In times of crisis, art provides escape. Although temporary, the preoccupation offered by art induces a sense of calm and composure that assists in navigating through the ups and downs of life. This usually occurs when we allow emotional conflict to conflate with our creative process. As a result, the art we make becomes a vessel for containing our anxieties and starts bearing semblance to our inner struggle. In this way, the process of making art manifests as an act of unloading that proves to be both necessary and revitalizing for the artist.
In her diary, Sylvia Plath once wrote, “my happiness streams from having wrenched a piece out of my life, a piece of hurt and beauty, and transformed into typewritten words on paper”. For Plath, her poetry functioned not only to express her personality but also to preserve her sanity. Her poetry is most commonly viewed as an exploration of self and can be seen as an exercise in deep introspection. As a poet encumbered by the tendency to experience emotions in extremes, joy and despair are co-existent in her work and most of her poems attest to the occurrence of both these emotions simultaneously.
Published two years after Plath’s death, Ariel was the second book of Plath’s poetry. First released in the United Kingdom in 1965 and the United States in 1966, Ariel was altered by Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes before its release. Hughes is known to have arbitrarily removed and replaced several poems from Plath’s original manuscript and even changed the original title that had been decided by Sylvia for the book.
Ariel is a collection of 43 poems that depict the upheavals and anxieties of a mind at unrest while bearing testimony to Plath’s literary prowess and ingenuity. Her poetry is mostly autobiographical and therefore, cannot be understood in isolation since her art is inextricably connected to her life. While most of her poems offer unique interpretations in multiple ways, the unapologetic and blunt nature of her poetry is the one aspect that stands out. The grief and anxiety that pervaded her life are situated within the lines of her poems and can be understood by evaluating the metaphors and allusions frequently employed by Plath. Allusions to Holocaust and Nazi Germany are recurrent in several poems and offer meaningful insight into the wretchedness and helplessness Plath experienced in the years preceding her death.
Since most of the poems included in Ariel were written during some of the most difficult days of Plath’s life, these poems forego the conventional poetic form and carve their own path. This attests to Plath’s apathy towards the need to conform to tried and tested literary techniques in a bid to produce digestible poetry that would have more chances of being published. In the years before her death, Plath’s poetry became an invincible entity that wouldn’t be held back by any social barriers or restraints. As Plath continued to battle depression, she let her poetry unravel in whichever way it desired and in turn, produced poems that astonished and inspired people even today.
Some of Plath’s most celebrated poems find their name in Ariel. In her magnum opus ‘Lady Lazarus’, Plath compares herself to the Biblical figure of Lazarus who rises from the dead while in ‘Tulips’ she reflects on her life as she finds herself to have landed in a pitiful state in a mental hospital. Her poem ‘The Applicant’ scorns the institution of matrimony and the roles assigned to women in a conjugal relationship indicating the dissatisfaction she experienced in her own marriage with Ted Hughes. Another renowned poem called ‘Daddy’ finds its place in Ariel and is popular for the allusions to Nazi Germany employed by Plath and is examined as an example of Electra complex as propounded by Sigmund Freud. Plath’s fearless writing has been admired and lauded by people worldwide for its brutal honesty and bluntness and is recognised for its contribution to the rise of Confessionalism in the late 1950s.
In writing the poems included in Ariel, Plath has displayed the courage to tread risky terrains. By writing on uncommon themes and shunning convention, Plath proves that the voice within her will neither stay still nor concede to expressing itself in a palatable and reductive way. Her genius lies in the way she counters the destructive forces of her life with the creative forces of art and uses poetry as an instrument for self-revelation. While the end of Plath’s life may have been tragic, the art she dedicated her life to continues to exist as an astounding feat in women’s writing. Her poetry bears witness to the literary cogency of her mind that kept her afloat and provided her something worth cherishing and looking forward to during her long and painful battle with clinical depression.
Zainab Wahab is a student pursuing English Honours from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Diptarka Chatterjee