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  • Ariel
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4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
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on 18 July 2011
The best single collection of poetry natively written in the English language, barring "Complete Poems of" collections. So many poets have cited Sylvia Plath as being the poet whose work activated their interest and passion and appreciation for the art form. The power and craftsmanship apparent in this collection, in her original and intended organization, leaves no doubt that Sylvia Plath is one of the all-time greats.
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on 30 April 2016
In an egregious example of the pot and the kettle, Julie Burchill, who was my favourite writer until she spiralled into self-parody and endless repetition, said of Annie Lennox that, if she was asked to draw a map of Nicaragua (This was in the 1980s, when it was cool to show support for the Sandinistas.), she would draw a self-portrait. Reading Ariel, one gets a similar impression of iron-clad self-absorption on the part of Sylvia Plath.
At first, I was shaken by the insensitive solipsism of the poems where the author seemed to use the suffering of the Holocaust as grist to her poetic mill. Lines like “I think I may be a Jew.”, when she so obviously was not and had been safely cocooned from the Nazi death camps by time and place and blood, turned me away from the poems. Subsequent reading showed that I was not the only one taken aback in this way. Joyce Carol Oates has been openly critical, as has Seamus Heaney in his more subtle and round-and-about way.
Tim Kendall in his excellent, dispassionate Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study tries to put the genie of solipsism back in the bottle. Plath, he seems to say, is not asking the reader to equate her own personal trials with the suffering of the Jews under the Nazis. The point she is making is that evil, like the Holocaust, like Hiroshima, like the Ku Klux Klan and the various wars alluded to in her poetry, exists and, by existing, affects us all. We have all eaten in, albeit unknowingly, “Hiroshima ash”.
At the beginning of The Bell Jar, Plath references the electrocution of the Rosenbergs. Esther, her heroine, then goes on to have a breakdown and is subsequently given electro-shock treatment. Esther’s fate is not intended to be portrayed as heroic or as deserved, depending on your point of view, as that of the Rosenbergs, but there is a resonance. So writing in 1962, seventeen years after the public exposure of the Nazi death camps when Nazi war criminals were still being aggressively hunted and under the perceived threat of imminent nuclear annihilation, surely Plath is justified in having these crimes at the front of her brain and in drawing her reader’s attention to them.
This still leaves a problem with Plath’s poems. They are very narrowly focused. They are all about her. The reader needs to know a lot about her biography to get the best out of them. It helps to know the lay-out of her garden in Devon and its surrounds; it helps to know about the trajectory of her marriage and the name and age of her children; it essential to know the ethnicity of her father, the fact that he was an expert on bees and her age when he died; and it is essential to know that she attempted suicide ten years after his death. You probably do not need to know that she had a difficult relationship with her mother, because the poems themselves make this perfectly plain.
This criticism may also be unfair, because we are dealing with a sequence of poems mostly written over a period of about nine months. These were the things on her mind during those months. Maybe, if she had lived on, she would have broadened her scope and, in fact, the later 1963 poems included in this version of Ariel, i.e. the one published by Ted Hughes after her death as opposed to the manuscript version Plath left behind, are already significantly less autobiographical, albeit dealing with similar themes.
So what do we have? There are poems about the garden in Devon and about riding in the surrounding hills. These are very atmospheric, often being set at night or in fog. There are poems about caring for an infant and these are simultaneously touching and frightening, as the mother’s love for the child is juxtaposed with her isolation. There are angry poems dealing with the fury of the wronged woman. There are poems that rail against her father and mother. There is a delightful sequence of poems about bee keeping. There are strange poems dealing with the cycle of death and rebirth. And then there are the late poems written immediately before her death, which may well be the best things she ever wrote.
