The Highbrow

Ariel Redux

The latest chapter in the Sylvia Plath controversy.

Plath, in her own words

Sylvia Plath’s Ariel is one of the most important books of poetry of the 20th century, and among the most controversial. In February of 1963, when Plath committed suicide, she left behind a manuscript titled Ariel and Other Poems. But that manuscript was never published. Instead, a very different book called Ariel arrived in bookshops in the U.K. in 1965 and sold a phenomenal 15,000 copies in 10 months. In the U.S. edition (which varies slightly from the U.K. edition), 12 of the poems Plath had included had been cut, and 15 new ones added in their place; several poems had been bumped out of their original order. Ted Hughes, Plath’s estranged husband—of whom she had lately written “I hate and despise him so I can hardly speak”—had made the changes, inviting some charged questions about his apparent conflict of interest as both Plath’s executor and the impugned subject of her poetry.

Plath’s followers, especially feminist literary critics, were all too happy to skip the questioning and issue an indictment. They tore Hughes to shreds for what they presumed was a self-protective rearrangement—outraged at the male arrogance of his intrusion. It wasn’t until last month that Plath’s version of Ariel was published,as The Restored Edition: Ariel, with a foreword by the poets’ daughter, Frieda Hughes. An overflowing “worldwide premiere” reading by poets and critics took place in Manhattan last week—a halcyon moment for Plath’s supporters.

But is it a halcyon moment for Plath’s poetry? The new edition is undoubtedly useful (though it is marred by several factual mistakes). But there’s a good case to be made that Hughes’ version of Ariel is actually superior to Plath’s—and that Plath herself might have agreed.

Plath began to put together the manuscript that became the framework for Ariel in late 1961 or early 1962, fussing with it and changing the title from The Rival to A Birthday Present to Daddy to The Rabbit Catcher and finally to Ariel and Other Poems. She stopped working on it in mid-November of 1962, we think. And at 4 a.m. in the last few weeks of her life, she wrote some of the best poems of her career, the poems that, as she herself predicted in the febrile flush of composition, would “make my name.” What Hughes did was to take these poems, some of which had a bleak, astonishingly pitched quietude—like Emily Dickinson’s “formal feeling” that follows grief—and add about a dozen of them, including “Totem,” “The Munich Mannequins,” and the exquisite “Edge,” to the end of her manuscript.

Hughes also acted like a good film editor, cutting a labored opening sequence back, removing poems like “Barren Woman,” which were more conventional (and repetitive), and dismantling some of the narrative scaffolding Plath thought she needed. The effect was to plunge the reader swiftly into the sarcastic, funny, grotesque voice that dominates Ariel. Plath was still, as Hughes himself later said, a little afraid of her own poems, still learning how to wean herself from exposition in favor of dramatic immersion. (For evidence, read the drafts of the “Ariel” poem itself, included in the restored edition.) Hughes then moved up “Poppies in October” and “Berck-Plage” and used them as a springboard into “Ariel,” the book’s title poem, a luminous vision of self-transformation. The resulting sequence is more psychologically charged (and dramatic) than Plath’s ordering had been. Hughes also added a few older poems, including “Hanging Man,” inspired by Plath’s electroshock therapy, to help clarify what he took to be her story line—the story of a woman triumphing over great peril only to later succumb to a version of her own “self-conquering self.”

Hughes’ changes did profoundlyalter Plath’s vision of the book, as enterprising readers could piece together when the excised Ariel poems were later published, chronologically arranged, in Plath’s Collected Poems. Plath’s Ariel was more pointedly optimistic, carefully plotting a path from “love” to “spring” (the first and last words of the book). In her mind, it was the redemptive story of a self overcoming the elemental forces that threaten her—a coherent allegory of rebirth, which ended with her famous sequence of bee poems. Hers is a powerful narrative on its own—but the final bee poems simply aren’t as convincing as the late work that Hughes discovered on her desk. Their hopefulness (“The bees are flying. They taste the spring.”) seems forced and self-conscious, as does the feminist thrust of passages like “The bees are all women,/ Maids and the long royal lady./ They have got rid of the men,/ The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors.” Most of Plath’s best tropes have the benefit of being factually plausible as well as emotionally powerful; this one doesn’t.

Understandably, some critics are troubled by the newly morbid arc that results from Hughes’ re-engineering. But what we don’t know is whether Plath herself would have held Ariel and Other Poems to her original vision of it, as these critics believe. Plath was sharp-eyed and averse to platitudes, and it’s not clear why she would have suppressed the work that was emerging in her final two weeks of life, or even have saved it for a new book, given that she was an inveterate reviser of her own manuscripts. We do know that Hughes and Plath had a history of reading one another’s work; their shared preoccupation with mythology, their Nietzschean fascination with the interplay between creativity and destructiveness, were a wellspring for claustrophobic intimacy neither of them ever fully escaped. Despite the pair’s embittered separation, Plath had apparently shown some of her recent work to Hughes, and the two had agreed that the freshly written “Totem” and “The Munich Mannequins” were among her strongest poems.

What’s more, the poems Plath generated in the weeks before her death were thematically, syntactically, and lexically similar to poems she’d already added to the Ariel manuscript. They spoke to one another in a kind of harmonic design, full of images of stasis and violence; of bleak, fixed stars and dangerous little hooks; of crackling, dangerous moons standing hooded over a mythic landscape, and images of the self perfected and transformed by its flirtations with death. Plath was too sensitive a writer and critic not to have been conscious of the resonant layering of imagery she was playing with—all of which is reason to suspect that Ariel and Other Poems was not completely “finished.” Hughes simply curated the poems as they invited him to curate them, with a poet’s feel for the building implications of the interwoven imagery.

There is no question that Hughes laid himself open to the accusation that he had self-servingly suppressed lacerating (or, as he put it, “personally aggressive”) poems about him, like “The Rabbit Catcher” or “The Jailor,” in which Plath writes, baldly, “I have been drugged and raped” and describes herself as a “Lever of his wet dreams.” But Ariel is by no means a bowdlerized version of Plath’s original—Hughes comes in for plenty of scouring as it is. And far from reducing Plath to a pathologized victim—a sick woman—Hughes’ version arguably dared to present Plath’s raw power as even she did not, in its full-fledged, authoritative self-knowledge.

The real problem with Hughes’ interference is that we can’t separate the emotional relationship from the intellectual, artistic relationship—and we don’t trust Hughes to, either. But from this distance Plath seems fortunate to have had his input. It’s easy to forget now how radical Plath’s poetry—with its elemental female anger, its sexual voracity, its self-loathing knowingness—was in 1963. A number of the poems Plath wrote in 1961 and 1962 had been turned down by editors who didn’t understand them. Plath’s publishers in the U.K. didn’t want to publish Ariel,nor could Hughes convince Knopf, in the United States, to publish the new poems. “People didn’t understand what they were getting at, or didn’t like what they saw,” the critic A. Alvarez later told Janet Malcolm. Hughes did get Plath’s poems. And in a strange way, there is something moving about what he did. It is surely an emotionally complicated task to spend two years carefully reorganizing the work of your dead wife so as to persuade someone to publish a book that will implicate you in her tragic fate. And the irony is that, in reorganizing Ariel to emphasize the ultimate price of Plath’s emotional injuries, Hughes, like Samson, brought down the walls of the temple around him, even as he helped his wife take flight.