‘White/ Godiva, I unpeel’: destructive jouissance in Sylvia Plath’s ‘Ariel’.

by Paul Mitchell

June 29, 2009


In this essay I offer a reading of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Ariel’ in terms of how it subverts signification through the instability of the ‘I’ persona. Taking the notion of jouissance (as a destructive excess beyond language), I explore how ‘Ariel’ and other poems written in October 1962 begin to unravel the signifying network and, thus, the critic him/herself is faced with a profoundly difficult task in understanding them. Rather than trying to do so, I outline how, by replacing a focus on signification (the stable transmission of meaning) with the process of the text (its use of phonology, repetition and syntactic fragmentation) the critic can maintain the poems’ crucial ambiguity. They do not mean, therefore, in the usual sense of the word; rather, they mean only in an ambiguous, unstable and shifting manner, one that evades the critical desire to impose a certainty of interpretation upon them.


Despite Janice Markey’s recognition that ‘Ariel’ is ‘highly complex’, [1] I will argue in this article that Plath’s poem actually presents the critic with a far more profound difficulty than she, or indeed many critics to date, have acknowledged. Indeed, the text of ‘Ariel’ can be thought of as a site of resistance and, thus, to read it is to be confronted with a fundamental crisis of interpretation. ‘Ariel’ marks a point in Plath’s poetics at which the unsignifiable (or that which may be thought of as jouissance)[2] becomes a more prevalent – and, thus, destructive – a-textual force. As a result, it represents the manner in which speaking subjectivity (as the imposition of the signifier ‘I’ and its concomitant structuring via the signifier-signified relation) begins to unravel, the dissolution of the ‘I’ through phonetic repetition and syntactic fragmentation – a destabilisation that would achieve its ultimate manifestation, as I have argued elsewhere,[3] in Plath’s last poems. Responding to ‘Ariel’ is, in consequence, highly problematic as to do so necessitates an outlook that ambiguous (and irresolvable) polysemy in the poem is an inevitable aspect of its effect, a situation that many critics have been unwilling to accept. For example, the repetition of ‘I’ which features so prominently as an important lexical and phonemic element of the text has frequently been regarded as signalling an intensification of Plath’s (mythic/sexual) identity. Thus, Leonard Sanazaro suggests ‘Ariel’ details ‘transfiguration, the birth of the new self’, Pamela J. Annas argues that it negotiates ‘what stands in the way of the possibility of rebirth for the self’, while, for Judith Kroll, Plath’s ‘lioness’ persona represents the ‘true self’.[4] Yet, such viewpoints are clearly predicated upon a humanist understanding that the (poetic) subject has a unitary stability, a viewpoint that positions Plath’s actual (rather than textual) body as a signifier whose corresponding signified may be understood as the critic’s desire for ‘an eradication of difference’.[5] As a defensive strategy against the loss of (textual/critical) meaning, therefore, the poetic speaker becomes fetishistic, the embodiment of Plath’s authorial identity.

‘Ariel’ is often regarded as an important achievement in Plath’s oeuvre. Anne Stevenson believes that it is ‘supreme […] a quintessential statement of all that had meaning for her’ and, along with ‘Poppies in October’ (a poem that was written on the same day), a ‘perfect lyric’ (p.271) – a phrase that is also repeated by Paul Alexander.[6] Linda Wagner-Martin has described ‘Ariel’ as ‘Plath at her metaphysical best’ and, even more impressively for Mary Lynn Broe, it displays ‘perfected structural, thematic, and technical unities’.[7] Yet, despite such praise, the poem’s problematic ambiguity is frequently mentioned in the secondary literature. For example, Linda Wagner-Martin describes ‘Ariel’ as ‘a riddle of mystery’ (p.118), while Edward Butscher believes that ‘the real difficulty comes from […] the vagueness of the actual images’.[8] Interestingly, Janice Markey, although recognizing the complexity of ‘Ariel’, is unspecific about the nature of its particular difficulty, stating instead that it has proved ‘virtually insoluble for critics’ (p.59) – a notion that is echoed by Judith Kroll in her foreword to the recently updated edition of Chapters in a Mythology: ‘In investigating Plath’s poetry, I didn’t have a clear idea of my goals or trajectory, but I was enjoying the literary detective work’ [Emphasis added].[9] Unlike Markey and Kroll, however, I do not view the purpose of my reading to be to ‘solve’ ‘Ariel’, to decode its conundrum so as to provide it with a coherent (or definitive) analysis. Instead, my approach is informed by Roland Barthes’ suggestion that, ‘In the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered’ [Barthes’s emphasis].[10] Thus, I will explore the operation of the text’s ambiguity, the manner in which it resists signification, without necessarily suggesting how this might be resolved.

Many of the most well known interpretations of ‘Ariel’ emerge from a reading strategy that engages with the text via a paradigm of binary oppositions, a logic of either/or. Just as the repetition of ‘I’ in the poem serves as an attempt to constrain the speaker’s loss of identity – by attempting to impose, at the level of the signifier, the stable correspondence of the signifier-signified relation (Sr-Sd) – a similar stasis occurs in the critical literature through readings which attempt to limit the poem’s problematic a-signification via the prioritization of one interpretation over another: for example, the view that the poem details a sexual experience rather than a mystical one (a point to which I will return).[11] It may be argued, however, that this approach also necessitates the imposition of another binary distinction between interpretation and reading. Thus, to experience the poem as a critic (obsessed with meaning, the edification of the ‘I’ as a guarantor of signification) is to elide the crisis of meaning that is enacted by the poem’s rhythmic drive, its disruption (rather than consolidation) of meaning and, hence, to fail to experience the sentience of the reader (for whom ‘Ariel’ is an aural/oral sensation). Rather than insisting on the fixity of the signifying process, therefore, the reader, freed from the need for explication, uses ‘the ear, not the […] eye’[12] to experience a jouissance that is destructive to meaning. Thus, the poem’s linear (progressive) momentum, its lexico-syntactic organisation, is met by instances of phonemic repetition which produce homogeneity (or stasis); and it is in this conflicted space of the text that ‘Ariel’ resists signification, the stable transfer of Sr-Sd. I will suggest that the poetic experience of ‘Ariel’ is most resonant if the opposition between reading and interpretation is collapsed, allowing for an interpretation that acknowledges the crisis of meaning caused by the text’s rhythmic jouissance. In this way, a reading of ‘Ariel’ that is binary may be questioned for the manner in which it fails to account for the symbiotic nature of the poem’s struggle towards/against meaning.

