The reception of a slim book of poems called Ariel (published in London in 1965 and in New York in the early summer of 1966) 1 is by now legendary. The foreword was by none other than Robert Lowell and it was printed, not just inside the book as anyone might reasonably expect, but, tantalizingly, on the front cover, in italics:
From the introduction by ROBERT LOWELL
"In these poems, written in the last months of her life, and often rushed out at the rate of two or three a day, Sylvia Plath becomes herself, becomes something imaginary, newly, wildly and subtly created . . ."
And a purple arrow points us toward the inside where, after the title page and table of contents, we continue to read Lowell's characterization of Sylvia Plath as "hardly a person at all, or a woman, certainly not another 'poetess,' but one of those super-real hypnotic, great classical heroines." Referring to the title poem, Lowell observes that "Dangerous, more powerful than man, machinelike from hard training, she herself is a little like a racehorse, galloping relentlessly with risked, outstretched neck, death hurdle after death hurdle topped." And, in a sentence that was to be muchly cited, he concludes: "These poems are playing Russian roulette with six cartridges in the cylinder, a game of 'chicken,' the wheels of both cars locked and unable to swerve" (A, p. x).
So began the myth of the "literary dragon who . . . breathed a burning river of bale across the literary landscape" ( Time, 10 June 1966), the "infirm prophet," whose poems exhibit "the madness within" as "the ultimate term of the objectivity and narrowness of the lyric poem" ( Irving Feldman in Book Week, 19 June 1966), the "extremist poet" ( A. Alvarez's term) par excellence. 2 Whether Ariel was to be read, in George Steiner's words, as representative of our present tone of emotional life," 3 or whether, as