Rising from the Ashes: the Restored Ariel

Ariel: The Restored Edition by Sylvia Plath. HarperCollins. 240 pages. $24.95

As Reviewed By: Carol Bere

Sylvia Plath may have passed through the doors of B. Altman & Co., the elegant department store on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street in New York, during her stint as guest editor at Mademoiselle in June l953. The vestiges of the original entrance are still evident today, but the building is now home to the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where a reading of Ariel: The Restored Edition played to a sold-out house of 400 downstairs in the modern, no frills Proshansky Auditorium on November 30, 2004. Presented by the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Society of America, and HarperCollins, and co-sponsored by the Center for the Humanities at CUNY, the evening was billed as a celebration of the publication of the original manuscript of Ariel that Plath left behind when she died in February 1963.

Plath had led the way, suggesting in commentaries that the poems written after The Colossus were meant to be read aloud: “If they [the poems] have anything else in common, perhaps it is that they are written for the ear, not the eye; they are poems written out loud….” And for over two and a half hours, poets Frieda Hughes, the daughter of Plath and Ted Hughes, Frank Bidart, Jorie Graham, Kimiko Hahn, Richard Howard, Katha Pollitt, and critic Helen Vendler read the complete manuscript of the original Ariel, shifting in mood, tone, and emotional intensity from tender, sardonic, angry, questioning, somewhat mocking, defiant, and ultimately triumphant. Of particular note, Frieda Hughes persuasively read the first and last poems “Morning Song” and “Wintering” while Frank Bidart enthusiastically conveyed the snappiness and sarcasm of “The Applicant,” and somewhat surprisingly read “Daddy,” effectively reinforcing the poem’s almost compulsive rhyming qualities. Katha Pollitt captured some of the wit of Plath’s poetry, and the range of her sound effects or acoustics (particularly in her readings of “Lady Lazarus,” and “Nick and the Candlestick”), while Richard Howard shifted effectively from a quietly moving reading of “The Tulips” to a striking, perhaps ironic reading of “Medusa,” with its unrelenting and somewhat ambiguous concluding line: “You mean nothing to me.” And a little more than a third of the way through the reading, the audience heard the real deal, a recording of Plath reading “Ariel” with her characteristic New England accent-clipped lines, sharp metaphors, words emphatically delivered with precision. Here was the unique “Ariel voice.”

A celebration this was-of Plath’s life and, perhaps, a vindication of the importance of her original manuscript. The question is what The Restored Edition offers that was not already available in previous publications. And here some background is necessary. Plath’s drive to get her poetry published quickly has been well documented, but she had not sent the Ariel manuscript to potential publishers. At her death, the forty-one poems of the original Ariel manuscript collected in a spring binder, and, separately, the nineteen poems written probably after mid-November l962 were left on her desk. Edited by Ted Hughes, from whom she was separated, Ariel was published in the UK in March 1965, and in the US in June 1966, became one of the best selling collections of poetry of the 20th century, and quickly established the Plath legend. The US version, with Robert Lowell’s introduction (which included the often quoted lines, “these poems are playing Russian roulette with six cartridges in the cylinder”) and particularly smarmy feature articles such as “The Blood Jet is Poetry” (Time, June 10, 1966-which read Plath primarily as a suicidal poet, and traced the history of her “psychosis”) essentially provided the outline for some early interpretations of her work. A letter to Ted Hughes (October 8, 1966) included in the recently published Letters of Robert Lowell returns us to that time: Aware of the Time article, Hughes had evidently questioned the wisdom of publishing Ariel in the US, whether Sylvia’s suicide might “inspire” others. Lowell responded that he didn’t think anyone had been hurt by the publication and the article, adding that he wondered if his own introduction should have been “more impersonal,” but concluded that readers “would know at least as much as I let out.” Perhaps not.