 As a consequence of its date of composition on 27 October 1963 (Plath’s thirtieth birthday), several critics have sought to minify the text’s complexity by explaining it in terms of her biography. In this context, Linda Wagner-Martin’s reading is interesting. She states that, ‘the woman persona is completely alone. Her mind is free from the canker of hatred for her husband’ (p.113). Given that at no point in ‘Ariel’ is there mention of a male partner, such a comment would be confusing without an understanding that, by locating the poem in the circumstances of Plath’s recent estrangement from Hughes, Wagner-Martin attempts to explain it as an abreaction to her marital difficulties. The decision to identify the textual ‘I’ as Plath clearly intends to disambiguate its signifying function within the poem. Yet, as Barthes comments, ‘To give the text an Author is to impose a limit on the text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing’ (p.147). Such a desire to ‘close’ ‘Ariel’ typifies many critics’ readings of the poem. To do so, however, is to constrain rather than allow the process of the text itself, the instability of the poetic ‘I’ that problematises the two-sided units of the Saussurean sign.

One important example of this is Al Alvarez’s editorial decision when ‘Ariel’ was first published in The Observer (3 November 1963) to re-title the poem as ‘The Horse’, a choice that was probably made in response to the perceived difficulty that the poem poses the reader. In doing so, Alvarez attempts to stabilise the critical locus of ‘Ariel’ by relating it to the incident upon which the poem is supposedly based: Plath’s breakneck ride upon a runaway horse during her time in Cambridge in December 1955. The poem’s signifier (‘Horse’) therefore becomes directly related to its signified (the enactment of an exhilarating horse ride). Alvarez’s decision to rename ‘Ariel’ appears all the more curious (and revealing) with the knowledge that, in Plath’s manuscripts, the description of the horse upon which the speaker rides becomes (physically/textually) negated during the drafting process, with the references to the ‘Crude mover on whom I move’, ‘The dull rump’ (Draft One, AR, p.175) and the ‘bright beast’ (Draft Three, AR, p.177) being removed. What remains after these revisions, therefore, is a horse that is ‘more rhythm than shape’,[13] present only via the tropes of ‘God’s lioness’ and ‘sister’ (AR, p.33). In this sense, ‘Ariel’ textually enacts the very process of material dissolution that is also the focus of ‘The Detective’:

This is a case without a body.
The body does not come into it at all.

It is a case of vaporization. (AR, p.31)

Interestingly, Plath also wrote another poem about the experience, which Linda Wagner-Martin describes as ‘a kind of ur-text for “Ariel”’ (p.117). ‘Whiteness I Remember’, a poem written in 1958, though recording the speaker’s journey on Sam, the same horse that inspired ‘Ariel’, displays little of the brio that characterises the later poem and therefore makes for an illuminating comparison:

I see him one-tracked, stubborn, white horse,
First horse under me, high as the roofs,
His neat trot pitching my tense poise up,
Unsettling the steady-rooted green
Of country hedgerows and cow pastures
To a giddy jog. Then for ill will
Or to try me he suddenly set
Green grass streaming, houses a river
Of pale fronts, straw thatchings, the hard road
An anvil, hooves four hammers to jolt
Me off into their space of beating.[14]

In ‘Whiteness I Remember’, the visual description of the speaker’s mount, the ‘dapple toning his white down’ (p.102), serves to underscore its animalistic presence, a notion that is further reinforced by the graphical solidity of the poem’s stanzaic form. It is noticeable that, as the horse is ‘under’ the speaker, ‘Whiteness I Remember’ maintains the physical distinction between them (subject and other) so as to sustain their tension rather than enacting the fusion that occurs in ‘Ariel’:

God’s lioness,
How one we grow,
Pivot of heels and knees! (AR, p.33)

Indeed, this fusion is further emphasised with the consideration that, in amending the final Typescript, Plath replaced the exclamation mark that follows ‘God’s lioness’ with a comma, thus, creating a greater sense of fluidity between the lines (AR, p.186).

Despite the enjambed lines in ‘Whiteness I Remember’ which intend to convey a sense of sudden momentum as the horse bolts, the careful delineation of movement that results from the use of premodification maintains a stable communication of Sr-Sd through the reader’s ability to visualise the experience: ‘His neat trot; ‘a giddy jog’. The alliterative and sibilant phrase ‘then suddenly set/ Green grass streaming’ certainly communicates the quickening pace of the ride but it noticeably lacks the energetic intensity that Plath would create in her later poem. In ‘Ariel’, a compression occurs through the reduction of line and stanza length (effectively diminishing the body of the text) and the eliding of descriptive lexis also promotes a greater emphasis on the poem’s phonetic nexus:

Stasis in darkness.
Then the substanceless blue
Pour of tor and distances. (AR, p.33)

In actuality, the particular structure of these lines was not decided upon until Draft Three of the poem. In Drafts One and Two, they read:

