Ariel is Sylvia Plaths last book. Most of the poems were written in a manic burst during a period of grief and rage over her impending divorce from British poet Ted Hughes, who ran off with another woman, leaving her with two babies. She had tried suicide at nineteen and failed; after completing the Ariel poems at thirty, she succeeded. Hughes sent the Ariel manuscript off to be published, leaving out some poems she had included and adding new ones she wrote in her last days. Much controversy ensued: he was accused of everything from censorship to murder. This new facsmile edition of Ariel sets the record straight by giving us the poems as Plath left them in the manuscript, along with her typewritten drafts and handwritten corrections. Frieda Hughes, the daughter of the two poets, writes a Foreword to the edition, defending her fathers actions regarding Plaths legacy and describing the difficulties the family has endured as a result of Plaths canonization and Hughes demonization.
Frieda references Plaths well-known fits of temper, several of which resulted in her burning her husbands work. She also notes that Ted Hughes was a frequent target of fury in the poems. Plath was apparently a manic-depressive, swinging from ecstasy and rage to black depression, accordingly representing herself as an apotheosized victim of powerful, fascist-booted men, or an avenging Medea warning us against her superhuman powers: "Beware. Out of the ash/I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air."
Plath pushes all aspects of her life to manic extremes: it is not enough that she herself should be larger than life, the other characters in her drama must also have mythic proportions. In the early days of her relationship with Hughes she wrote: "We make love like giants." Some readers, but not all, buy into Plaths operatic depictions, taking them for reality. Her fans have gone so far as to erase the surname "Hughes" from her gravestone. Despite Frieda Hughes assertions that her parents marriage was companionable and quiet, Sylvia Plath had to be hell to live with.
In her poems the poet is a Greek goddess, a she-devil, Lady Godiva, Jesus, Lazarus, Medea, Medusa, a dematerializing Madonna ascending to an incorporeal heaven. Anything, that is, but ordinary. Seeing mythic themes in ones daily life is imaginative. It brings depth and meaning to ordinary existence. But Plaths poems pervert the ends of mythology, whose purpose is to warn us, in various ways, not to fly too close to the sun in our wax wings, lest we perish.
Plaths protagonist, who is always Sylvia herself, flies straight into the nuclear furnace. In the title poem, "Ariel," she writes, "I am the arrow/The dew that flies/Suicidal, at one with the drive/Into the red/Eye, the cauldron of morning," She would rather die than be thought average. Except in a few poems about her children, she always suffers superhumanly or ascends above us, the world and its creatures being just props in the drama of herself.
Sylvia Plath was a genius who wrote some magnificent poems, but her work is sometimes marred by her pathology. When it is possible to imagine her authorial consciousness as separate from the overblown personae she creates, the poems work brilliantly. In "Colossus," a poem critic Helen Vendler calls "her first perfect poem" Plaths narrator is exhausted from a life devoted only to maintaining a huge statue, climbing around it on ladders, carrying glue and Lysol, sleeping in its ear, watching the sun rise under the pillar of its tongue. The poems narrator has done this "for thirty years," she says, or as long as Otto Plath had been dead, so the theme emerges of Electra giving her life to keeping fresh the memory of her father (although one commentator, believe it or not, interprets the poem as Sylvia Plath repairing the canon of Western poetry!)