The Self and the Natural World in Sylvia Plath’s Ariel
by Daniel E. Blackston
The Self and the Natural World in Sylvia Plath’s Ariel by Daniel E. Blackston The poetry of Sylvia Plath describes an encounter between the self and the natural world. To be more precise, Sylvia Plath’s poetry, particularly the poems of her last published collection, Ariel, illustrates an encounter with the self as the natural world. Plath’s urge in her later poetry is to strip away the world of the ego and find a mode of consciousness and emotional response that lies beyond the everyday world of society and human culture.
Plath articulates, in the poems of Ariel, a vision of the natural world as a transformational medium, with death as its accelerant and guide. It is necessary, in Plath’s view of nature, for the ordinary idea of the self to die if a more complete and lasting view of nature and the self is to be gained. The fact that Plath committed suicide shortly after the completion of the Ariel poems suggests that, to some degree, the poems are a record of losing one’s self-identity in the cast landscape of nature. On the other hand, the power and creative genius of the poems suggests that, rather than losing herself in nature, Plath grew successfully beyond her ego mind and was able to catch a glimpse of a higher consciousness.
The first way this higher order of consciousness and its connection to the natural world is evident in Ariel is by the extraordinary consistency in the way that Plath refers to the natural world from poem to poem. This impulse expresses a greater unity of thought than is evident in Plath’s expression of her ego mind or everyday self. The poems that make up Ariel were written very quickly, suggesting that there was a cathartic purpose for Plath in writing them. The poems describe a personal transformation.
Rosenblatt states: "It is clear from this chronology that Plath completed the late poems with incredible rapidity...there is a high degree of consistency in thematic and imagistic… particularly in the representation of nature and in the use of natural images."1 Plath’s use of natural imagery is her symbolic vocabulary for expressing her personal transformation. This transformation is painful, strange, and based on a willing acceptance of death.
The key to understanding Plath’s use of natural imagery in the Ariel poems is to view the poems as intense expressions of identification with the natural landscape. Rosenblatt asserts that Plath’s “handling of landscapes and seascapes indicates that she intensified her identification with external objects and scenes in order to use them as immediate symbols or correlatives of mental states."2 For Plath, these mental states do not end at the personality or the individual mind. In some mystical way, the natural landscapes indicates mental states and even emotional responses that lie beyond the personal, social, and rational limits that make up everyday life.
Such a viewpoint is shown very clearly in the title poem “Ariel.” This poem is an overt anthem of the death of the self – and its rebirth. Pamela J. Annas suggests that where once Plath’s references to nature had been “animistic,” Plath’s portrayal of nature in the Ariel poems becomes a description of Plath’s longing for a consciousness and being outside of the everyday self. Annas notes that “Rather than a projection of self outward, she begins to feel trapped inside the self."3 The poem “Ariel” is an imaginative description of some aspect of the poet’s consciousness that breaks through this trap of the self and rides beyond the mundane world of motherhood and true natural landscapes, to a surreal landscape of galloping hooves, hills like waves, and blackberry patches with watching eyes.
The poet is: “Suicidal / at one with the drive/ Into the red/Eye, the cauldron of morning.” 4 This imagery shows that nature is both the means and target of transformation. To reach this change, however, the poet must die. To make matters worse, the poet must initiate their own death.
A similar vision is shown in the poem, “Elm.” In this poem, Plath inverts the typical objectification of nature by humans to objectify herself. As Rosenblatt states, “The speaker is the elm tree…Nature looks at us as we look at nature. The equivalence between tree and woman asserts a crucial identity among all living things in the universe.” 5 There is a life beyond the ego life of the ordinary world, and it is precisely this ego vision of the world that prevents the other world, a deeper, more primal world of nature and imagination, from being known.
In the poem “The Moon and the Yew Tree” Plath draws the connection between nature and consciousness very clearly. She writes “This is the light of the mind / Cold and planetary.” 6 Rosenblatt states that “Almost all of Plath's poems demonstrate the initial metaphorical transformation of the environment into the world of death.”7 If there is a mind after death, the question is whether Plath intends us to understand this life as metaphorical or literal. In fact, the answer seems to be: both. The end of “The Moon and the Yew Tree” states that the message is “blackness and silence”8 which suggests death and obliteration.
However, this idea is betrayed by the fact that the yew tree has any message at all. The mystical world of nature in the Ariel poems offers a world where nature reflects a kind of universal mind, and speaks of this state of being through symbols and metaphors. It is a ritualistic world. A primitive world of images, correspondences, and transformation. In the poem “Poppies in October,” for example, Plath describes a conflict between the world of the ordinary mind and the world of the deeper mind of nature – both of which are available to the poet.
In “Lady Lazarus," Plath describes a suicidal rebirth into a primitive and powerful woman who seems to embody the post-social animistic power of nature. Rosenblatt notes that, in this poem, “ For Plath death is a kind of spirit or god that incarnates in the objects and forms of the world.”9 By the end of the poem, Plath has transformed from victim to Goddess. She has survived the death of “things” and “people” to embody the mind of nature.
In this sense, a poem like “Lady Lazarus” that, at first glance, appears tortured and despairing, is actually a statement of victory. As Rosenblatt states, the Ariel poems show nature as a universal mind where “All organic life appears to Plath to live and die aware of its suffering and conscious of the violence or victimization that is part of nature."10 Hidden behind that violence is a mystical transformation that leads to awareness of a deeper mind – the mind of nature.