Stasis in darkness, then the substanceless blue
Pour <Leed?> of tor & distances.
God’s lioness, how one we grow! (AR, p.175-176)

Moreover, the decision to end-stop the rewritten opening line was not made until revisions to the Second Typescript with the effect that the finished poem now conveys a greater sense of ‘Stasis’ as the reader is made to pause at the end of the first line (AR, p.180). The cluster of /Is/ sounds that opens ‘Ariel’ creates an aural enactment of the ‘stasis’ in which the speaker finds herself, an effect that echoes the closing lines of ‘Poppies in July’:

Dulling and stilling.
But colourless. Colourless. (CP, p.203)

Here lexical and phonemic repetition, in conjunction with the combined effects of end-stopping and caesura, manifest a textual stymie that sabotages any sense of resolution. Similarly, in ‘Years’, the concept of inactivity is graphically represented by the use of a dash that fractures the text’s linear momentum: ‘And you, great Stasis —’ (CP, p.255). In ‘Ariel’, however, ‘Stasis’ is quickly transformed when the internal rhyme of ‘Pour’ and ‘tor’ replicates the blurring of the speaker’s visual perception as the horse bolts. As Mary Lynn Broe suggests, ‘The craft of the poem welds stasis in cloddish earthly flesh to the sensation of speed. Spare, vivid language without surplus adjectival commentary moves rapidly through images that reenact (sic) (especially in the first six stanzas) the experience of riding’ (p.164). Unlike in ‘Whiteness I Remember’, in which the speaker ‘hung on his neck’ (CP, p.103), ‘Ariel’ conveys this experience through a repetition of alliterative /k/ sounds that mimic the desperate attempt to grab onto and control the animal:

The brown arc
Of the neck I cannot catch

Berries cast dark
Hooks — (AR, p.33)

In this way, ‘Ariel’ displaces the materiality of ‘Whiteness I Remember’ and, in doing so, enacts the experience through phonetics, the velar /k/ sounds in the quotation above indicating an aural stasis that conflicts with the amorphous drive of ‘God’s lioness’. As a result, there is a jouissance in which the somatic and the linguistic are both joined and divided so that the text simultaneously canalises and exceeds signification. If anything, therefore, it would seem that a title of ‘The Horse’ (‘not-Horse’) would have been more appropriate as a title for Alvarez to choose when publishing the poem, given that it can be read in terms of the space that exists between the horse as a signifier and its inscription in the text. In re-titling the poem in the manner in which he does, however, Alvarez prioritises the pre-eminence of the Sr-Sd relation whilst undermining the importance of the unstable subject (that which problematises the binary opposition of ‘I’-‘not-I’) within the poem. Yet he does so at the expense of the discursive chaos in ‘Ariel’, textual elements which are crucial to the poem’s overall achievement.

Many critics have chosen not to discuss the effect of repetition in ‘Ariel’ despite the fact that it is such a prominent element of the text. Recently Tim Kendall has suggested that when critics have appraised Plath’s use of this device, attention has been paid primarily to ‘Daddy’ and that comments tend towards the negative. For example, David Shapiro feels that Plath ‘uses and abuses the device’ so that it becomes mere ‘harping’ [Shapiro’s italics] and that it is evidence of her ‘overwriting’, whilst Susan Van Dyne refers to Plath’s ‘verbal tic’ which, in ‘Daddy’, becomes ‘probably over-determined’. Although Kendall (like those critics with which he takes issue) tends to discuss Plath’s use of repetition at the level of lexis rather than phonetics, he makes the useful connection between the compulsion to repeat and Freud’s analysis of the fort-da game in Beyond the Pleasure Principle suggesting that, ‘“Daddy” implies that each local repetition, whatever its microcosmic effects, symptomises a larger behavioural pattern of repetition’. Yet he goes on to comment that the speaker’s use of ‘Ich, ich, ich, ich’ (AR, p.73) indicates her inability to ‘move beyond the self’ (p.153). In doing so, Kendall represents the speaker in the humanist tradition as a ‘self’ that has unitary stability. A more satisfying reading has been proposed by Jacqueline Rose for whom ‘Daddy’ is ‘a crisis of language and identity’,[17] so that the fragility of ‘I’ as referent – its status as shifting and uncertain (Rose, p.31) – invites a reading of the poem as a fragmentation of the subject position. Anna Tripp has also suggested that the subject’s awareness of a demarcated relation to the object may be interpreted in the textual/graphical signifier ‘I’: ‘As a shape on the page […] it appears as unitary, undivided, free-standing and self-contained’.[18] The key word here is ‘appears’ as it stresses the notion of the integrated subject as a fantasy, an attempt to disguise the separation between subject (S) and object/other (O) that founds subjectivity:

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time —
So I could never tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I could never talk to you. (AR, p.73)

Here the repeated alternations between ‘I’ and ‘you’ mark the division of subject-object. Yet, by attempting to join the father in death, the speaker also unsettles her unitary subjectivity and, thereby, introduces a destructive jouissance into the text, a notion that is enacted through the poem’s phonemics:

At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you. (AR, 75)

Though Pashupati Jha states that the repetition of ‘back, back, back’ here points to ‘the speaker’s resolve […] to be one with him’,[19] it seems more appropriate to represent this in terms of ‘dissolve’ (or the erasure of demarcated S-O relations) so that the text achieves a precarious balance. Subjectivity is manifested by the repeated /aI/ phoneme (‘I’, ‘tried’, ‘die’). Yet this sound is also juxtaposed against the internal rhyme of ‘to you’ (the dissolution of that subjectivity through fusion with the other). In ‘Medusa’, this process is repeated when the speaker states, ‘My mind winds to you’ (AR, p.59). Here, the text’s phonemic repetition of /aI/ (‘My mind winds’) and /u:/ (‘to you’), whilst positing their (phonological) difference, also collapses such opposition as the verb ‘winds’ (semantically) conveys their connection (and, thus, their fusion). In ‘Ariel’, the instability of the ‘I’ is similarly enacted as the poem spirals to its close:

And now I
Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas
The child’s cry
Melts in the wall.
And I
Am the arrow. (AR, p.33-34)

On two occasions, the ‘I’ is placed at the end of an enjambed line, an effect that can be read not as an magnification of the subject – it is, after all, juxtaposed against textual space – but as an unravelling of this position, the collapse of the signifier into silence and, thus the dislocation of signification itself. Throughout ‘Ariel’, phonological repetition (‘pour’, ‘tor’, ‘grow’, furrow’, Shadows’, ‘arrow’, ‘morning’) – like the assonantal echo of /u:/ vowels that occurs in ‘Daddy’ (in words such as ‘Jew’, ‘you’, ‘do’, ‘glue’ and ‘shoe’ amongst others) – indicates an irruptive jouissance that operates in tension against the sign. In this way, the instability of the signifier can be viewed in terms of the text’s phonetic disruption which defies the critic’s attempt to hypostatize the subject via the structural binary of S-O so that ‘repetition […] carries with it an unlimited power of perversion and subversion’.[20]

‘Ariel’ makes repeated use of the /aI/ phoneme, with its occurrence fourteen times in only thirty-one lines of verse. In fact, examination of the poem’s drafts reveals that many of the words containing this phoneme were added during Plath’s revisions. Indeed, Draft One contains only four uses of the sound (AR, 75); but, in Draft Two, the most significant adjustments occur with the addition of ‘I’ twice, ‘child’s’, ‘cry’, ‘suicidal’, ‘drive’ and ‘Eye’, the last word being a revision of ‘heart’ (AR, 176). During a third redraft, the /aI/ phoneme as part of ‘thighs’, ‘white’, ‘Godiva’ and further uses of ‘I’ are added (AR, 177). For McKay, this ‘obsessive’ patterning of sound produces a ‘linear’[21] thrust to the poem, enacting a series of aural connectives that unite speaker, action and denouement. In this way, McKay stresses the intensification of (transcendent) identity that occurs as the poem moves towards its climax: ‘The full stress upon “Am” in “Am the arrow” contributes to the sense of ontological awareness dawning, a new pulse in the insipid copula’ (p.20) – a point echoed by Susan Van Dyne for whom the speaker is a ‘self-assertive I’ (p.126). Yet to interpret this lexeme as having an exclusively progressive momentum is to ignore the possibility of its echoic function which, through its reduplication, subverts linearity. In this sense, rather than identity being posited as a stable given, ‘Ariel’ leads us to confront the limits of subjectivity itself as, in its inability to generate a corresponding signified to the signifier ‘I’, the poem imposes a stammering circularity.

The speaker in ‘Ariel’ undergoes a series of transformations that begins in lines four and five when she becomes ‘one’ with the horse. Here the ‘I’, as heterogeneous subject, becomes collapsed into the ‘lioness’, creating a fusion that several critics have commented upon as being the source of the speaker’s animalistic energy. For example, Judith Kroll believes that the ‘lioness represents […] a sacramental recovery of a purer self’ (CM, p.151), Linda Wagner-Martin suggests that horse and rider are ‘united, fused, into one’ (p.114) and, for D.F. McKay, they become ‘wedd[ed]’ (p.19) – statements that, by the very nature of the terms in which they are couched, posit the speaker/horse as an intensification of the subject’s stability rather than as working within or against this position and, thus, problematising the process of signification itself. As a result, Susan Van Dyne is certain that the poem details ‘a fusion of poetic identity and the carnal subject, not a rejection of it’ (p.120).

Yet, it is equally possible to interpret these lines as undermining the singularity of the persona as she becomes effectively erased through her destructive fusion with ‘God’s lioness’ and, in this way, collapses the division between the ‘I’ and the other (O). In ‘Purdah’, the speaker undergoes a similar conflation with the lioness persona:

The lioness,
The shriek in the bath,
The cloak of holes. (AR, p.63)

As in ‘Ariel’, the erasure of subjectivity is enacted phonologically through assonantal repetition as the ‘I’ persona is collapsed into ‘The cloak of holes’ (a textual absence). Here the phonemic echo of /o:/ effectively creates an erasure of ‘I’-‘O’ that represents the failure of the poem’s signifying function, its failure to communicate a coherent meaning and, thus, a motility beyond language (which is jouissance). In ‘The Jailor’, the speaker’s bodily dissolution – ‘I spread to the beaks of birds’ (AR, p.23) – provokes a similar effect:

O little gimlets —
What holes this papery day is already full of! (AR, p.23)

The lexico-phonetic fissure created by ‘O’ and ‘holes’ serves to disperse the subject’s identity (her collapse into the other) so that the poem’s signification (its semantic coherence) is problematised. Likewise, the ontological crisis that is provoked by the speaker’s inability to comprehend her maternal role in ‘The Night Dances’, her helplessness to reconcile the ‘pink light’ of her baby with the ‘back amnesias of heaven’ (AR, p.30), is encapsulated in the poem’s final word: ‘Nowhere’ (AR, p.30). Again, the presence of the /o:/ phoneme opens a textual gap that is indicative of the poem’s struggle to constrain its signification within the economy of language and, thus, its gesture towards the unspeakable.

