Written by Sage Calder; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.
I recently found myself rereading Sylvia Plath’s final manuscript, Ariel and other poems. I had read the collection several times before, but this was my first time reading the “Restored Edition” — the manuscript exactly as Plath left it. This edition also contains a foreword that casts an entirely different light on the book for me. In the introduction, Plath’s daughter, Frieda, notes that her mother described the book as, “beginning with the word ‘Love,’ and ending with the word ‘Spring.’” Frieda recognizes that her mother wrote the book to talk about the end of her marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes, and move toward a new life. In contrast to these intentions, Plath left Ariel as her final manuscript before committing suicide in 1963.
It is a constant struggle to discuss Sylvia Plath’s work as an author and poet without bringing her personal life into the discussion. This seems to be a struggle that affects female artists far more than male artists. As Frieda notes in her foreword, “…Ariel’s notoriety came from being the manuscript on her desk when she died, rather than simply being an extraordinary manuscript…”
Reading Frieda’s foreword, which is both insightful and earnest, I began thinking about Ariel in relation to the heroine’s journey — first as a collection of poetry, and also as the final collection of poetry before Plath’s death.
In her foreword, Frieda discusses a “unique Ariel voice,” one that had, “an urgency, freedom and force that was quite new in her work.” This voice came as Plath emerged from her marriage to live on her own with her two children. In Victoria Schmidt’s heroine’s journey, Plath’s illusion of the perfect world was broken with her husband’s infidelity. She writes about her pain in poems at the beginning of the collection such as “Barren Woman” and “Thalidomide.” Throughout Ariel we watch Plath work through these issues in preparation for her separation from the security of love. The act of her writing this poetry represents Plath’s descent; she recognizes her faults, she enters the eye of the storm and emerges from it. All of the poems are in the unique Ariel voice, but as the book goes on, we see poems of support. In the poem, “Medusa,” for example, Plath writes – “I didn’t call you at all/ Nevertheless, nevertheless/ You steamed to me over the sea/ Fat and red, a placenta//Paralyzing the kicking lovers…” It is clear that when Plath refers to Medusa in this poem, she is referring to something within herself — the part of her that is able to paralyze and leave lovers, and the one who is able to say to her deceased father in the infamous poem, “Daddy” — “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”
By shedding the men in her life who hurt her and reconnecting with her own feminine power, Plath is tracking toward a heroine’s journey in Ariel. The quest of the heroine is wholeness, which normally implies continuing to live your life. In her real life, Plath was unable to do this — she killed herself and was never able to separate herself from the presence of her husband, since she continued to receive financial support from him and even potentially sought reconciliation. I am not Plath and could not possibly know her life well enough to characterize it as a hero’s journey or a failed heroine’s journey.
Instead, I look to the last poem, which indeed ends with the word “spring.” Plath ends the collection with a series of poems about bees and in her final stanza wonders — “Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas/ Succeed in banking their fires/ To enter another year?” We have come to associate these bees with Plath herself. And she ends — “The bees are flying. They taste the spring.” Plath succeeds in presenting to us a work displaying the heroine’s journey — she writes herself as a heroine who succeeds in leaving her husband and other harmful men in her life behind her. Like the bees, the Plath who is the speaker of the Ariel poems not only plans on surviving into the spring — she already has.