But then I noticed this was the year when Sylvia Plath’s second collection of poetry was published under the title of Ariel. It was this book that established Plath as one of the twentieth century’s most original and gifted poets. Plath herself felt they were her best work, predicting they would “make my name.”
The collection contains some of her most celebrated poems: Lady Lazurus, Daddy; The Moon and the Yew Tree and the titular piece Ariel. Many of these are poems written in a burst of creativity shortly before she took her life. They are poems I’ve read many times over, but only ever as individual pieces of work. When you read them as a collection, the intensity and darkness that’s visible in an individual poem is heightened and magnified many times over.
In them can be seen the effects of clinical depression and breakdown. Landscapes and items of nature take on a menacing dimension. There is a fascination with death and annihilation. And there’s an unflinching honesty as the poet subjects herself to a fierce interrogation of her feelings.
But I also noticed some tenderness. In Morning Song, the first poem in the collection, Plath writes about being a new mother, listening out for the “moth-breath” of her new born baby then stumbling from bed the minute she hears a cry.
These are poems that are enigmatic and complex. Plath’s imagery is frequently startling (like the references to the Holocaust in Daddy) It took me several readings to begin to grasp the sense of them, particularly where Plath fuses and condenses her similies and allusions. Ariel for example uses just three words ‘Stasis in darkness’ to convey the experience of sitting on a stationary horse, waiting for dawn to break. I’m not convinced even now that I have fully understood many of these poems. But the overall effect is breathtaking especially when I found a website which includes Plath herself reading a number of these poems. (you can find them here)
Lady Lazurus is unforgettable and Daddy is superb. I also enjoyed Tulips which describes the experience of being in hospital, lying peacefully until some flowers arrive which to Plath look disturbingly like the mouths of a large African cat.
But my favourite is the titular poem Ariel. Reading it I can imagine Plath astride her horse as dawn is breaking, thundering through furrowed fields, past tors and blackberry bushes
Into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning.
I was disappointed to find that my edition, published by Faber, doesn’t represent Plath’s vision for her collection. She started putting the manuscript together in late 1961 or early 1962 (she changed the title multiple times). The collection was published posthumously but with a different order of poems and 12 that Plath had never intended to be included. The change was made by her husband Ted Hughes. He also removed 12 poems.
It wasn’t until 2004 that the selection and arrangement of the poems as Plath had left them was restored. It contains a forward by Plath herself and by her daughter Frieda Hughes. I’m curious whether reading this version will change my views in any way. Will I find a new favourite?