Speaking In Tongues
Guided by Voices


by Tatiana Retivova

«...My Ariel...
That is thy charge: then to the elements
Be free, and fare thou well!»
From Shakespeare's «The Tempest»

The bearing of a life on a poet's writing should be taken with a grain of salt. Especially with someone whose life was as complicated and as tragic as Sylvia Plath's, despite the fact that the tragedy might be considered as self-imposed. As her biographer, Anne Stevenson, writes, "her writings...conspire to give her early death 'the illusion of a Greek necessity.'" Yet no tragedy occurs in a vacuum. I probably would not have been tempted to read any biographical material on Plath, had I not been translating her. After reading the excellent biography, Bitter Fame, by Anne Stevenson, for the purpose of shedding some light on certain dark areas of her verse, I found myself wondering about the relevance of biographical data in relation to the personal mythology that a poet creates in his writing. Which is more real, in the end?
As Susan Sontag writes in her introduction to Marina Tsvetaeva's collection of prose, "...to be a poet, requires a mythology of the self. The self described is the poet self, to which the daily self (and others) are often ruthlessly sacrificed. The poet self is the real self, the other one is the carrier; and when the poet self dies, the person dies."
I am pleased to say that although I have learned more about Sylvia Plath's life, I found that her personal mythology was the more relevant one, in the end, as it is that which signifies and moves in her writing. It is as if the poet is in a constant state of metamorphosis, a kind of changeling.
Sylvia Plath was born on October 27, 1932, in the state of Massachusetts. Her parents were of German and Austrian extraction. Her father, Otto Plath, had emigrated to the US in 1901 from the Prussian town Grabow. Aurelia Plath's parents had emigrated from Vienna. Nothing unusual here, as supposedly the highest number of emigrants in America in the early 1900's came from Germany. Sylvia's upbringing was quite typical and traditional for her generation. Other than the fact that her father died when she was ten years old.
I imagine that the 30's were like the 80's, to a certain extent, with the 60's having extended their influence well into the 70's. The real fun occurred in the 20's and 70's. The 60's had broken the mold and set the tone for the rest of the century.
I cannot help but think that had Plath been born later and had a chance to grow up in the 60's or 70's, she would be alive today. I swore I would not do this, would not engage in dialectics concerning her life and death. Yet, I cannot help but think that what killed her was the mendacity of the era she lived in. Gruesome reality that rears its ugly head and makes it impossible to ignore. I remember those black and white rigid films from the late 50's, early 60's: "Splendor in the Grass," "A Taste of Honey," "David and Lisa," all of them sad, idealistic, hopeless, and evocative of the Victorian values in conflict with the post-industrial world. "Splendor in the Grass," especially, with Natalie Wood and Warren Beaty, was the movie that in my mind eventually became linked with Plath's fate and novel, The Bell Jar, with that miserable, obsessive, self-destructive and almost autistic kind of love that makes one want to die.
I must have first read Sylvia Plath as a teenager in 1970, for that is when I first began reading modern poets. And in fact, I might have read her collection, Ariel, at the same time as I had first read The Tempest, by Shakespeare. It is not incongruous, as Shakespeare was required reading in school, and we read at least three or four plays a year. The Tempest was Shakespeare's last play, written in 1611. It is a mysterious play full of cryptic references and alchemical symbolism. Though at first glance it appears to be mainly about usurpation of power and magic. Its main character, Prospero, reigns over an enchanted island with his daughter, Miranda. He had been usurped from the dukedom of Milan twelve years prior. A boat washes ashore during a tempest caused by Prospero's magical powers with the assistance of the airy spirit, Ariel, who had spent twelve years imprisoned in a pine rift by the witch Sycorax, until freed by Prospero. According to Judith Kroll, Ariel is also the sacred flame of Leviticus and Isaiah. The sources for the island and shipwreck scenes were drawn from the various published accounts of an actual shipwreck endured by Sir George Somers, Sir Thomas Gates, William Strachey, Sylvester Jourdan and Richard Rich, which took place at the Bermudas during their voyage to Virginia, on July 25, 1609. In the play, the boat is carrying some of the key characters who had usurped Prospero. They are led by Ariel toward Prospero. What follows are resolution, atonement, and Prospero's renouncing of his magic and freeing Ariel from his spell.
Ariel's first lines in The Tempest hail Prospero and offer to answer his best pleasure, be it to fly, swim, dive into fire, or ride on the curled clouds. Ariel thus urges Prospero to task him one more time, having just implemented the cajoling of the tempest that wrecks the ship carrying the suite of the King of Naples and Prospero's brother and usurper, the Duke of Milan.
To which Prospero responds with the following assignment:

