Connecting Words in Plath’s Ariel: A Concatenation of Rainbows by Julia Gordon-Bramer
Every serious poet eventually faces the daunting task of assembling a collection of work. Some group their work by theme, some by feeling. What does it take to assemble the perfect book of poetry? To create a flow and cohesive feeling for the reader? How does one tell a story that lifts the reader from one place to the other on a seamless, breathless ride through 40 poems? Sylvia Plath knew.
In my book, Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath, vol. one (2014, Stephen F. Austin State University Press), I introduce Plath’s organizational system of aligning her poems in Ariel: The Restored Edition (2004, HarperCollins) with the tarot and Qabalah. In the introduction of my forthcoming FSGL volume two, I’ll discuss another poetic technique in Plath’s arsenal: Connecting one poem to the next through shared words and images.
Want to see for yourself? Grab your copy of Ariel and come along for the ride.
Love, Mirror, Sea, Gold
The first Ariel poem, “Morning Song”, shares the words love, mirror, sea, and gold with the next poem, “The Couriers”. It is the grand set-up of images of the primordial source, borne from love, and moving into alchemical creation and a human reflection of an infinite power. The “fat gold watch”, “round”, and even “slow/Effacement” (relating to the cervix) of “Morning Song” (Plath, 5) ease the reader into “The Couriers”, with its image of “A ring of gold with the sun in it” (Plath, 6).
“The Couriers” connects with the next poem, “The Rabbit Catcher”, using that same word ring and its strong image in both poems. In FSGL, “The Couriers” relates to the Magician tarot card and corresponding golden rings, performing rings, mechanized rings and wedding rings.
White, Thing, Absence
The “The Rabbit Catcher” is a poem FSGL decodes as being largely about the African-American slave experience. Interestingly, it connects to the following poem, “Thalidomide”, with the words white, thing and absence. The two also share disconcerting images of being lopped off, dropped, unreeling, and sliding.
“Thalidomide” unites to the next poem, “The Applicant”, through the word (and idea of) image. In “Thalidomide”, we see “The image” (Plath, 10), and in “The Applicant”, “You have an eye, it’s an image” (Plath, 12).
“The Applicant” connects words from its tenth line, “Empty? Empty” (Plath, 11), to the following poem, “Barren Woman” in its first word of the first line, “Empty”.
Blank-faced and Public
“Barren Woman” sets up the next poem through the idea of being blank-faced. Plath writes “Blank-faced and mum as a nurse” in “Barren Woman” (Plath, 13). In the following work, “Lady Lazarus”, we see, “My face a featureless” (Plath, 14). FSGL interprets “Lady Lazarus” to be in great part about The Statue of Liberty, a.k.a. Isis or Lucifer, with Emma Lazarus’ poem at its base. “Barren Woman” introduces Ms. Lucifer, mentioned in “Lady Lazarus” as “Herr Lucifer” (Plath, 17), as “Mother of a white Nike”; and her “great public”… “injure me with attentions”, sounding very much like the following poem’s “peanut-crunching crowd” (Plath, 15). Like the statues of Justice, featuring the virginal goddess Athena balancing the scales, the similarly Romanesque Lady Liberty is “Nun-hearted and blind”.
Red, Heart, Eye, and Unwrapped
The next poem, “Tulips”, reaches back to “Barren Woman” to refresh the Nun word and its image. “Tulips” also directly shares the words red, heart, and eye from its predecessor, “Lady Lazarus”. With “Lady Lazarus”, “Tulips” contains the similar images of having no face, unwrapping, surgeons, and managing one’s own body. “Lady Lazarus” reads: “Peel off the napkin”; she has a Mengele-ish surgeon, “Herr Doktor”; and the entire poem rises above the power of men by its final line (Plath, 14-17). Comparatively, in “Tulips”, Plath again has no face in the seventh stanza; she has given up her “day-clothes” and her “body to surgeons” in the first stanza; she is “Scared and bare” in the fourth stanza, versus the tulips wrapped in “white swaddlings” of paper in the sixth.
