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An Analysis of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’

I have done it again.


One year in every ten
I manage it

A sort of walking miracle, my skin


Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin


0 my enemy.
Do I terrify?

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?


The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh


The grave cave ate will be
At home on me

And I a smiling woman.


I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.


What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.


The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot


The big strip tease.
Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands


My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.


The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.
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The second time I meant


To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Dying
Is an art, like everything else,
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.


I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I've a call.

It's easy enough to do it in a cell.


It's easy enough to do it and stay put.
It's the theatrical

Comeback in broad day


To the same place, the same face, the same brute
Amused shout:

'A miracle!'
That knocks me out.
There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge


For the hearing of my heart ---
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge


For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.


So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.


I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash ---


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You poke and stir.


Flesh, bone, there is nothing there----

A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer


Beware
Beware.

Out of the ash


I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.1

(Sylvia Plath, ‘Lady Lazarus’, 1962)

I hope to demonstrate how the themes and motifs explored by Sylvia Plath in ‘Lady

Lazarus’ (Ariel, 1962) enhance its unique nature and to consider how the poem fits

into the wider context of Plath’s collection Ariel, the Confessional mode and

American poetry post-1945. Plath’s poetry remains notoriously difficult to analyze

without her own personal tragedy threatening to overshadow it. It is important to

remove the distraction of Plath as a figure of feminist martyrdom or as the poster-

child for the duality of manic depression as an influence on the Confessional mode.

The poetic technique that informs the way in which Plath arduously forges a persona

is what translates into a spell bindingly theatrical piece. Plath achieves this by

creating a dramatic monologue of twenty-eight tercets in which the speaker, facing

the critical situation of choosing death over life, explains her motives and effectively

reveals her life pattern: ‘I have done it again. / One year in every ten/ I manage it’ In a

traditional monologue such as Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ the speaker

addresses the emissary of his cruelty. Alternatively Plath uses the monologue to

address the spectators of her self-harm as well as the agent of her destruction which

1
Sylvia Plath, ‘Lady Lazarus’, Ariel: The Restored Edition (Great Britain: Faber and Faber Limited,
2004), p. 16.
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proves to be a patriarchal figure as much as it is herself. To closely read a poem such

as ‘Lady Lazarus’ one must use the wealth of poetic characteristics provided that

sever it from the “I” presented to us. In fact, I would argue that the pronoun “I” is

used to reconcile the dual aspects of the speaker and the craft of poetry itself. Plath

explores the notion of “ I” internally but reflects the complexity of the external world

at the same time. She clearly uses the Confessional mode as a means by which to

“make it new” in the words of Ezra Pound and to construct a form that has profound

relevance in terms of figurative language.

In this poem we see the cyclical rhythm of death and revival reflecting Plath’s

pervasive philosophical concerns with the Jungian concept of the individual’s dual

nature. The poem uses the doomed Electra figure that reoccurs throughout the Ariel

collection to convey the ferocious duality that emerges from loving and hating the

patriarchal figure. The figure is contradictorily described as both ‘Herr Doktor’ and

‘Herr Enemy’ 2 (64-66) in a manner that threatens both her father and her husband as

she leaves her wedding ring behind. ‘Lady Lazarus’ was unsurprisingly written

shortly after the poem ‘Daddy’ during Plath’s most profusive literary period and so it

can be interpreted as what Judith Kroll called a ‘companion piece’3 as both poems

portray the husband, father and male patriarchal figure as ‘Herr God’ and ‘Herr

Lucifer’. 4 (79) Theses epithets express how man is a dual force that is at one with

both the underworld and salvation. ‘Lady Lazarus’ furthers this ritualised approach

conveying "a girl with an Electra complex whose father died while she thought he

2
Sylvia Plath, ‘Lady Lazarus’, Ariel: The Restored Edition (Great Britain: Faber and Faber Limited,
2004), p. 16.
3
Judith Kroll, Chapters in Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (Sutton Publishing Limited, 2007),
p. 122.
4
Ibid., p. 17.
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was God"5 and in response becomes the female incarnation of the dead Lazarus. In

doing so the speaker liberates herself from the irreconcilable influence of the male

figure and realizes her full potential as a self sufficient goddess who ‘rises out of the

ash/ to eat men like air’6 (82-84) and is energized by what Plath herself described as

“the terrible gift of being reborn”.7 The image of the phoenix is utilized by Plath to

channel the speaker’s personal rebirth into the realms of poetry. Crucially the pronoun

“I” in ‘Lady Lazarus’ is in constant transition as it extends outwards from its

specifically personal relation to the father figure to the world of men and finally into a

looming reincarnation of the self. In the guise of Lady Lazarus the girl with the

Electra complex asks her metaphorical male torturers ‘O my enemy, / Do I terrify?

