When I think of most poets, I think of individual poems. Say Auden and I think: ‘As I Walked out one Evening’, for Larkin ‘Aubade’, for Bishop ‘One Art’. I honestly couldn’t name which individual collections any of these poems were in. Say Sylvia Plath though and I, like most people, would immediately think: Ariel.
It’s hard to name another collection so synonymous with its writer – so much so that, for many readers, reading Sylvia Plath simply means reading Ariel. It is the ‘distinctive Ariel Voice’ as daughter Frieda Hughes describes it, which made Plath internationally famous.
It’s a collection I first read as a teenager, and I don’t think it’s too dramatic to say it’s the reason I became a poet. It’s also one steeped in mythology: we have all imagined her looking after two small children in the wake of her separation from Ted Hughes, writing at what Plath described (in her recording for the BBC) as ‘about four in the morning – that still, blue, almost eternal hour before cockcrow, before the baby’s cry, before the glassy music of the milkman, settling his bottles.’ She wrote with such intensity that in October 1962 she produced twenty five poems. And then there is that London flat, during the coldest winter on record, her head in the oven and the fact that – when they found her – she had left a black binder on her desk containing a manuscript tentatively called Ariel and Other Poems.
So, Ariel has often been seen as not so much a collection as the world’s most articulate suicide note. But the more you look at the publication history of Ariel the more complicated it gets. Because actually, of the 40 poems in the manuscript, on its UK publication Ted Hughes left out 13. These omissions, once revealed, made the text a battleground for feminism, as they believed Hughes was censoring Plath’s true vision and protecting himself. As the names of some of the omitted poems suggest – ‘The Jailor’, ‘The Rabbit Catcher’, ‘Purdah’ – there is a case that he was involved in self-protection. But he was also, certainly, trying to protect other people – perhaps the most radical omission, for me, was one of her finest poems, the magnificently bitchy ‘Lesbos’, because he thought it would offend neighbours in Cornwall.
And then there are the poems he did leave in (he gave the excuse that it was because they had already been published in magazines) such as the truly nasty ‘Medusa’, full of disgust for her mother, which must have deeply wounded Aurelia Plath, or ‘Daddy’ which is deeply problematic in its appropriation of the Jewish experience in Nazi Germany. Ariel raises all sorts of interesting questions about art and morality. Who do we have the right to write about? Can art ever be worth more than people’s feelings? When is censorship acceptable?
Then there are also the poems that Hughes added in. Reading Ariel against Faber’s recent Ariel: The Restored Edition (which contains the original manuscript) he undoubtedly made the book much stronger. But he also completely changed its narrative. Famously meant to begin with the word ‘Love’ and end with ‘Spring’, the original Ariel is clearly the story of the breakdown of a marriage that ends with a bee poem – ‘Wintering’ – about female empowerment and recovery:
The bees are all women,
Maids and the long royal lady.
They have got rid of the men,
The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors.
In Hughes’ edit, with most of the marriage breakdown poems removed, so is the explicit trigger for the mood of darkness and rage. The book reads more as an account of clinical depression, an effect enhanced by the inclusion of four poems from her last two weeks of life at the end of the collection, most particularly ‘Edge’, which concludes the book:
The woman is perfected.
Body wears the smile of accomplishment.
This is what the speaker wanted the whole time, it seems to say. Ironically, despite his claim that some of the changes he made to Ariel were to protect his children, there is an argument that it was actually Hughes who turned Ariel into a suicide note – the kind of manuscript you would expect to find on a dead woman’s desk, ending with the drag of blackness, not a dream of survival.
So: mythmaking, editing, ordering, sex wars, bitchiness, bees and baby’s cries. Lots to talk about, and I am looking forward to wrestling with this conflicted, complicated, confessional book with all of you.
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