If the /aI/ phoneme can be read in terms of its heterogeneity – its difference to ‘you’ (u:) – then /I/ (as ‘not-I’) serves as an important aspect of the signifier’s instability in Plath’s poetry In ‘Daddy’, the speaker’s statement, ‘I could never talk to you./ Ich, ich, ich, ich’ (AR, p.73), indicates an erasure of the signifier ‘I’ by the Germanic ‘Ich’ (a language that is other). In this sense, the aural effect of repeating the /I/ phoneme creates a subversion of signifier so that it becomes dispersed across the text and, as such, an expression of destructive jouissance – a tension between the subject’s positioning as ‘I’ (the progressive, linear ‘drive’) and its echoic (non-linear) ‘Stasis’. As a result, ‘Ariel’ demonstrates how the contrary processes of ‘drive’ and ‘Stasis’ lead to a subversion of the signifier and, consequently, to a repeated breakdown and reconstitution of the structure that positions ‘I’ as separate from the other.

Speaking of novels by Plath, Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter, Elisabeth Bronfen comments that ‘these texts compulsively repeat so as to disclose the point of non-existence beyond which a woman writing as yet can’t move’.[22] To ‘move beyond’ a gendered position as a speaking being is, of course, impossible, given that to do so implies a return to psychotic homogeneity (the destruction of signification). Yet, by repeating, in a sense by being homogeneous in one’s utterance, the drive to ‘non-existence’ remains in tension against the signifier, creating destructive jouissance. Repetition is, therefore, a moment in which (simultaneously/ambiguously) signification is both posited and arrested. The compulsive urge to repeat in ‘Ariel’ can be read, in this sense, not simply as a substantiation of the subject but as an attempt to control the irruption of what Freud describes as ‘a kind of organic elasticity […] the expression of the inertia inherent in organic life’.[23] As mentioned above, ‘Ariel’ suggests that the stable position of the subject can only ever be read as fantasy because the ‘I’ (aI) is repetitively collapsed into its other (I). Yet it is precisely in this compulsive repetition that the drive touches excess, a spilling over of jouissance as manifested in the poem’s phonology. To read ‘Ariel’ in these terms then is to interpret the textual experience intra-linguistically as the introduction of the death-drive into the signifying process via phonemic exchange and, thus, to prioritise the process (or experience) of the poem rather than simply its meaning.

Plath’s use of lexical and phonemic reduplication can be seen as evidence for the poem’s subversion of the signifier via semantic-syntactic ambiguity. Thus, when the speaker makes reference to Lady Godiva, attention should be paid to the complex structure of the utterance:

Godiva, I unpeel —
Dead hands, dead stringencies. (AR, 33)

The conventional interpretation of these lines is to allocate the verb a progressive reference, so that ‘unpeel’ points forwards to the ‘Dead hands, dead stringencies’ which follow the dash. In this way, Van Dyne is led to state that the identification between the speaker and Godiva may be read as being ‘defiantly anti-social’ (p.122) as she achieves a ‘transfiguration […] finding herself empowered to move forward’ (Wagner-Martin, p.114). Similarly, for Kroll, the speaker’s act of ‘unpeel[ing]’ indicates a shedding of ‘the [dead] false self’ (CM, p.174), an idea that is echoed by Leonard Sanazaro for whom ‘the old self is a “White/ Godiva”, a corpse that represents the tight constrictions of religious stagnation’ (p.94). However, the complexity of these lines is reflected by the fact that Plath seems to have found this particular stanza difficult to formulate, with several alternatives being elaborated, revised during the drafting process and then erased before the final version that appears in the Typescript. The manuscript of Draft Three reads:

<Hands, hearts, dead men>
<Dead men>
<Hands, hearts, peel off  —>
<Dead hands, dead stringencies!>
<I am bare>
<I am white>
<Rising, galloping>
<In a season of dying>
<A season of burning>
<In a season of burning, I>
<Am White Godiva>
 <On fire, my hair>
<My own resort>
<Brown furrows, rippling>
White <Godiva, I>
Godiva, I unpeel –
Dead hands, dead stringencies! (AR, p.178)

The extensive reformulation of the stanza here indicates the imposition of a logico-semantic constraint onto the textual process – particularly with Plath’s careful consideration of whether ‘Godiva’ will be positioned in the middle of the line or foregrounded at the beginning of the next; and to do so is to operate within an economy of writing which privileges the primacy of the text’s signification. In this sense, what is abandoned in draft is perhaps as revealing as what remains in the final Typescript. In Draft Three, it is initially explicit that the speaker rejects an attachment to men and love: ‘Dead men/ Hand, hearts, peel off’. Yet, as Plath reformulates these lines – removing both references to ‘men’ and ‘hearts’ – she also problematises their signifying function and, thus, either deliberately or unconsciously, creates an ambiguity that fractures the stable transfer of communicative meaning. By way of comparison, it is interesting to consider the use of similar devices in some of Plath’s other poems. In ‘The Rabbit Catcher’, the speaker states:

And we, too, had a relationship —
Tight wires between us,
Pegs too deep to uproot. (AR, p.7-8)

Here, rather than creating a fissure in the syntactic structure, the dash serves to graphically depict the ‘wire’ that connects those in the ‘relationship’, thus, creating semantic and syntactic cohesion. In ‘The Fearful’, the use of a hyphen introduces subordination so that the ideas expressed in the previous clause are elaborated and, thus, it serves to reinforce the efficiency of the poem’s signification:

She hates
The thought of a baby –
Stealer of cells, stealer of beauty –
CP, p.256)
Furthermore, in ‘Mary’s Song’, Plath’s use of ellipsis connects what would otherwise be an ambiguous juxtaposition of imagery:
The Sunday lamb cracks in its fat.
The fat
Sacrifices its opacity....
A window, holy gold.
The fire makes it precious,
The same fire
Melting the tallow heretics,
Ousting the Jews. (CP, p.257)