Hughes’s edition of Ariel, however, “differed somewhat” from Plath’s manuscript: thirteen poems were cut from the UK edition, and twelve from the US version. The last poem written that Plath included in her collection was “Death & Co.” (mid-November l962), and her manuscript ended with the generally optimistic sequence of Bee poems. Hughes replaced some of the excised poems with a few earlier poems such as “The Hanging Man,” and “Little Fugue,” but primarily included poems written after November l962, ending the collection with four poems written shortly before Plath’s death. Yet it was not until the publication of The Collected Poems in the US, which included all of the original poems in chronological order, along with annotated notes and a list of the ordering of the original manuscript, that Hughes’s editing-particularly the removal of some of the more “personally aggressive” poems such as “The Rabbit Catcher,” “The Detective,” and “The Jailer,” and the inclusion of several of her last poems so different in mood, tone, and style from the Ariel poems-became the subject of major controversy.

Still, the difference in the manuscripts was not exactly new news. In a rather testy response to critic A. Alvarez, who had questioned the approach of Plath’s literary executors to publication of her work, (The Observer, UK, Nov. 1971), Hughes had written about the difficulties of getting Plath’s work published in both the UK and the US, of editors that didn’t understand her work, were put off by the “extreme nature” of the poetry, or were simply not interested, and of his subsequent decisions to cut some poems, add others, including several of the last poems. One can also argue that Plath’s work has been well served by Ted Hughes. The letters and archives of Plath (and Hughes), his various introduction or essays on Plath’s poetry, journals, and short stories, suggest that he understood her writing-her struggles to create-better than anyone else, and never wavered in his belief in her genius. Hughes died in l998, and the volume seems to have been dialed back somewhat in recent years-or perhaps the level of criticism has just become more sophisticated-but critics still continue to question his editorial decisions, suggesting that he crafted a persona at odds with Plath’s poetry, and rail at the seeming intractability of the Plath (and Hughes) estates.

What the Restored Edition does provide is a consolidated approach to Plath’s ordering of the original collection, a viable way of assessing the trajectory of the sequence, and overall a sense of her efforts to write through and overcome her long-standing obsession with the death and abandonment by her father, and immediate personal difficulties, to create a new life, a reborn, transcendent self. The volume consists of a foreword by Frieda Hughes; Plath’s complete manuscript for what she ultimately called Ariel and other poems; and a facsimile of the original manuscript, which indicates that Plath’s title for the volume had morphed through several incarnations, The Rival, The Rabbit Catcher, A Birthday Present, and Daddy. Appendix I includes a printed version and facsimile of the typescript of “The Swarm,” one of the Bee poems that was bracketed but not included in Plath’s original ordering, although later included by Hughes in the published Ariel.

The second appendix consists of Plath’s understated commentaries on the poems that she would read for the BBC, and David Semanki’s notes, which list the differences in word choice and punctuation between the poems in Plath’s original manuscript and those published in The Collected Poems. The book also includes a listing of previously published volumes (which surprisingly omits The Colossus), a valuable listing of the poems and dates of composition of the poems in the original manuscript, and a listing of the published Ariel collection, with composition dates of the poems included by Hughes in the collection. Of major interest are the working drafts in facsimile for the pivotal poem, “Ariel”-some drafts are handwritten with cross-outs, some typed with a few handwritten changes, and these provide a brief window into Plath’s creative processes. Hughes has remarked on the speed with which Plath created her poems: “She would sit down to compose poetry in a fever, like an addicted gambler,” yet she was also a persistent reviser. Here we are given a brief, vibrant sense of the working processes of a highly complex poet. Plath did not begin to retain drafts of her work until writing the Ariel poems, and one can only wish that a few more manuscripts had been included in the volume.

Frieda Hughes calibrates her remarks carefully in her forward to the Restored Edition, defending her father, his handling of the Plath copyright, his editorial decisions, and his efforts to make Ariel “the best book” he could. Similarly, she admires her mother’s “extraordinary achievement” in her Ariel poems, her courageous efforts to overcome depression, defends Plath against those who would focus on her death rather than her life, yet also suggests that the original manuscript shows her at a particular moment, “caught in the act of revenge,” and implies that in time her observations might have changed as Plath moved on. Still, as it stands, Plath’s Ariel, in the broadest sense, is structured on notions of birth, death, rebirth, and transformation or regeneration of the self. The sequence begins with the words “Love set you going,” (in “Morning Song,” a celebration of the birth of her daughter) and ends with an implied rebirth in “Wintering” (“The bees are flying. They taste the spring”).

