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  • Interpretations and Implications of Trauma and Narrative in Sylvia Plath’s Ariel
  • Julie Goodspeed-Chadwick (bio)

The distinction between poiesis (i.e., poetic formation, making) and narration (i.e., telling or recounting) is elided in Ariel. The poetry within this collection presents a linked combination of poiesis and narration, prompting us to consider how the poetry might address epistemological or teleological issues pertaining to trauma and its representation in literature. This scenario arises out of a constellation of factors related to trauma, memory, and recollection. Along with the verity of real life experience we encounter in Ariel, we also discover poetic fabrication as well as probable memory omissions in the poems.1 Yet the tenor or emotional intensity of the experience is captured in the formation or making of the poems, while the narrative quality of them attempts to serve as an anchor, grounding the emotional tenor in concrete images (i.e., the vehicle) that address or speak to memories. In Plath scholarship, especially with regard to Ariel, there will always be a fraught relationship between memory and trauma because we cannot ascertain the intimate autobiographical details of Plath’s life, as her husband destroyed her last journal.

The Ariel poems treat the memory of trauma, as we will note in “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” and grapple with trauma at close range, as we will observe in the October 1962 poems, most notably. Plath had tried to commit suicide prior to 1963, and her life, once her marriage became troubled, began to fit the mold of what Freud defines as the “melancholiac.”2 The poems I analyze and discuss below are composed of images, representations, [End Page 117] and stories of and about trauma. They might also point to a partially damaged memory in the gaps and silences therein—or in the frozen fixity in “The Moon and the Yew Tree” and the stunned fixation of the victim in “Edge”—but these poems are counterbalanced by a poem like “Daddy.” What we will note in the analyses and discussions of the poems that follow is a tracking of spatial metaphors, metaphors that suggest fixity, falling, cycling, and progressing. As I will elaborate, the stages of traumatic experience, specifically the “acting out” and “working through” responses that I see as characterizing the poetry of Ariel, are recursive in nature. Because “acting out” and “working through” can actually constitute recursive stages in traumatic experiences, the metaphors employed are not contradictory: they are simply not participating in or constructing a linear narrative. What follows is my attempt to elucidate the representations of trauma and the responses to it in Ariel.

“The Moon and the Yew Tree”

In “The Moon and the Yew Tree” the speaker delivers a landscape that is filled with despair and silence, underscoring the importance of a Gothic setting that carries insinuations of loss and death, signifies decay, and communicates a sense of foreboding, accompanied by sinister associations. The poem begins by describing the emotional state of the mind. It is “cold and planetary,” with figurative black trees and blue light.3 This Gothic setting is replete with the presences of “griefs,” “spirituous mists,” “a row of headstones,” and a “yew tree” that “has a Gothic shape” (46). She cannot detect a path out of this place, one created by her own mind: “I simply cannot see where there is to get to” (46). Similar to what we know about post traumatic stress, the speaker demonstrates that she is

the subject who lives in [trauma’s] grip and unwittingly undergoes its ceaseless repetitions and reenactments. The traumatic event, although real, took place outside the parameters of “normal” reality, such as causality, sequence, place and time. The trauma is thus an event that has no beginning, no ending, no before, no during, and no after. This absence of categories that define it lends it a quality of “otherness.”4

The speaker is in an almost otherworldly place that resembles reality but is uncertain, foreboding, and static; we shall see that the colors and images [End Page 118] are repetitious, and the poem opens as it closes, with the speaker still locked within her mind, caught in the grip of...


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pp. 117-146
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