Book ReviewsPoetry

Ariel by Sylvia Plath: #1965club read

ArielI’d almost given up on finding anything to read for the #1965club read hosted by Karen @kaggsy’sbookishramblings and Simon @Stuck in a Book.

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

the drive

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? 


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

17 thoughts on “Ariel by Sylvia Plath: #1965club read

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  • buriedinprint

    And? Did you find a new favourite after all? How nice that you were able to find something for the event after all. I’m afraid I don’t tend to think of anything other than fiction for these chosen years. Quite likely there are plenty of other good choices with poetry and drama too!

    • I think I developed an even greater love of Arial but Tulips is now a new favourite. I have always thought of fiction for these events – I only turned to poetry because I couldn’t get any library versions of the novels published that year

  • I remember reading The Bell Jar as a teenager and being astounded by it. I’ve never read her poems, but the fact that she took her own life shortly after writing these poems is eerie. It lends so much weight to what she wrote in those last few months/years of her life! From the pieces you quoted I can tell I’d enjoy reading this book too.

    • The knowledge of her death does give this collection added poignancy. I saw a wonderful drama/documentary on BBC last year about her and the relationship with Ted Hughes – that gave some added context

  • I didn’t realize that there was a later edition. I have the collection on a stack of books on my writing/typing desk among books I want to reread this June for my birthday. I, of course, have the older version, the one I had since college when I graduated in 1991. Now I’ll have to go seek out this new edition, so that I can reread them the way she intended. I also am bookmarking your post for later so that I can watch the videos. Thank you for this post and the links. I wouldn’t have known otherwise.

    • I didn’t know about the different versions either when I picked up the Faber edition from the library. From what Karen at Kaggsy’sbookishramblings said in her comment, the two versions are significantly different

  • I re-read this collection a few years ago. Powerful imagery.

  • I wasn’t aware of this revised collection – must look it up. Her readings are electrifying, aren’t they. As for understanding every part of every poem – Archibald MacLeish famously ended a string of enigmatic images of what a poem should be in his poem Ars Poetica with the famous, triumphant conclusion ‘A poem should not mean/But be’. So there we are: we are to just savour the ‘being’ of Plath’s amazing voice and words! Understanding may evolve over time and rereads. That’s what I’m still doing

    • That’s a great way to think of poetry – like many people I struggle to appreciate it fully but maybe its because I am trying too hard. should just enjoy it for what it is

    • He doesn’t come across well in every article I’ve read about him.

  • It’s a magnificent collection, and I’m glad the club pushed you towards it. I would have liked to revisit it myself. I have the restored version and it *is* different. But her poems stand tall however they’re collected!

      • Hard to say because it’s a while since I read both. But worth reading both I’d suggest and also to bear in mind that Hughes may have had an agenda in his ordering of the poems.


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