Plath’s collection includes poems that reflect substantial shifts in tone and mood, even style, from the comparatively tender “Morning Song.” Poems such as “The Other” or “The Rabbit Catcher,” represent the period in which Plath began to sense cracks in her mythologized ideal marriage, while in the brilliant and fierce “Daddy,” she conflates and denounces the father and husband figures (and probably male dominance or control in general)-no small notion in slightly pre-feminist l962. What is clear is that the poems are not precursors to suicide, but collectively represent acts of survival, efforts toward a psychic or spiritual rebirth, demonstrated most effectively in the accelerated, propulsive movement of the title poem, as the speaker sheds “dead hands/dead stringencies,” and speeds forward into “the cauldron of morning.”

Forty years on, it may be difficult to understand just how new, how different, and how singular Plath’s voice was among contemporary poets of the time. Asked in an interview with NPR last December whether a perceptive reader would find substantial differences between the two editions, Frieda Hughes suggested that if the books were read straight-through, the reader would find that her mother’s version was “a sort of passage of her emotional journey,” moving from one stage to another. “My father’s version is more of a “strong literary oeuvre….I think it’s more of a strong bloc whereas my mother’s has a flow to it, and my father’s is like an impact….” Whether Frieda Hughes was hedging her comments or not, her assessment is correct. Few of us can forget the excitement or emotional jolt experienced during our first reading of Ariel.

One can also make a persuasive argument that Hughes’s edition of Ariel-which basically continues Plath’s story until close to the end-is a stronger, more complex collection than the original manuscript. He deleted weaker poems such as “Barren Woman,” added “Sheep in Fog” (one of Plath’s best poems, which bridges the early and later Ariel poems), moved forward other poems such as “Elm” (which initiates the late creative phase), and “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” added poems written on or after January 28 (such as “Totem” and “The Munich Mannequins,” which Plath had told Hughes represented a “fresh start,” and “a cooler inspiration”) along with some of the more stylistically varied last poems, including the powerful, beautifully crafted “Edge.” Overall, Hughes shifted the narrative direction of the sequence from ultimate triumph toward seeming resignation. Hughes recognized the “exhaustion” and “resignation” in Plath’s last poems, but insisted in a 1981 letter (from the collection of the British Library) that the Ariel poems were not about disintegration or a “breakdown,” but rather about “successful integration” of the self. He also raised the x factor-the potential interpretation of the late poems if Plath had lived-and suggested that these poems indicate Plath was about to embark on a new creative route.

Yet this still begs the question of Plath’s original intent, an issue that may never be resolved. We do know that the poets discussed their poetry constantly. As the archives of both Plath and Hughes have become more available, the extent of mutual influence, collaboration, partnership, even argument, has become more apparent. In The Other Ariel, for example, Plath scholar Lynda Bundtzen tells us that many of Plath’s dated manuscripts for the poems were written on the back of typescripts and manuscripts of poems and plays by Hughes. Of greater import, perhaps, Bundtzen reports that “Edge,” one of the last two poems Plath wrote, was composed on the reverse side of the manuscript for “Wintering,” the concluding poem of Plath’s sequence, raising provocative questions about interpretations of the Bee sequence. In other words, the valuable recent work of several scholars and biographers suggests that there is much more to be learned about both poets, and some previously held assumptions might have to be reconsidered. Finally, what we do know is that The Restored Edition: Ariel and the original Ariel continue the conversation of Plath and Hughes like a diptych: two interrelated sequences speaking to each other across separate frames.[/private]

About Carol Bere

Carol Bere, a freelance writer, taught English literature and writing at New York University (where she attended graduate school), and at Rutgers University. She was also an officer in a New York investment bank. Her articles and reviews have been published in several venues including the Washington Post Book World, the Boston Review, The Literary Review, Critical Essays on Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage, Ariel, and in many international finance magazines.
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