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Ariel and Lady Godiva Sylvia Plath

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Ariel and Lady Godiva

Sylvia Plath describes a specific experience from riding her horse, Ariel, in this poem:

Stasis in darkness/ Then the substanceless blue/ Pour of tor and distances/ God’s lioness/ How one we grow/ Pivot of heels and knees! - The Furrow / Splits and passes, sister to/ The brown arc/ Of the neck I cannot catch/ Nigger-eye/ Berries cast dark/Hooks-/Black sweet blood mouthfuls,/Shadows./ Something else/ Hauls me through air - /Thighs, hair;/ Flakes from my heels./ White / Godiva, I unpeel - / Dead hands, dead stringencies/ And now I/ Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas./ The child’s cry/ Melts in the wall./ And I/ Am the arrow./ The dew that flies/ Suicidal, at one with the drive/Into the red/ Eye, the cauldron of morning.

Sylvia Plath utilizes allusions and light versus dark imagery throughout the poem to emulate the chaos and resolution of the rider’s power struggle with Ariel, arguing that when one gives up the need to have control and authority, one will gain an even greater amount of power from synergizing with others instead. Plath establishes a dark and passive mood in the beginning with words such as “stasis,” “substanceless”, and the phrase “pour of tor and distances,” which is a play on the word “torpor.” Suddenly, we feel action as the horse begins moving, with “god’s lioness.” Here, Plath is referencing the mane of the horse, but also the Hebrew meaning of “Ariel,” which is “lion of God.” She uses this allusion to characterize the horse as robust and indomitable. This is to make it clear that it is near impossible for the rider to ever acquire control over such a powerful horse. The horse has a “neck I cannot catch,” and “something else hauls me through the air,” showing the rider has no say in what is happening to her. Plath’s selective choice of words darkly paints the surroundings during this struggle, with the berries as “nigger-eye black sweet blood mouthfuls” and the mention of shadows. This is suddenly contrasted with the following allusion to the “white Godiva” when the rider abruptly decides to “unpeel - dead hands, dead stringencies,” and let the horse run its course. This sudden shift in lighting from dark to bright suggests that Plath is critiquing the earlier grasp for power by the rider and endorsing the new relationship; the rider has decided to stop fighting and let loose. Going back to the allusion itself, Lady Godiva was a rebellious woman who rode naked through the streets to avoid taxation. The rider, similar to Godiva, is now naked since she has stripped the dead hands and stringencies that once pulled her down. She is no longer struggling. This allusion thus puts the rider in a position of high power by comparing her with a courageous noblewoman and by showing that the rider has let go of all that used to anchor her down, allowing her to rise. This is supported when the rider chooses to ignore the cry of a child; the rider is no longer bound to her responsibilities as a female during that time, which was to take care of the family. More bright imagery pursues, as Plath describes the rider as “foam to wheat, a glitter of seas,” further communicating the idea that the rider has achieved a new kind of dynamism with the horse by cooperating with it. Plath concludes the poem with a powerful image of the rider and her horse as one entity, shooting into a “red eye,” which can be interpreted as the sunrise or possibly a bull’s eye. Both interpretations highlight the fact the horse and rider together have become an all-powerful force, whether they are riding together towards a new day with vigor or about to pierce through a bull’s eye. Plath’s juxtaposition of light and dark imagery, as well as the allusions throughout the poem are designed to expose the argument that by giving up one’s desire to obtain dominance and instead submitting to a stronger power, an even more commanding and potent force can be channelled through cooperation.

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