Ariel sings to Ferdinando, son of Alonso, King of Naples, whom Ferdinando believes to be drowned:

Plath's title poem, "Ariel" was written on her last birthday, 27 October 1962. On that day she also wrote "Poppies in October." Ariel was also the name of a horse she had been riding. Though most of the poems in the Ariel collection were written in England, one gets the sense of timeless magic as a background. It is as if the setting for her poems were that of the magical uninhabited island (Bermuda) in The Tempest, where Shakespeare for some reason decided to place the usurped Duke of Milan. Usurpation is the theme of the day, for Plath. It spins itself throughout many of her poems. She identifies with the old Queen Bee, for example, that she imagines will soon be deposed. She identifies so well because she believes that she too is like a queen that has been desposed, usurped. Though she is Ariel, she longs to be Prospero's daughter, Miranda; Prospero being a kind of deposed Poseidon-Neptune. She would rather her mother were absent than her father lying full fathom five. Her mother, being the Medusa. "My mind winds to you / Old barnacled umbilicus, Atlantic cable... Off, off, eely tentacle! / There is nothing between us."

The scene is set for Ariel who has just completed the logistic task of creating the tempest. The sea is now calm, it is night, probably the darkest hour. The sun has not risen yet. Gradually the darkness acquires color, the blue of the sky and sea spills like ink over hill and crag.
The stasis, then the lioness, the horse's hooves all echo with the following stanzas from "Years", where Stasis is how she addresses God:

Enter Ariel, a kind of woman/lioness/horse all in one:

The lion is a symbol of the Resurrection. Legend has it that the lion's cubs are born dead, three days later the father lion breathes on them to revive them. Also the lion supposedly sleeps with the eyes open and can look straight into the sun without blinking. St. Mark, the Evangelist, is symbolized by a lion, and the emblem of Venice is the winged Lion of St. Mark. The lion also represents the constellation of the sun, as well as the sky which swallows the sun at night. In alchemy its symbolism is that of the philosopher's fire, the original substance of sulphur, as in the red lion, whereas the green lion is associated with vitriol, which in alchemy is the symbol of the union between low and high. The goddesses Cybele, Artemis, and Fortuna are traditionally represented with a lioness by their side. In the Mithraic mysteries, initiates were often called "lions" and "lionesses", Mithra being the "Invincible Sun" God.

The metamorphosis of Ariel occurs in flight, the winged lioness chasing dawn across the sky lands and becomes Ariel, the horse galloping over furrows that split and pass. The lioness is sister to the brown arc of the neck that she, Ariel the rider, Fortuna, and poet at one with the lioness, cannot catch. So what is this horse? Poseidon-Neptune, the god of horses, who created the horse to mimic the movement of the sea on land. Cybele, the horse-headed goddess, with the lioness by her side. Blood? The ancient sacrifices of the horse to Apollo, the divine charioteer of the Sun. The Bestiary of Christ, by Louis Charbonneau-Lassay, notes that "In Gallic mythology, horse and rider were joined as a huge snake-tailed monster symbolizing the earth, carrying the sky on its shoulders." It is significant that the horse she rides is not white, and therefore is not the horse of the Apocalypse. It is brown, or russet, hence the connection with blood, for in Christian symbolism, Christ in red rides a russet horse stained with His blood. Both the horse and the arrow in the scriptures symbolize the Word, the horse especially being emblematic of speed and carrier of the Divine Word. And if this horse be considered a winged horse, in Roman Christianity it can be seen how "the Sun-god becomes Christ who lifts himself form the earth with the sun's glory." (The Bestiary of Christ).