The pall of suicide and death or isolation and madness hang over almost all of these poems. Many of them are painful to read. But at their best, they are brilliant and have a savage energy. I did not enjoy the attacks on her mother and father, which struck me as gratuitous. I did enjoy the moments with the infant child (Nick and the Candlestick) and I liked being guided round her garden (The Moon and the Yew Tree). The interlude with the bees was splendid, particularly the poem that morphed into revenge porn when she spitefully recalled the panorama of her husband Ted Hughes getting stung on the head by a swarm of apparently Freudian bees (Stings). Getting There was the best presentation of her personal philosophy of death and rebirth and it contains a more oblique reference to the Holocaust which, for me, showed where she went wrong in some of the other poems.
Best of all are the cold, impersonal masterpieces she wrote at the end – Totem, Paralytic and Edge. Although these deal with similar themes to those in the previous poems, they are not weighted down with superfluous autobiographical freight thus enabling her to turn her personal obsessions towards the universal. Immediately after writing these last poems Plath ended her life, so we will never know how far she would have developed this new style.
Two observations. I read this version of Ariel, i.e. the one published by her husband Ted Hughes shortly after her death. I did so because it was the one I was given. It would have been better to have read the selection as Plath had prepared it in manuscript sometime in late 1962. This would have separated out the 1963 poems which are different from the rest and represent the next stage in her development. The best way to do this is to buy Plath’s Collected Poems, also published by Hughes, but considerably later in 1981.
Secondly, Plath’s poems are difficult. They rely on a lot of knowledge of the details of her life and contain disguised allusions to sources such as the Osiris myth. A little guidance is required to get the best from them, if only to give you greater confidence in interpreting the more difficult passages. Avoid the internet for this, as the greater Plathosphere seems to be populated by too many axe carrying loons looking to grind them on the bones of any poor boy with the effrontery to question SP’s position in the poetic canon. I recommend Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study by Tim Kendall (Faber, 2001) to help you. Kendall deliberately avoids the psychosexual dramas of the poet’s life to focus on the poems themselves, only referring to the biographical details where they are crucial to understand the poems. He also bends over backwards to give Plath a fair hearing against her many critics.
Plath’s poetry and literary reputation are surrounded by much extraneous noise. Avoid getting sidetracked into the tragic psychodrama of the Hughes families. Do not be distracted by the claims of feminists. Try to ignore the awkward Holocaust references. Ariel contains poems of the highest calibre. They are unique; there is nothing else like them in the literary canon. They are a challenging read, but the best of them reward multiple readings to get to their core meaning.
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on 7 January 2005
I have read Plath inside out and backwards, and intermittently for eight years (I discovered her at the age of 22). She is now the subject of the final chapter of my thesis, which i am just preparing for submission. My PhD supervisor encouraged me to buy this book for the sake of my thesis, although I was reluctant to buy yet another book (funds are very limited!). After all, I already had the 'Collected Poems' which lists the poems in the order plath wanted at the back of the book; I am familiar with all of them. Furthermore, I have owned and lost no less than three copies of the published 'Ariel' owing to my habit of carrying it about places with me! (Please be assured I am not some suicide-obsessed pseudo-goth.) However, this book is superb. even though I knew the correct order of the poems, reading them like this is a completely different experience. The foreword by Frieda Hughes is extremely touching, showing her troubled loyalty to both parents (Ted Hughes, who of course edited the first publication of Ariel, leaving out about a dozen of the poems that he felt were inflammatory; and including in their place some of her very last, extremely depressed/depressing works that were written shortly before her death) who have for forty years been set one against the other in the popular imagination. The trajectory of the restored text takes you down before taking you up again, famously (as noted by Hughes in his foreword to the 'Collected Poems') beginning with the word 'love' and ending with 'spring'; this being precisely as Plath desired.
Whether or not you feel you wish to add this book to your collection is impossible for me to judge, but I consider this to be an essential bookshelf item, and furthermore ought to be read alongisde the prior version of 'Ariel'. The latter ends on a note so hopeless - precluding all possibility - that it shuts down on the reader like a lens. This restored text opens up a horizon. For those more interested in suicide (or what Frieda Hughes called in a poem of her own, a 'sylvia suicide doll') than in poetic or writerly integrity, then perhaps this book is not the best choice. For anyone interested more in the poetry, however, and in what it meant for this woman to write,and what it has meant that her words were compromised, then I recommend it. But whether you buy it or not, it's absolutely right and proper that this book be published.