“Tulips” leans into “A Secret” with the connecting word hurt, seen in the first poem’s “they hurt me” (Plath, 19), and the latter’s “It won’t hurt” (Plath, 21). The word African is present in both poems, with an “African cat” in “Tulips” and an “African giraffe” in “A Secret”.
In “A Secret”, Plath writes “To lever the dirt” (Plath, 21). In the following poem, “The Jailor”, she is “Lever of his wet dreams” (Plath, 23).
The word gone from “Something is gone” (Plath, 23) strings “The Jailor” together with “Cut”, where she writes “The top quite gone” (Plath, 25), as well as shared images of torture and a saboteur.
White, Red, Heart, and Radical Surgery
“Cut” and the next poem, “Elm”, share the words white, red, and heart, as well as the idea of “radical surgery” (Plath, 28).
*Assia Weevil, Ted Hughes’ mistress
The “irretrievables” seen in the twelfth triplet of “Elm” are “Irretrievable!” in the first stanza of the next poem, “The Night Dances”.
Smile, Gardens, Emptiness, and Hanging in Space
The fallen smile in the first stanza of “The Night Dances” belongs to the moon in the following poem, “The Detective”. The two poems share connecting images of gardens, with the lilies of “The Night Dances” and the garden in “The Detective”; being “emptied of beauties” in “The Night Dances”, and images of emptiness in “The Detective” including a house without a body, vaporization, dryness and death. FSGL aligns “The Night Dances” with the Hanged Man card, and this poem has many correspondences of being hung. In “The Detective” we see “hung out like brown fruit”; there is walking on air or through space in “The Night Dances” with “Have such a space to cross”, and “Through the black amnesias of heaven”. Meanwhile, in “The Detective” we see: “We walk on air, Watson.”
The furrow in “The Detective” is red in the first stanza and brown in the last. A furrow appears again in the second stanza of the next poem, “Ariel”. Both poems also clearly share the idea of death.
Glitter and Dew
The “glitter of seas” and “dew that flies” in the title poem “Ariel” (Plath, 33-34) are seen again in the following poem, “Death & Co.” with “Masturbating a glitter” and “The dew makes a star” (Plath, 35-36). That word star next links “Death & Co.” with its successor, “Magi”.
Stars, Girls and Air
“Magi” mentions girl in the last line, “What girl” (Plath, 37), and the word turns up again in the next poem, “Lesbos” with “The bastard’s a girl” and “You say I should drown my girl” (Plath, 38-40). The word air is also shared, with “into thin air” in “Magi”, and “we should meet in air” in “Lesbos”.
Moon, Lightning, and Sick
“Lesbos” shares the connecting words moon (“That night the moon”), lightning (“An old pole for the lightning”), and sick (“Dragged its blood bag, sick”) with “The Other”, which has its complementary lines: “O moon-glow, o sick one”, and “Smilingly, blue lightning” (Plath, 41).
Cold, Sun, Cry
The word cold unites “The Other” with its “Cold glass” (Plath, 42) to her next poem, “Stopped Dead”, and its “And you out cold” (Plath, 43). The “sunset” mentioned twice in “Stopped Dead” becomes “sun-clouds” in the following, “Poppies in October”; and the “birth cry” of “Stopped Dead” connects to “mouths that cry open” in “Poppies in October” (Plath, 44). There is also a reconnection to the end of “Tulips”, recollecting the “heart: it opens and closes / Its bowl of red blooms” in the hospital setting (Plath, 20), and now, in “Poppies in October”, there is the “woman in the ambulance / Whose red heart blooms”.
A Sky, Eyes
The words “a sky”, from the second stanza of “Poppies in October”, are repeated in the next poem, “The Courage of Shutting-Up” in the first stanza’s “the outrage of a sky” (Plath, 45). The word eyes in the third stanza of “Poppies in October” is mentioned four separate times in the sixth stanza of “The Courage of Shutting-Up”.
“Nick and the Candlestick” shares the words blue and terrible with its preceding poem, “The Courage of Shutting-Up”, which has “blue grievances” and “terrible rooms”. Both poems share an image of deadness: in the former poem’s fifth stanza’s rabbits, sixth stanza’s man, and seventh’s “death ray” (Plath, 46). In “Nick and the Candlestick” we see “The light burns blue”; “Into the terrible well”; and “dead boredom” (Plath, 47-48). The subject of pain is also all through “The Courage of Shutting-Up”, and appears again in “The pain”, seen in the tenth triplet of “Nick and the Candlestick”.