See above quote from "Years", where "The blood berries are themselves, are very still." What are these berries? Caliban says to Prospero, bitterly, "You used to give me water with berries." Thistle, thorns, briars, and brambles are symbols of the Passion of Christ. The bramble is the blackberry bush. The crown of thorns which Christ was crowned with before the Crucifixion, as the traditional symbol of the marytrdom. St. Catherine is often depicted with the stigmata and the crown of thorns which she received from Christ.
Galloping through the forest, the blackberry bush casts dark hooks, its berries crushed in mouthfulls, black sweet blood mouthfuls. Hooks are frequent images that Plath uses in the oddest contexts, in "Tulips": "My husband and child smiling out of the family photo; / Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks." In "Elm": "I am inhabited by a cry. / Nightly it flaps out / Looking, with its hooks, for something to love." In "Berck-Plage": "I am not a smile. / These children are after something, with hooks and cries." Though the first example is the best one, smiles like hooks that catch onto her skin. Blackberries and bramble catch onto her skin as well.

It's a life and death kind of race, and everything is moving very fast. Ariel and Sylvia move from nigger-eye berries to black sweet blood mouthfuls in the twinkling of an eye, and this blackness brings to mind shadows that haul the rider through the air. There is this incredible sense of motion, vigor, crisis. Sylvia is Ariel, the spirit of the lioness metamorphosed into horse, and she carries herself suddenly visible against the shadows and something else that hauls her. And finally she sees herself against the nigger-berries as something white. And what are these flakes from her heels, God only knows. The flakes and heels probably merely serve to bring her to the rhyme, unpeel, which in turn triggers this Godiva image through whom she begins her final deconstructive trajectory.

This brings to mind the following image from "Lady Lazarus": "They had to call and call / And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls."

These four lines are syntactically the most loaded and charged of the whole poem. Her metamorphosis which began with the spirit emerging as lioness, horse, rider as Lady Godiva, now endures a deconstruction of her personas as she unpeels and becomes pure motion. Her syntax contracts wildly and irreglarly: I / foam to wheat.
Is foam a verb or noun? It is both, the noun becomes the verb, which is an intransitive one. Plath frequently made use of such poetic license.
As per Anna Glazova, from foam to wheat is from Aphrodite to Eve, the glitter of seas, Mariam, as translated in the middle ages, is the star of the seas. Mary and Mariam, as the Virgin Mary is the protectress of sailors. The child's cry melting in the wall is the cry of Jesus at the wall of Jerusalem.
And this is it, the grand finale, the final strip tease, she is turning into foam, wheat, a glitter of seas, her ear deaf to the child's cry that melts in the wall. An eerie premonition of what indeed does happen when she chooses to take her life during one of the coldest English winters of the century.

Plath's Ariel finds her final transformation in dew. The dew from the still-vexed Bermuda. Dew clearly had some magical properties in Elizabethan times. Caliban, the deformed son of the local witch, Sycorax, upon seeing Prospero, curses him as follows: "As wicked dew as e'er my mother brush'd / with raven's feather from unwholesome fen, / Drop on you both! A south-west blow on ye, / And blister you all o'er." And Ariel when pressed by Prospero concerning the whereabouts of the ship, replies:

Dew is also alluded to in the dialogue between Ceres and Iris, with reference to Juno. Here again there is the connection with wheat, "from foam to wheat," Ceres being the goddess of agriculture, cerealis being the Latin for grain. "Who, with thy saffron wings, upon my flowers / Diffusest honey drops, refreshing showers."
The foam, wheat, glitter of seas now turned arrow as evaporation occurs and the sun rises, that red eye, the cauldron of morning into which Ariel flies dew-like and suicidal, at one with the drive. Motion and that which moves become one as she rests her head in the oven and turns the gas on, into the red eye. Her children's cries melt into the walls.
Ariel, sea-nymph, shape-shifter, androgynous spirit, and pure whimsical energy, going, going, gone. Becoming the magical dew, an alchemical union of the elements. Then to the elements, as Prospero said, promising to release her.
Shakespeare's Ariel's last words:

According to Leslie Fielder, "Literature, properly speaking, can be said to come into existence at the moment a Signature is imposed upon the Archetype. The purely archetypal, without signature elements, is the myth." Sylvia Plath took her life on 11 February 1963. The inscription on her tombstone, which had been desecrated and vandalized by feminists confusing Signature with myth, read: "EVEN AMIDST FIERCE FLAMES THE GOLDEN LOTUS CAN BE PLANTED," from the Bhagvad Gita. May Sylvia Plath now rest in anonymous peace, in the land and spirit of Ariel, "under the blossom that hangs on the bough."