Steve Harris Reviews Sylvia Plath’s Ariel
Ariel: The Restored Edition: A Facsimile of Plath’s Manuscript, Reinstating Her Original Selection and Arrangement,, by Sylvia Plath, Frieda Hughes (Harper, 2005)
Since about 1980, I have probably read Ariel six times and every time I step back from it thinking, My God! It remains for me among the most powerful collections of poetry I’ve ever read. However, whereas my previous readings of Ariel – all edited and arranged by Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes – left me in awe of numerous poems within the collection, the new edition (published in 2005) has enabled me to read, for the first time, Plath’s arrangement, which jacks things up considerably. How could that be possible?
I have no side in the Hughes / Plath wars. He cheated on her; she was high maintenance. As an outsider, it’s impossible to know much more beyond that surface story. On the poetry side of things, I have always thought that Hughes (a superb poet), with his violent and powerful imagery (see Crow), provided an assist in Plath’s own growth as a poet. Being the smart writer that she was, she would not be outdone in savage imagery, especially when Hughes provided her, though his adultery, with a red hot core of poetic purpose.
I don’t think this can be downplayed in any way. Frieda Hughes, the couple’s daughter, clearly acknowledges, in her indispensible Introduction, what we all know – Ariel is an act of revenge. For Frieda, this is a difficult and sensitive subject. She loved her father; she loved her mother. She does try to recycle – though she doesn’t necessarily accept – the old Hughes’ argument that the earlier arrangement was done for Art’s sake. Not so; not even close. While a few poems could have been dropped as weak (“Barren Woman” and “Magi” being, among numerous reviewers, agreed upon examples); overall, the restored poems are very strong.
The placement of the poems within the collection is important. In fact, one could argue that, if Plath’s collection was an act of literary revenge, Hughes’ editing was an act of literary violence. He deliberately muddied the waters, blurring the impact of the collection as a whole. You see this in both the beginning and ending of the collection. The new edition follows an arc – an arc that, with all its ferocious savagery, strangely enough becomes transcendent with the last grouping of poems, which ends with “Wintering.” In the earlier edition of Ariel, Hughes has these poems (starting with “Daddy”) in sequence, but then tacks on a monkey’s tail grab bag of poems that robs the reader of the sense of closure that Plath’s arrangement provides. (It also helps to dilute the impact of the accusatory “Daddy.”)
However, it’s the beginning of the collection that really shocked me. The dropping of “The Rabbit Catcher,” a very strong poem, and one that must have burned Hughes’ ears right off, is where the damage to Plath’s purpose is most obvious. The poem’s final lines, its images, are claustrophobic, violent, and unbowed:
I felt a still busyness, an intent.
I felt hands around a tea mug, dull blunt,
Ringing the white china.
How they awaited him, those little deaths!
They waited like sweethearts. They excited him.
(“The Rabbit Cather”)
It’s a key poem, the third in the collection, and it establishes a foundation for the recurring accusatory poems (“A Secret,” “The Jailer,” “Daddy”). These poems are part of an intended tapestry. I have no doubt this restored version of Ariel will be the one that will now be studied. Hughes’ deceptive version will also be studied, but it will exist as a footnote. It’s a testimony to the power of Plath’s poems that Ariel can exist in both forms, but there is no doubt which is the better version.