Black and Yellow, Well, Candle, Old and Blood
“Nick and the Candlestick” connects with Plath’s long poem “Berck-Plage” directly through the colors black and yellow; the words well, candle, old, and blood; and through similar-sounding words such as plums/plummet and plumbs (Plath, 49-55). There are loads of shared images too: The “holy Joes” of “Nick and the Candlestick” is the priest of “Berck-Plage”; there are ideas of two and other pairings (“Berck-Plage” is also written entirely in couplets); pain; toes, the foot, and being toeless; the ruby and valuable stones; birth and death. “Berck-Plage” additionally hearkens back to images from “The Courage of Shutting-Up” with engraving in silver and “marvelous” (both are in the ninth couplet of “Berck-Plage”, part four), “tongue” (part five, couplet five), and a wormy sky (part six, seventh couplet).
Body, Cloud, Glass, Back, Lips and Toes
“Berck-Plage” unites to Plath’s “Gulliver” with a series of words representing the featureless and invisible, a body lying on its back, and being frozen in a coffin, bunker, or cabinet. Shared words are body, cloud/clouds, glasses/glass, backs/back, lips/lip, and toeless/toe.
Body, Step, and Bribes
“Gulliver” connects to “Getting There” with the words body, step, and bribes/bribery. Additionally, the two poems share the similar “Winding and twining” (Plath, 56) and “Turning and turning” (Plath, 58); silks and veils; distances, destinations and miles. The moving wheels, terrible brains, revolving muzzles, cannon, and silver leash of “Getting There” once again revisit “The Courage of Shutting-Up”.
Gods, Red, Dragging, Breathing, Touching, Steaming, Dead
“Fixed to their arcs like gods”, from “Getting There” (Plath, 57), feeds into the next poem, “Medusa”, and its “God-ball” (Plath, 60). Both poems share the words and actions of dragging, breathing/breath, touching, steaming/steamed and dead. Also, “Getting There” is a train station and “Medusa” features a “point of departure”.
“Medusa” precedes “Purdah”, its “stony” to Purdah’s “stone” (Plath, 62). Both poems also share the word green. “Purdah” may be Plath’s refresher course for Ariel, taking a trip through imagery in almost all the poems so far, reaching as far back as “The Couriers”, with its mirrors. The word valuable in “Purdah” hearkens to “Nick and the Candlestick”; bridegroom revisits “Berck-Plage”; silk revisits “Gulliver”; and veil was seen in “Getting There”. Many other familiar words and images appear from previous poems, such as revolve (“The Courage of Shutting-Up”), lip (“Berck-Plage” and “Gulliver”), the doll of “The Applicant” and the lioness of “Ariel”.
“Purdah” has the repetitive word unloose, much like Plath’s unpeel in the title poem, “Ariel”. The un, of course, is redundant. After all, Plath might have said merely loose or loosen, in the same way she might have said peel in “Ariel”. Unloose shows up again in the next poem, “The Moon and the Yew Tree” with “Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls” (Plath, 65). “Purdah” also has a repetition of O in “O chatterers”, seen in the last line of the twelfth triplet, complemented by the following triplets and their last line O beginnings: “One feather”, “One note”, and “Of air”. “The Moon and the Yew Tree” following has the “O-gape of complete despair”.
“The Moon and the Yew Tree” joins the next poem, “A Birthday Present”, through the word cold and the images of cloud-mists and sky. It also reaches back to the image of veils and a shriek from “Purdah”, and the “O adding machine” of “A Birthday Present” carries on the O theme.
The next poem, “Letter in November”, joins its predecessor “A Birthday Present”, through the word million. “A Birthday Present” has “the million / Probable motes” (Plath, 67), aligning with “Their million / Gold leaves” in “Letter In November”. “Letter in November” also shares green and grasses with “The Moon and the Yew Tree”, and reaches back to “Purdah” with silk. There are more O’s in “Letter in November” too, seen in: “O love, O celibate” (Plath, 70).