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on 1 November 2002
The opening poem in this collection is one of the most moving and imaginatively powerful celebrations of life ever written, depicticting the joy and hope that lies in the birth of child and setting the tone for the entire collection; a tone that contrasts heavily with the traditional view of Ariel as 'poetry of depression'. Indeed, even in such poems as 'Daddy' and 'Lady Lazarus' there is a certain feeling of elation which an astute reader will no doubt pick up on, and rarely is there any feeling of the author's 'wallowing in misery'.
It is clear from the outset that Plath sets out to present a balanced and almost comprehensive outlook on life; it's ups and its downs, its triumphs and its failures, and, in what is a rather excellent book of poetry (with a few fairly minor flaws) Plath has achieved just that. Though not quite '[a] woman completed', Plath nevertheless produced a collection that is both moving and intriguing.
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We finally have Ariel as Sylvia Plath intended it - the poems in the order left in her black ring binder in 1963. This powerful collection should be savoured and treasured more than it is. Additionally, the forward by Freida Hughes is an insightful personal memoir. Worth all the waiting.
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on 7 April 2005
'Ariel' is an anthology you'll return to again and again. The wonderful thing about poetry is that it is that it is for everyone. From the transcendental title poem itself (Ariel), through the turbulent and disturbing 'Daddy', to the cutting 'Edge' this anthology consumes you. Deeply personal, yet universally relevent this is Plath at her best, and yet at her worst which is an apposite description of her creative genuis. So often in life in Ted Hughs's shadow, this anthology remains true to the line 'The Woman is Perfected / Her dead body wears the smile of accomplishment' (Edge). The first performance of this poetry engages you, then every time you hear it, it means more, explores more, challenges more. Some criticise Personal Poetry for its lack of 'out-of-context' coherency, however, in this anthology Plath has suceeded in creating a whirlwind of emotion that works without any knowledge of Plath's life; however, the poems come to life the more you learn of her, the images become more horrific, or less horrific... Ariel allows you a small window into Plath's life-long journey towards the EXCITEMENT of death and the beauty and misery of that journey. This is an ameteur psychologist's dream... Buy it!
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on 16 May 2016
Ariel is beyond beautiful from the outset. The language that Plath employed is deeply meaningful, without being trite. It has a simplicity to it that allows a reader to conjure their own imagination in making the poem work for them, whilst having such a sense of emotion that you can be in little doubt as to how Sylvia Plath was feeling. There have been poems added to the collection, as well as some left out, by Plath’s husband, fellow poet, Ted Hughes. I don’t like this censorial action, however the poems added were the last that Plath ever wrote, tragic in their presentation, and yet a lasting reminder of what a talent she had.

Poetry is a difficult form to review because it isn’t as transparent in its role as longer, plot-driven pieces of writing. It therefore leaves much scope for differing opinions and interpretations. There is no denying the depth of feeling within these pages though and I commend you to read them when you have the opportunity.
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on 6 December 2000
i'm studying Ariel for my A-level course, and have discovered Plath to be a fabulous poet. of course, she had her problems in life, but these serve to fuel her brilliant and unique poetry. i must admit, some of the poems i find difficult to get into, but others are simply perfect, e.g. Edge, one of her last poems. if you buy one poetry book this year, make it this one!
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on 7 March 2005
There are few more searing books of poetry in the English language. It breaks, fragments, cuts like crystal. Hard, fragile truths. So much has been written about Plath, but it's her poetry that shines.
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on 7 September 2011
Regarding previous editions of Ariel, I was beautifully surprised to acknowledged three main novelties in this restored edition: (1) the original selection of poems, as in the manuscript left by Sylvia before commiting suicide; (2) the facsimile of the original manuscript; (3) the different versions of the superb "Ariel", in order to illustrate Sylvia's creative process. This book is absolutely compulsory for all plathians.
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