Despite visually marking a textual lacuna (and thus threatening to undermine the stable transfer of lexico-syntactic meaning), the ellipsis (noticeably extended to four points rather than three) actually intensifies the semantic association made between the roasted lamb (as a Christian icon) and the religious intolerance that led to the burning of witches and the Holocaust by providing a graphical chain to unite the two events. In contrast to these examples, the operation of the dash in ‘Ariel’ has a noticeably fractious rather than cohesive effect, allowing the possibility that, through poetic inversion, it is actually ‘Godiva’ who is ‘unpeel[ed]’ – a notion that would seem to problematise the feminist paradigm adopted by Van Dyne and Markey, as the speaker thereby rejects the very female icon that their readings champion. In this sense, the dash acts subversively, radically undermining the text’s stable signification. The finalized syntactic structure in the Typescript creates a fundamental fracture so that the question as to what the verb ‘unpeel’ actually refers has now become crucially obfuscated (and unknowable): it is equally possible, for example, that the dash’s positioning invites us to read the verb as being intransitive in the sense that it is herself (as ‘I’) that the speaker ‘unpeel[s]’ with the subsequent line, ‘Dead hands, dead stringencies’, relating either to the negation of the subject or to no purpose, as an isolated fragment. What becomes apparent, therefore, is that, rather than intensifying the subject position by her act of fusion with Godiva, such a breach can be read as a negation of subjectivity so that the speaker becomes ‘The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite’.[24]

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, ‘Ariel’ has most often been read either as a poem about mystical transcendence or sexuality. D.F. McKay positions the poem in a tradition of modern literature (including Dylan Thomas’ ‘The force that through the green fuse’ and Yeats’ ‘Leda and the Swan’) that records moments of mystical invasion: ‘the energy in ‘Ariel’ is divine, it is divinity incarnate’ (p.20). On the other hand, Janice Markey claims that ‘Ariel’ represents a celebration of lesbian sexual experience, justifying this assertion with reference to Plath’s use of ‘feminine’ words (‘ lioness’, ‘sister’) and symbols (‘furrow’ – vagina; ‘neck’ – cervix; ‘blood’ – menstruation; ‘wall’ – of the vagina; ‘red/Eye’ – vagina).[25] For Susan Van Dyne also, Plath’s third draft of the poem reveals a sudden sexualizing of the persona with the inclusion of the phrase ‘Thighs, hair’ so that what is central to the poem is the speaker’s transgressive sexuality, ‘the erotic charge of her self-display’ (p.122). Yet, Markey’s and Van Dyne’s readings are significantly suppress (or deny) the mystical component of the experience that ‘Ariel’ registers, to produce what Lacan would dismiss as a ‘reduction of the mystical to questions about fucking’.[26] However, by seeking to collapse such oppositional logic and, furthermore, by suggesting that both types of reading are equally limited by their humanist assumption of a stable ‘I’, it is possible to recognize the more complex process of a-signification that the poem generates. Thus, aspects of ‘Ariel’ in actuality exceed critical interpretation (as constraint) because they manifest ‘an unnameable otherness [that is] enunciated as ecstatic’ (Kristeva, PH, p.59):

And I
Am the arrow,
The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive (AR, p.34) Â

Several critics have commented upon the use of the arrow image in ‘Ariel’ suggesting its similarity to that used by Esther in The Bell Jar: ‘What a man is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from’.[27] In both cases, the metaphorical association between ‘I’ and ‘arrow’ is felt to signal the speaker’s empowerment (Markey, JRE, p.130; Wagner-Martin, p.114). Yet such a reading does not account for the complex process of association that the arrow as a phallic symbol generates. On one level, the subject position is posited via the speaker’s assumption of identity (‘I). Yet, as the ‘arrow’, taking pleasure in a phallic jouissance when she ‘drive[s]’ into the vaginal ‘red/Eye’, the female speaker also becomes doubled by this process – both phallus and woman – and, thus, her fusion is destructive to such unitary subjectivity. As such, the jouissance that is generated emerges in the rhythmic pulsions that destabilise the subject position:

And now I
Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas. (AR, p.33)

‘Ariel’ has often been read as a poem in which the speaker experiences an orgasmic, bodily transformation. At the moment of climax, the ‘I’ (aI) becomes collapsed into the phonemes /I/ and /i:/, aurally dispersing the speaker’s singularity through an unspeakable jouissance (‘wheat’, ‘glitter’, ‘seas’). In ‘Fever 103Âş’, the speaker’s orgasmic release is similarly enacted on a phonological level:

All by myself I am a huge camellia
Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush.
I think I am going up,
I think I may rise —
The beads of hot metal fly, and I, love, I
Am a pure acetylene
Attended by roses,
By kisses, by cherubim,
By whatever these pink things mean.
Not you, nor him
Nor him, nor him
(My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats) —
To Paradise. (AR, p.78-79)

Here the intense positing of the speaker’s (sexual) subjectivity through repeated /aI/ phonemes indicates a unitary positionality – the embodying nature of her orgasm. Yet, this is equally challenged by the dispersal of /I/ sounds which produce an excess and, thus, it gestures towards a jouissance unable to be constrained within signifying practice. The reference to her ‘selves dissolving’, a lexico-semantic erasure of corporeal identity, is also echoed through the repetition of /I/ phonemes to produce an aural stammer: ‘Glowing and coming and going’. In this way, Pashupati Jha’s suggestion that ‘Fever 103Âş’ displays ‘the tension between desire and restraint’ (p.95) may be rephrased in terms of how the poem presents an oscillation between an a-linguistic absence and its constraint. In ‘Years’, the speaker’s absorption in destructive motility (and, thus, the death-drive) is represented by an image of pure kinesis:

What I love is
The piston in motion —
My soul dies before it.
And the hooves of the horses,
Their merciless churn. (CP, p.255)

