11 March 2015

A Major Literary Event: Ariel by [Sylvia Plath], 50 years later

Sylvia Plath has a reputation. In fact, she has many reputations. Sylvia Plath is most widely known for her life and her death; her novel The Bell Jar, and her poems, most notably those in Ariel but also for those works published in 1981in The Collected Poems for which Plath did, after all, win the Pulitzer Prize. In recent years -- say since 1987 -- Plath's life has been the focus of attention as a number biographies have been published: and most of those with some drama or contention surrounding it. And in 2000, with the publication of her full journals, again the focus was displaced somewhat from her creative writing and onto her life.

In some strange and perverse way, Plath's reputation --poetic and otherwise -- is because of Hughes, just as Hughes' own fast ascent as a poet of world-renowned can be credited to Plath who effectively and efficiently got his poems first in a wide array of reputable and international magazines, but also in book form.

Fifty years ago today, on 11 March 1965, Ted Hughes saw to publication his version of Sylvia Plath's Ariel. Published in a first run of 3100 copies. But as is very well-known by now, this Ariel was neither the order nor the collection of poems that Plath intended. That notwithstanding, the poems and book were a massive success. According to Stephen Tabor's 1987 book Sylvia Plath: An Analytical Bibliography reprints were quickly issued on "14 January 1966 (3180 copies); 6 July 1967 (2500); and 20 March 1972 (2000)" (21). It was not until June 1966 that the Harper & Row edition was published in the United States.

For contemporary readers of Sylvia Plath, the 1965 Ariel represented a severe and marked departure from her 1960 book, The Colossus. In his review of the earlier volume, the critic Al Alvarez wrote, "most of her poems rest secure in a mass of experience that is never quite brought out into daylight [quote from "Black Rook in Rainy Weather"] . . . It is this sense of threat, as though she were continually menaced by something she could see only out of the corners of her eyes" ("The Poet and the Poetess" The Observer, 18 December 1960: 21). With Ariel, Plath confronts these threats which on the one hand confronted her head-on and on the other, needed quelling.

The Guardian has a select archive of reviews of Plath's works from the 1960s. Among them is Richard Kell's "The Foil of Despair" from 12 March 1965. Kell writes that "the writer is very much involved in all her poems", an early recognition of a biographical aspect to her poetry. He recognizes that Plath's ability to merge "landscape and mindscape" in "The Moon and the Yew Tree" shows Plath's "writing at her best." But ultimately, Kell seems unnerved by the intensity of Plath's poetry: "But the experiences these poems are 'about' become a kind of foil: if a fine poem of despair leaves the reader despairing, instead of marvelling at the power that can create something perfect out of destruction, the poet's struggle is to that extent devalued, and it is better not to read at all."

Alvarez, a more faithful reader and early proponent of Plath's poetry, and one who was more familiar with Plath's progression, reviewed Ariel as well in the Sunday, 14 March 1965 issue of The Observer. The review begins, "It is over two years now since Sylvia Plath died suddenly at the age of 30, and in that time a myth has been gathering around her work. It has to do with her extraordinary outburst of creative energy in the months before her death . . ." Alvarez was the first to "speak", as it were, after Plath's death when he wrote "A Poet's Epitaph" in the Sunday 17 February 1963 issue of The Observer (see an image of that on this page), which also printed four of Plath's last known poems: "Edge", "The Fearful", "Kindness", and "Contusion". In that piece, Alvarez set Plath's reputation going, almost like a "fat gold watch". He writes, "For the last few months she had been writing continually, almost as though possessed. In these last poems, she was systematically probing the narrow, violent area between the viable and the impossible, between experience which can be transmuted into poetry and that which is overwhelming. It represents a totally new breakthrough in modern verse, and establishes her, I think, as the most gifted woman poet of our time. . . . The loss the literature in inestimable" (23).

In his Observer review, Alvarez attempts to distance Plath's personal poetry from that of the budding "confessional" school but unfortunately she was lumped in there against her own will. He rightly calls the shift from the poems in The Colossus to those in Ariel "unforeseeable". Alvarez's own view of Plath's poetry matured, just as Plath's poetry itself did. From his review of the Colossus quoted above ("she were continually menaced by something she could see only out of the corners of her eyes") Alvarez claims of Ariel that "the preparation [the poetry of The Colossus] was essential: when the wrenching crisis took place she had the art to handle it." Alvarez named it beautifully when he judged Ariel to be "a major literary event".

Ariel by Sylvia Plath, though compiled and edited by Ted Hughes, was and remains a major literary event. It set Plath up as the leading poet of the 20th century. Plath continues to be a force in the 21st century as well. And this is right because of the universality of her poems and their messages, among other reasons. The grip of these poems is so strong that even the long overdue publication of Ariel: The Restored Edition in 2004 has done little to topple the former from being the book of poetry for which Plath is primarily known. The former is collection is so strong and so shocking, still today. I cannot read them without either alarm or an increased heart rate. But the tone of the two books so different. One crescendos in bleak, almost inevitable sadness; and the other defiantly survives the chaos and fire of life. No matter which book you prefer and what message you take from it, read the 1965 Ariel today if you have access to it.

The speaker of Plath's "Edge" says: "We have come to far" (Ariel, 85). It is anything but over.

Sylvia Plath's worksheets for the Ariel poems are largely held by the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College. A few stragglers are elsewhere such as "Tulips" at the Houghton Library of Harvard, and several including "The Moon and the Yew Tree", "Morning Song", and "The Rival" in Plath mss. at the Lilly Library, Indiana University at Bloomington.

All links accessed 18 February and 2 March 2015.
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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.