“Letter in November” and its “Squelching and squelching through the beautiful red” (Plath, 69) joins the next poem, “Amnesiac” and its “red-headed sister” (Plath, 71), with the devilish word red. Both poems share Greek mythological locations too: “Letter in November” references Thermopylae, the gate to Hades; Lethe, seen in “Amnesiac”, is the river of forgetfulness in Hades.
The O theme continues from “Amnesiac” into the “O-mouth” of “The Rival”. “Amnesiac” has “a beautiful blank” (Plath, 71) and “The Rival” is “White and blank” (Plath, 73).
White, Beautiful, Woman
“The Rival” reaches ahead to Plath’s next poem, the famous “Daddy”, with the words white, beautiful, and woman. A main connecting idea is that of Africa (the “black man”, villagers “dancing and stamping” and FSGL’s reference to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a theme of “Daddy”). The mausoleum of “The Rival” and the marble of “Daddy” might also be compared.
Back, Foot, Common
“Daddy” shares the words back/backed, foot/feet, and common with the next Ariel poem, “You’re”. There is also the connecting idea of travel between both poems.
Moon, Rise, Clean
“You’re” shares the words moon, riser/rise and clean with the next poem, “Fever 103°”. Additionally the “traveled prawn” of “You’re” (Plath, 77) is seen in “Fever 103°” to “trundle round the globe” (Plath, 78).
Chicken, Body, Scarves, Virgin, Roll, Smoke
“Fever 103°” has many connecting words with the next poem, “The Bee Meeting”: chicken, body, scarves, virgin, roll/rolls, and smokes/smoke. “The Bee Meeting” also reaches back to “Daddy” with villagers.
“The Bee Meeting” moves ahead, sharing the words clean and honey, outside of the obvious word bee, with “The Arrival of the Bee Box”. There are “the petticoats of the cherry” (Plath, 85), petticoats first being seen at the end of “Fever 103°” (Plath, 80). The “long white box” of “The Bee Meeting” is echoed in the “coffin” of “The Arrival of the Bee Box”, as well as other similar images between the two poems: children/baby; cells/grid; not being noticed, compared to Arrival’s “forget me” and “ignore me” (Plath, 84-85); and images of trees and grove.
Cherry, Sweet, Square
Beyond the ever-present image of the bees and honey in what has come to be known as the “Bee Poems”, Plath’s “Stings” joins with its predecessor, “The Arrival of the Bee Box” with the words cherry, sweet/sweetness, and square. Images shared with “The Arrival of the Bee Box” and “Stings” are colonnades and columns, and being in control. “Stings” returns to “The Bee Meeting” with the connecting words cell, hat, queen, and wax; and with the connecting image of being nude/bare. “Stings” also includes a mausoleum, seen first in “The Rival”.
White, Women, Nothing
The repetition of bees, honey and women continues across the last two poems in Ariel, “Stings”, and “Wintering”. “Stings” has “the man in white”, “ivory powders” and “white linen” (Plath, 86-88), as compared to “Wintering” with “all that white” and “snow is white” (Plath, 90). In “Stings”, a person “has nothing to do” (Plath, 87); in “Wintering” “there is nothing doing” (Plath, 89). The midwife image from “The Bee Meeting” resurfaces, as well as the word black from “The Arrival of the Bee Box”. The black mob and Latin seen in “The Arrival of the Bee Box” might be compared to the “in a mass, Black” (Plath, 90) from “Wintering”. There are continuing and connecting ideas of machinery, of being owned, and of keeping a female alive another year for the work.
By now, readers may see the parallels Plath makes with the slavery of African-Americans, which are strong sub-themes of the Bee Poems and will be explored in more detail in the forthcoming Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath, volume two.
Julia Gordon-Bramer is the author of Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath, vol. one (2014, Stephen F. Austin State University Press). She teaches graduate level Creative Writing at Lindenwood University in St. Louis. For more information see www.fixedstarsgovernalife.com
Plath, Sylvia. Ariel: The Restored Edition. Foreword by Frieda Hughes. HarperCollins, 2004.