I'm A.J. Benza. Welcome to Mysteries & Scandals.Tonight we will take a look at the connection between poet Sylvia Plath and The Tempest. The Virtual O: ain't it a bitch?
Sylvia Plath & The Tempest
One of Sylvia Plath's most triumphant works is a poem called "Ariel," written on the authors birthday, October 27th, 1962.
When Sylvia Plath was eleven years old, her mother took her and her brother to see a production of The Tempest. It was the first play that Plath had seen. After reading several versions of the play, Plath was eager and excited to see the production. She was not disappointed. For the rest of her life Plath would remember certain speeches, characters, and lines from the play. One this night she first saw the airy spirit Ariel, She marveled at the supernatural workings of Prospero. And she heard a poem whose subject rang chillingly close to her. About the death of a father, "Ariel's Song" reads:
Full Fathom Five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell.
In The Tempest, on an otherworldly island where magic and deceit are commonplace, Prospero is master to the airy creature named Ariel. Ariel is indentured to Prospero, because in the past Prospero freed Ariel from the evil witch Sycorax's terrible curse, which had trapped him in a tree for twelve years.
Though she surely knew the connotations of the name, the Ariel in Plath's poem is a horse (Plath's own horse was named Ariel after Shakespeare's character). In "Ariel," the persona, and the reader, is on a ride into the unknown, into a world that may be natural or spirit, real or imaginary, physical or emotional. The literary connections with the name Ariel, however, leads us directly to the metaphysical. Small and slight, gendered both sexes and neither, Ariel is the all-knowing--and achieving--spirit any writer would wish to be. Particularly a woman writer. Although the name Ariel sounds feminine, at least in contrast to the adversarial Caliban, it is not womanly. Ariel is the best of the spirit world, the best of imaginative power.
In the gendered narrative of The Tempest, the shaman Prospero, thinking he has been able to protect his innocent daughter Miranda, finally breaks his staff and rids himself of his magical powers. As he does this, he frees Ariel from his control. With close attention to the way the shaman can relinquish his magic powers, Plath may be suggesting that the self-styled shaman in her life, her controlling husband, no longer has power over her creative spirit, the Ariel in Plath.
Shakespeare describes Ariel, through Prospero's words as "a spirit too delicate/To act her earthly and abhorred commands." Set in direct sympathetic contrast to other characters in the play, Ariel is an unrelieved power of freedom and good throughout the play. When he first appears in Act I, Scene 2 of the play, Ariel aligns himself with the elements that are presented in Plath's poem as well: "All hail great master! Grave sir, hail! I come to answer they best pleasure, be't to fly, to swim, to dive into the fire, to ride on the curled clouds..." The images in this speech are so succinctly given that Ariel's words are a near-abstraction for the patterns that appear in Plath's poem. And, when one relates Ariel's imprisonment in a tree the "White godiva, I unpeel" image in Plath's poem, even that takes on a richer suggestion.
In Act 1,Scene 2, when Ariel first speaks, he has just followed a command of Prospero's--to bring the ship carrying Prospero's brother to land. Ariel does this by using fire. The paradox becomes that none of the passengers were harmed, that Ariel's use of fire is a gentle means of attaining what is best for the human beings involved. In Prospero's farewell speech to Ariel (V.I) Prospero charges Ariel with securing for the ship at his taking off: "calm seas, auspicious gales, And sail so expeditious that shall catch your royal feet far off." The paradox inherent in "auspicious gales" is echoed in Plath's use of fire and driven motion as positive forces.
Finally, to Ariel, Prospero adds as a farewell: "My Ariel, chick. This is thy charge. Then to the elements be free, and fare thou well!" The greatest blessing of all, freedom, particularly after a dozen years of jailed within a tree. Plath's vibrant use of the free flying image at the close of "Ariel" suggests the same theme, "I/Am the arrow,//The dew that flies/Suicidal, at once with the drive/Into the red//Eye, the cauldron of morning." Plath's drive to motion, that sheer impact of energy and force, beyond "Dead hands, dead stringencies," is the power behind "Ariel" and Ariel.
Research from Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath by Paul Alexander
Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life by Linda Wagner
Concerning Poetry by Linda Wagner