In ‘Ariel’, it is the word ‘glitter’ (with its /I/ vowel) that, in particular, suggests this experience of soma beyond representation. The word is used on several occasions by Plath throughout her work and usually to connote the dissolution or destruction of subjectivity. In ‘Suicide off Egg Rock’, the swimmer’s death is foreshadowed by the simile, ‘Everything glittered like blank paper’ (CP, p.115); while ‘Totem’ contains the line, ‘There is no mercy in the glitter of cleavers’ (CP, p.264). In ‘Death & Co.’, the ‘other’ manifestation of death is described in the following terms:

His hair long and plausive.
Masturbating a glitter,
He wants to be loved. (AR, p.35)

Like Markey, McKay’s reading of ‘Ariel’ may also be felt to suffer a similar desire to disambiguate this jouissance. By reading ‘Ariel’ only as a poem about the speaker’s transcendence, McKay limits its destructive potentiality. McKay suggests that the speaker suffers the invasive power of the divine and, in doing so, achieves an intensification of her subjectivity. However, given the argument above, McKay’s reading of this integrated ‘I’ (here as the transcendental ego) may be identified as a response to an unspeakable jouissance that threatens the subject’s ability to enunciate. As such, the mutation of the signifying process that occurs via its chaotic rhythmic nexus illustrates how the transcendental ego cannot eradicate the destructive jouissance that threatens to dissolve signification. This point may be reinforced with reference to a moment in ‘Ariel’ in which a destructive jouissance seems to be partially articulated:

Something else
Hauls me through air —
Thighs, hair,
Flakes from my heels (AR, p.33)

In ‘Ariel’, the use of the dash splits sentences into their constitutive elements and, thus, creates a dislocation of syntactic cohesion. With an effect similar to that of the reduplicated subject position mentioned above, the fracture of clausal connectivity subverts the transfer of meaning in the text. In these lines, it is arguable that the identity of the ‘Something’ is erased by the dash, a point reinforced in Draft Three of ‘Ariel’ when Plath divides the sentence between two enjambed stanzas (AR, p.177). As a result, what connects the clauses now becomes lost in the textual silence that the dash imposes. This ‘Something’ may, consequently, be read in its absence/silence (its inability to be constrained within the signifying process) as a jouissance beyond the transcendental ego. Despite the speaker’s attempt to vocalize (and equally constrain) this experience – by imposing the ‘I’ signifier – the rhythmic drive to (bodily) dissolution, evidenced by the interplay of phonemes, threatens a total submersion in the other. Kristeva identifies that this dissolution emerges in a language ‘iridescent with a sexuality of which it does not “speak”; it turns it into rhythm, it is rhythm’.[28] As a result, ‘Ariel’ locates the speaker on the border of signification, unstable in her gendered subjectivity and, thus, in danger of collapse into a jouissance that is beyond articulation.

Ultimately, of course, ‘Ariel’ is not a psychotic text and, though gesturing towards that which is unsignifiable, it also remains confined within a signifying economy; its language, despite being obfuscated through phonemic repetition, syntactic fragmentation and lexical polysemy, remains (at least to some extent) coherent. ‘Ariel’ ends with the re-investiture of the signifier, the ‘red// Eye’ (AR, p.34) – ‘I’ or /aI/ – into which the speaker ‘drive[s]’. Similarly, in ‘Fever 103Âş’, the poem’s erasure of subjectivity, graphically marked by the dash that follows the ‘dissolve’ of the speaker’s ‘selves’, is displaced by the final line in which she achieves ‘Paradise’ (AR, p.79) – phonetically reintroducing the /aI/ and, thus, once more posits her singularity. Although Bassnett comments that the poem ends with ‘a deliberate syntactical shift that stresses linguistically the breaking down of the old self’,[29] her belief that the last sentence lacks a main verb is not strictly accurate. Rather, the poem fractures the final clause, ‘I think I may rise […] To Paradise’, through the long, embedded clause that describes the speaker’s physical dissolution: ‘The beads of hot metal fly etc’. Yet, by constraining this erasure (a movement beyond singular subjectivity) within the dashes and, thus, separating it as a syntactic unit, ‘Fever 103Âş’ ultimately ensures the continuity of the speaker’s unitary identity. In ‘Elm’, the speaker’s physical disintegration is also enacted lexically yet it is simultaneously met by the re-investiture of the ‘I’ on a phonemic level:

Now I break up in pieces that fly about like clubs.
A wind of such violence
Will tolerate no bystanding: I must shriek. (AR, p.27)

As such, although bringing poetic language to a state of profound instability (and thus enacting a textual crisis for both the speaker and the reader) neither ‘Elm’ or ‘Ariel’ does ultimately collapse into absence (or ab-sense, an unspeakable jouissance).

In summary, therefore, ‘Ariel’ can be said to manifest the tension within signifying practice through its simultaneous imposition and subversion of the Sr-Sd relation. Derrida explains this notion in terms of how ‘the organizing principle of the structure […] limit[s] what we might call the play of the structure’ (p.278) [Derrida’s emphasis]. With this in mind, it is evident that ‘Ariel’ gestures towards the dissolution (or ‘play’) of signification yet also imposes necessary organisational constraints (lexical, syntactic, stanzaic etc) as a way of ‘clos[ing] off the play which it opens up and makes possible’ (Derrida, p.279). Crucially, many critics have read the poem in a reductive manner by focusing on it primarily as a narrative of the transcendental ego, a humanist eschatology that serves to limit the text’s otherwise problematic a-signification. In doing so, such critics conceive the poem as a cohesive unity or ‘a full presence which is beyond play’ (Derrida, p.279). My own interpretation of ‘Ariel’ is, of course, more formalist in the emphasis that I give to the operation of poetic language. Yet this is not to view it simply in terms of the ‘structurality of [its] structure’ (Derrida, p.279). Rather than regarding ‘Ariel’ as a unity of its poetic devices, I believe that the poem performs its own abreaction (the imposition of the signifier as a defence against its rhythmic pulverisation) but, in doing so, ‘Ariel’ vocalises the crisis that is fundamental to speaking subjectivity.

