark hooks,
its berries crushed in mouthfulls, black sweet blood mouthfuls. Hooks are
frequent images that Plath uses in the oddest contexts, in "Tulips":
"My husband and child smiling out of the family photo; / Their smiles
catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks." In "Elm": "I
am inhabited by a cry. / Nightly it flaps out / Looking, with its hooks,
for something to love." In "Berck-Plage": "I am not
a smile. / These children are after something, with hooks and cries."
Though the first example is the best one, smiles like hooks that catch
onto her skin. Blackberries and bramble catch onto her skin as well.
Black sweet blood mouthfuls,
Hauls me through air--
Flakes from my heels.
It's a life and death kind of race, and everything is moving very fast.
Ariel and Sylvia move from nigger-eye berries to black sweet blood mouthfuls
in the twinkling of an eye, and this blackness brings to mind shadows that
haul the rider through the air. There is this incredible sense of motion,
vigor, crisis. Sylvia is Ariel, the spirit of the lioness metamorphosed
into horse, and she carries herself suddenly visible against the shadows
and something else that hauls her. And finally she sees herself against
the nigger-berries as something white. And what are these flakes from her
heels, God only knows. The flakes and heels probably merely serve to bring
her to the rhyme, unpeel, which in turn triggers this Godiva image through
whom she begins her final deconstructive trajectory.
Godiva, I unpeel--
Dead hands, dead stringencies.
This brings to mind the following image from "Lady Lazarus":
"They had to call and call / And pick the worms off me like sticky
And now I
Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
The child's cry
Melts in the wall.
These four lines are syntactically the most loaded and charged of the
whole poem. Her metamorphosis which began with the spirit emerging as lioness,
horse, rider as Lady Godiva, now endures a deconstruction of her personas
as she unpeels and becomes pure motion. Her syntax contracts wildly and
irreglarly: I / foam to wheat.
Is foam a verb or noun? It is both, the noun becomes the verb, which
is an intransitive one. Plath frequently made use of such poetic license.
As per Anna Glazova, from foam to wheat is from Aphrodite to Eve, the
glitter of seas, Mariam, as translated in the middle ages, is the star
of the seas. Mary and Mariam, as the Virgin Mary is the protectress of
sailors. The child's cry melting in the wall is the cry of Jesus at the
wall of Jerusalem.
And this is it, the grand finale, the final strip tease, she is turning
into foam, wheat, a glitter of seas, her ear deaf to the child's cry that
melts in the wall. An eerie premonition of what indeed does happen when
she chooses to take her life during one of the coldest English winters
of the century.
Am the arrow,
The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning.
Plath's Ariel finds her final transformation in dew. The dew from the
still-vexed Bermuda. Dew clearly had some magical properties in Elizabethan
times. Caliban, the deformed son of the local witch, Sycorax, upon seeing
Prospero, curses him as follows: "As wicked dew as e'er my mother
brush'd / with raven's feather from unwholesome fen, / Drop on you both!
A south-west blow on ye, / And blister you all o'er." And Ariel when
pressed by Prospero concerning the whereabouts of the ship, replies:
Safely in harbour is the King's ship;
In the deep nook where once
Thou call'dst me up at midnight to fetch dew
From the still-vexd Bermoothes, there she's hid.
Dew is also alluded to in the dialogue between Ceres and Iris, with
reference to Juno. Here again there is the connection with wheat, "from
foam to wheat," Ceres being the goddess of agriculture, cerealis being
the Latin for grain. "Who, with thy saffron wings, upon my flowers
/ Diffusest honey drops, refreshing showers."
The foam, wheat, glitter of seas now turned arrow as evaporation occurs
and the sun rises, that red eye, the cauldron of morning into which Ariel
flies dew-like and suicidal, at one with the drive. Motion and that which
moves become one as she rests her head in the oven and turns the gas on,
into the red eye. Her children's cries melt into the walls.
Ariel, sea-nymph, shape-shifter, androgynous spirit, and pure whimsical
energy, going, going, gone. Becoming the magical dew, an alchemical union
of the elements. Then to the elements, as Prospero said, promising to release
Shakespeare's Ariel's last words:
Where the bee sucks, there suck I;
In the cowslips's bell I lie:
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat's back I do fly.
After summer merrily,
Merrily, merrily shall I live now,
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.
According to Leslie Fielder, "Literature, properly speaking, can
be said to come into existence at the moment a Signature is imposed upon
the Archetype. The purely archetypal, without signature elements, is the
myth." Sylvia Plath took her life on 11 February 1963. The inscription
on her tombstone, which had been desecrated and vandalized by feminists
confusing Signature with myth, read: "EVEN AMIDST FIERCE FLAMES THE
GOLDEN LOTUS CAN BE PLANTED," from the Bhagvad Gita. May Sylvia Plath
now rest in anonymous peace, in the land and spirit of Ariel, "under
the blossom that hangs on the bough."