Our collective relationship with the natural world is one fraught with tensions and paradoxes. Through a refusal to identify any form of objective truth, Ariel by Sylvia Plath moves beyond binaries to posit language as a portal into deepened self understanding. In this essay I will discuss…
In this essay I will discuss how Plath through an exploration of the tensions between the self and the natural world, denying using a dialogical portrayal of the relationship between the self and the natural world, denying an objective centre so that it comes to be defined by the contradictions of its greater context.
Tensions between unity and separation with nature is fundamental to the way we experience our relationship with it. The speakers in Ariel navigate this tension to upend binary modes of thinking. ‘Elm’ is one such example. “I know the bottom, she says”, the poem begins – instantly utilising personification and third person to create a dialogical reading; Language becomes the tool of nature in a subversion of traditional power dynamics allowing the Elm to accuse another, assumedly human presence, of a limited figuring of nature. ‘The bottom’ is inferred to be an ineffable concept of shared origins, as it is “known” with the Elm’s “great tap root” and supported by reference to mythological and biological origins “is it the sea you hear in me”. Plath hints at an idea of oneness between the self and the natural world, supported further as reverse personification integrates the self back into the earth “your head is a stone, your pillow a little turf”. Yet inference to what is shared between the self and the natural world is overlayed by an emphasis of difference “It is what you fear / I do not fear it” thus embodying an acknowledgment of union and fundamental separations. The anthology continues to paint a spectrum of relationship as ‘Stings’ encapsulates the speaker’s fleeting affinity with the “unmiraculous” bees, a mechanisation of nature’s “honey-machine” and refiguring of self/nature power balances “Will they hate me… I am in control”. Traditional dynamics between self, nature and language are disrupted as Plath fuses a relationship that encapsulates both identification with, and observation of, the natural world; as Knickerbocker surmises “only by distinguishing ourselves from the rest of nature can we truly “hear” what it speaks”.
Intention is one facet of a self/natural world understanding that is oft shaped by binary modes of thinking. The intent of unification or observation is one such example, giving rise to identification with or observation of One can have the intent of unification with nature, thus tending toward identification with it; conversely an intent of control can give rise to observational and separatist modes of thinking. Speakers in Ariel dance between these binaries of intent.
It is through dancing the spectrum of the separate/oneness paradox that the power and limits of perception in shaping our experience in the natural world is communicated. The layering and repetition of sound offerings in ‘Elm’, “Is it… the voice of nothing”, “Listen: these are its hooves”, “Shall I bring you the sound of poison?” serves to communicate a resistance to interpretive boxing. Whilst a shift in tone as the “malignity” of an unknown force begining to affect the Elm provokes a warning on the limits and dangers of human perception (Knickerbocker, 2009). This notion of a malignant force is one revisited repeatedly throughout the Anthology, in a variety of contexts – perpetuating Plath’s refusal to define the self/nature relationship in any concrete terms. In ‘The Rabbit Catcher’ narration is returned to the realm of the human whom perceives “the malignity of the gorse” to be “like torture”, whilst a “third person” looms ominously in ‘Stings’. In fact, Luck coins it a “parody [of an] empirical search for centers” (date). Conversely, a sense of “biological kinship” resonates in ‘The Rabbit Catcher’ (Knickerbocker, 2009); Whilst ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’ encapsulates a sense of curiosity and openness to learning from “The unintelligible syllables” of nature. The startling vastness of the spectrum of relationships between the self and the natural world portrayed in Ariel communicates the importance of perception in shaping them; It is on the denial of consistent centre that the possibility of self insight beyond these tensions rests.
Exploration of tensions in Ariel acts as a basis on which Plath posits the similarities of language and the natural world as a portal into deepened self understanding.
In a similar way to which she navigates tensions and perception, she also fuses modernism and romanticism in her approach. That is, coupling an acute attention to language and detail with a desire to transcend the self through union with nature. Indeed, such attention to craft of language is exactly what facilitates a romantic drive for self understanding through an analogous and nuanced portrayal of the natural world. I will now explore how Plath comes to the idea of a self as “Self-in-process” through a discussion of the structural similarities of self, language and the natural world giving rise to the mind/hive metaphor in the Bee sequence. In line with the idea that the self must maintain a degree of separation from the natural world in order to heed it’s wisdom, language served Plath, with its necessary separation, as a means to reconnect to nature (Knickerbocker, 2009). In fact, Plath had come to understand language as a part of nature – and similarly to the tensions of relationship depicted in Ariel, had described herself at times a “victim” to it. Plath’s journals talk of the aliveness of words that often “draw in their horns” in defiance (Knickerbocker, 2009), reminiscent of a similar distinction yet inseparability of the self/nature relation.
As much as Plath found language to be alive and in this way possessing texture and vitality (Knickerbocker, 2009) similar to the natural world, they also share structural similarities. As Luck identifies, each element in Saussurean language systems function only in the context of the greater network of differences (date). Similarly, cognition is defined as “a network of interconnected units in which the connection rather than the units themselves are of most importance” (date). This understanding of self as multiplicities and as defined by its relation to the collective is what Plath coins a “self-in-process” and is portrayed to us in Ariel through the metaphor of the hive. As Plath writes, “Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!”. The Bee sequence, described as a journey from “Self delusion” to “Self awareness” (Knickerbocker), concludes the anthology. It continues to play with perception as the voice of heirarchial separate thought “Tomorrow I will be sweet God” (Bee Box), jumps to an observational fear “Brood cells grey as the fossils of shells / Terrify me” (Stings), ending in a tone of curious subservience and ambiguity “It is they who own me. / Neither cruel not indifferent. // Only ignorant” (Winterings). Moving through these paradoxes the beehives become a frame through which the speaker can understand relationship to “herself, language, and external reality”. As Luck analyses, Plath’s use of the hive metaphor in the Bee sequence incorporates insight into interior consciousness structures.