Leeds Metropolitan University


[1]Janice Markey, A New Tradition? The Poetry of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich: a Study of Feminism and Poetry (Bern: Peter Lang, 1985), p.59.

[2] In the ‘Translator’s Note’ to Lacan’s The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, Jacques-Alain Miller explains the meaning of jouissance in the following terms: ‘There is no adequate translation in English of this word. “Enjoyment” conveys the sense, contained in jouissance, of enjoyment of rights, property, etc. Unfortunately, in modern English, the word has lost the sexual connotations it still retains in French. (“Jouir” is slang for “to come.”) “Pleasure,” on the other hand, is pre-empted by “plaisi”’ – and Lacan uses the two terms quite differently. “Pleasure” obeys the law of homeostasis that Freud evokes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, whereby, through discharge, the psyche seeks the lowest possible level of tension. “Jouissance” transgresses this law and, in that respect, it is beyond the pleasure principle’ (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), p.218.

[3] Paul Mitchell, ‘Reading (and) the late poems of Sylvia Plath’. Modern Language Review, 100:1 (January, 2005), pp.37-50.

[4] Leonard Sanazaro, ‘The transfiguring self: Sylvia Plath, a reconsideration’, Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath ed. Linda W. Wagner (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984), p.94; Pamela J. Annas, ‘The self in the world: the social context of Sylvia Plath’s late poems’, Critical Essays ed. Wagner, p.131; Judith Kroll, Chapters in a Mythology: the Poetry of Sylvia Plath (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p.156 (Hereafter referred to as CM).

[5] Elisabeth Bronfen, Sylvia Plath (Plymouth: Northcote House, 1998), p.227.

[6] Anne Stevenson, Bitter Fame: a Life of Sylvia Plath (London: Viking, 1989), p.272; Paul Alexander, Rough Magic (New York: Da Capo Press, 1999), p.302.

[7] Linda Wagner-Martin, Sylvia Plath: a Literary Life (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999), p.114; Mary Lynn Broe, Protean Poetic: the Poetry of Sylvia Plath (Columbia/ London: University of Missouri Press, 1980), p.163.

[8] Edward Butscher, Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (New York: The Seabury Press, 1976), p.339.

[9] Judith Kroll, Chapters in a Mythology: the Poetry of Sylvia Plath (Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishers, 2007), p.xvi.

[10] Roland Barthes, ‘The death of the author’, Image-Music-Text (London: Fontana, 1990), p.147.

[11] Indeed, repetition is an interesting aspect of the critical debate itself with several critics making similar (and sometimes identical) claims about the poem.

[12] Sylvia Plath, ‘Appendix II: Script for the BBC broadcast “New Poems by Sylvia Plath”‘, Ariel: the Restored Edition – a Facsimile of Plath’s Manuscript, Reinstating Her Original Selection and Arrangement (London: Faber & Faber, 2004), p.193 (Hereafter referred to as AR).

[13] Richard Allen Blessing, ‘The shape of the psyche: vision and technique in the late poems of Sylvia Plath’, Sylvia Plath: New Views on the Poetry ed. Gary Lane (Baltimore/London: The John Hopkin’s University Press, 1979), p.65.

[14] Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems (London: Faber & Faber, 1981), p.102 (Hereafter referred to as CP).

[15] David Shapiro, ‘Sylvia Plath: drama and melodrama’, Sylvia Plath ed. Gary Lane, p.49; Susan Van Dyne, Revising Life: Sylvia Plath’s Ariel Poems (Chapel Hill/London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993), p.48-49.

[16] Tim Kendall, Sylvia Plath: a Critical Study (London: Faber & Faber, 2001), p.153.

[17] Jacqueline Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (London: Virago, 1991), p.228.

[18] Anna Tripp, ‘Saying I: Sylvia Plath as tragic author or feminist text’, Cultural Review, 5:3 (1994), p.151.

[19] Pashupati Jha, Sylvia Plath: the Fear and Fury of Her Muse (New Delhi: Creative, 1991), p.88.

[20] Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), p.296.

[21] D.F. McKay, ‘Aspects of energy in the poetry of Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath’. Modern Critical Views: Sylvia Plath ed. Harold Bloom (New York/Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989), p.20.

[22] Elisabeth Bronfen, Over Her Dead Body (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), p.407.

[23] Sigmund Freud, ‘Some psychical consequences of the anatomical distinction between the sexes’, The Essentials of Psycho-analysis (London: Penguin, 1991), p.244.

[24] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: an Essay in Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p.4 (Hereafter referred to as PH).

[25] Janice Markey, A Journey into the Red Eye (London: The Women’s Press, 1993), p.29.

[26] Jacques Lacan, Feminine Sexuality eds. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1982), 147. In Bruce Fink’s translation, this phrase reads ‘to reduce mysticism to questions of cum (affaires de foutre)’, On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge, 1972-1973: Encore, the Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX (New York/London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999), p.77 (Hereafter referred to as FS).

[27] Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (London: Faber & Faber, 1996), p.67.

[28] Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: a Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), p.191.

[29] Susan Bassnett, Sylvia Plath (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1987), p.128.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Paul Mitchell "‘White/ Godiva, I unpeel’: destructive jouissance in Sylvia Plath’s ‘Ariel’.". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/mitchell-white_godiva_i_unpeel_destructive_jouiss. October 1, 2023 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2009, Published: June 29, 2009. Copyright © 2009 Paul Mitchell