They taste the spring: A review of Ariel
(the restored edition)
Sylvia Plath has been dead for 41 years; a number which will only grow. Her literary importance is often in fierce competition to her biographical magnetism. Which is more important: her works or her biography? One always seems to be over-shadowing the other and I would not admire either the judge or the jury in this ruling.
The publication history of Sylvia Plath is another aspect to her that rouses discussion, examination, and passion. When Arielwas published in 1965 (UK) and 1966 (US) critical acclaim was immediate and lasting. The US edition even featured a Foreword by Robert Lowell, the pre-eminent American poet of the time and former mentor of Plath’s. Lowell and Plath, as it widely known, were both McLean Hospital graduates. I have always found it puzzling why the US edition has a Foreword and the UK does not.
After Ariel, Hughes published two further collections of verse by Plath, both in 1971. These transitional poems (Crossing the Water) and late poems (Winter Trees) presented readers with a very wide variety in poetic style and maturity. Depending on which side of the Atlantic one lived on, these collections featured very different table of contents. However, very few knew that Hughes kept a deep, dark publication secret! But, in Plath’s Collected Poems, published in 1981, the secret was out. Way in the back of that book, Hughes listed Plath’s intended order of poems for her own assembled collection Ariel. The changes were interesting: not only were many poems omitted, but the poems were re-ordered. There was a large public outcry of confusion, contempt, and much more. It was soon thought that the entire meaning of Ariel not, in fact, dour, but that her order of poems explicitly lead to, through and from a kind of living hell to re-birth. The first line of the collection in “Morning Song” remained the same: “Love set you going like a fat gold watch.” It is a grand statement, it is loaded. It gives the impression of setting out for a journey. In this case, the journey turns out to be tumultuous; love and death become mangled as if in the twisted wreckage of a train crash. However, it is that same love that was set going that survives. The last line of Plath’s arrangement of poems was from “Wintering”, the wonderful conclusion to her five poem symphony on bees: “The bees are flying. They taste the spring.”
The reins on the Estate of Sylvia Plath have historically been kept very tight. Consistency is something to be given credit for, no matter how discouraging and frustrating. Just before the death of Ted Hughes, the reins were loosened slightly. He published Birthday Letters mere months before his passing. He also unsealed several of Plath’s private journals which were to be included in a new, unabridged edition of journals released in 2000. This marked the first time her journals were available in the UK. Control of the Estate was also delegated to their children Frieda and Nicholas Hughes; obvious choices.
Plath scholar Lynda K Bundtzen published The Other Ariel in 2001; a book critical of Plathís intended order and more critical over the edition in print. In early 2004 word got out that Arielwas going to be re-published in the order of Plath’s arrangement; and what was more, there would be a Foreword by Frieda Hughes. (Why Ariel, no matter what the assemblage, must always have a Foreword is a good question.) The book was set to include her complete facsimiles of Plath’s final draft of the book and the complete working drafts of the title poem.
Ariel was one of the most important poetry collections of the 20th century and will no doubt make a grand mark on the 21st as well. This new edition has several things working to its advantage, to start; the introduction by Ms. Hughes is phenomenal. Although she was only two years old when her mother’s “Ariel” voice emerged, Frieda was perhaps one of the only witnesses to their genesis. She also lived through the demise of her parents’ marriage, and remembers the “encouragement” of Aurelia Plath to boot Ted out of the house for his adultery.
There are moments of brilliance throughout the Foreword; as well as moments of the firmness for which the Hughes’s and the Estate of Sylvia Plath are now infamous. Ms. Hughes discusses the very taboo subject of her father’s infidelity. She does so with grace and candor. It is clear throughout that she is trying to reclaim her mother and her father. One cannot blame Ms. Hughes at all for wanting what few memories she has of her mother to remain private. One cannot blame her as well for the even fewer memories of her parents together. Sylvia Plath’s life and death, however tragic and unfortunate, are now part of the public.
Writers and artists know that once their work is in print it belongs as much to the reader as it does the creator. Good writers publish not only to make money but to communicate; to breathe life into other people. Sylvia Plath’s last breath continues today by way of her writing. She is surrounded by a suffocating, needy, and greedy public. The tighter the controls over her archives the more people are drawn into the battle. The “peanut-crunching crowd” is both the hand that feeds and the hand that chokes. What Frieda and the Plath Estate are protesting, and rightly so, is that Plath’s status as a cult figure has reached the point of an epidemic. Drug manufacturers are easily beating the Estate in profits. I’d be defensive, too. Perhaps books should be graded in a similar manner to music and movies: Plath would have been the poetic pioneer of NC-17.
The restored edition of Ariel is comprised of six units: three parts, two appendices, and a notes section. The first section of the book consists of the poetry collection Ariel and other poems. The second section is the same, but more interesting: facsimiles of Plath’s own typed pages with many hand-written corrections. These are mostly punctuation corrections, but they are fascinating to see and to study. Part III of prints facsimile copies of Ariel in its entirety. For any reader not lucky enough to have visited the Plath archive at Smith College, this will give a decent taste of what the archive holds. It is possible to see ideas started, stopped, and dropped as well as her creative process of creating a complete poem.
Appendix I is the poem “The Swarm” which was originally included in Plath’s table of contents; but she left it in parenthesis which indicated her uncertainty over whether or not it was to be included. “The Swarm” is printed twice: once neatly typed and the other is a facsimile of Plath’s final draft. Appendix II contains notes made about poems Plath was planning to read at the BBC. These are very interesting and it shows that Plath took herself very seriously, but not too seriously. Her introduction to “Daddy” is brilliantly telling and concludes, “she has to act out the awful little allegory once before she is free of it.” The book ends with a notes section imparting all the minor differences made to the text of the poems. These are mostly punctuation changes; however, each can change the flow of a line, a stanza and the poem as a whole. There is at least one gem where a word was changed from “He” to “They” (“Lesbos”).
Sylvia Plath will continue to captivate our creative sides and express our emotions. Ariel: The Restored Edition will be like its predecessor: the collection of poetry by which all others are judged.
Peter K Steinberg
Winthrop Ma , USA
Friday, October 8, 2004