[…]’8 (11-12) She grows increasingly powerful throughout the stanzas and

increasingly akin to the phoenix image alluded to at the end of the poem that will

‘rise’ and ‘eat men like air.’ The ancient signifier of power, lust and terror associated

with the phoenix is evident in the poem’s portrayal of Lady Lazarus, who is literally

fraught with energy, as she makes a ‘Comeback’9 (52) from suicide to defiantly face

‘the same place, the same face, the same brute’. In the first tercet Lady Lazarus

announces ‘I have done it again’ and the operative word here is “I” which signifies

her self-generative power. Similarly in the next stanza she calls her skin ‘A sort of

walking miracle’10 (4) suggesting that the skin is a metaphor for her humanity as

luminous as a ‘Nazi lampshade’11 (5) and electrified by persecution. Once again Plath

reflects the power Lazarus generates from pain. Likewise the speaker’s appraisal of

5
Kroll, p. 123.
6
Ibid.
7
Sylvia Plath, ‘Lady Lazarus’, in Ariel: The Restored Edition (Great Britain: Faber and Faber Limited,
2004), p. 16.
8
Ibid.
9
Ibid.
10
Ibid., p. 14.
11
Ibid.
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her face as ‘a featureless fine Jew linen’12 (8-9) intimates the terror that Plath intends

to be associated with her amalgamation of the phoenix and Lazarus in the female

speaker. The radical image of a face without distinguishing characteristics removes

humanity from the speaker so that she can transcend it: communicating the manner in

which she has found life-in-death by disrupting the traditional boundaries between

them. It also implies that the speaker has been obliterated by suffering and effaced

through the process of repeatedly attempting to die. The freakish quality implied by

this description is mitigated and reinforced by the troubling veneer of beauty that is

implied through Plath’s depiction of a face that is like ‘fine […] linen’. In this

context a seemingly mundane metaphor becomes horrifying, suggesting whiteness

and smoothness as if it were the face of a person always reborn. The full capacity for

whiteness to signify emptiness and purity is explored by Plath here and it is reiterated

in her description of the speaker’s skin as a ‘napkin’ (10, p. 14.) and her foot as a

‘paperweight’ (7, p. 14.). Whilst these objects may not necessarily be white paper,

linen and napkins are associated most readily with this color. Plath utilizes these color

associations to bolster her radical images illustrating her considerable skill as a poet

as she animates her vision of Robert Grave’s white goddess who is clearly ‘sister’ to

‘Plath’s phoenix’ according to Judith Kroll. Furthermore, when the speaker declares

‘what a trash/ To annihilate every decade’ (23-24) she imparts how her actions may

make a trash or mockery of life but she can and does manage this annihilation

‘exceptionally well’ (45).13 The result of this statement is once again mingled with

dual associations, it is almost wryly humorous and yet there is nothing humorous

about Lady Lazarus’ ability to die and be reborn. The dual persona implicit within

Plath’s portrayal of a woman who is both Lazarus and phoenix is palpable in the

12
Ibid.
13
Ibid., p. 15.
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fourth tercet:

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?


The sour breath
Will vanish in a day14 (13-15)

It is the arbitrariness of these signs of life that is alarming to the reader as the speaker

relishes the signs of decay and she is resplendent in the process of dying: ‘soon, soon

the flesh/ The grave cate ate will be/ At home on me’15 (16-18) Plath suggests that the

speaker is so familiar with death that makes a home of her psyche and her body. This

familiarity with death is depicted as a means by which the speaker is consciously

seductive to those who are incredulous at the spectacle of her mission to achieve life-

in-death. However the lure of the speaker derives from her Other-ness and

accordingly Plath builds upon the image of the speaker as a freak show, from whom

the crowd clamor to see ‘The big strip tease’16 (29) The image of the phoenix as a

symbol of power as well as one of lust corresponds with the Plath’s portrayal of not

only a woman capable of giving life and taking it away but an enigmatic deity,

straddling the two worlds of life and death and forging them into one.

The image of the Nazi and their treatment of the Jews is repeatedly used throughout

the poem. Plath uses the word “Jew” to signify torment and this personalized

enactment of historical events is so loaded with impact for the post-Holocaust reader

that it haunts the remainder of the poem. Furthermore it corresponds profoundly with

the strength and suffering Plath builds up to fever pitch in the persona of the lady

incarnation of the phoenix and Lazarus. Plath addresses the inhumanity of

objectifying a Jewish person into mere parts by using phrases such as "A cake of

soap, /A wedding ring, /A gold filling"17 (76-78) to represent what remains of the

14
Ibid., p. 14.
15
Ibid.
16
Ibid.
17
Ibid., p. 16.
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speaker’s humanity amongst the ash the doctor-Nazi-patriarch tries to “poke and

stir”.18 (74) This alludes to the medical experimentation that was practiced by the

Nazi doctors and the speaker’s response to investigative probing is “Flesh, bone, there

is nothing there”.19 (75) The starkness of these images combine to create a vision of

nothingness or fragmentation however they provide more than sensual description.

Plath essentially connects the speaker’s agony and objectification at the hands of men

to the superiority of the doctor who is the master of diagnosis and definition in the

modern age. Plath justifies her Nazi/Jew allusions by claiming:

out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, I must say that I

cannot sympathize with these cries from the heart that are informed by

nothing except a needle and a knife, or whatever it is. I believe that one

should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most

terrifying, like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience […] I

believe it should be relevant, and relevant to the larger things, the

bigger things such as Hiroshima and Dachau and so on.20

The journey of “I” in ‘Lady Lazarus’ that straddles the underworld and the material

one simultaneously, suggests a wider importance in relation to the journey of the first

person in poetry. M. L. Rosenthal first used the term "Confessional" in a review of

Robert Lowell’s Life Studies entitled “Poetry as Confession”. Rosenthal mentions

earlier tendencies towards the Confessional arching back to Shakespearian and

Petrarchan sonnets but notes how there was typically a mask that provided a barrier

between the poet and the speaker. In ‘Lady Lazarus’ the Confessional form seems to

take on a far more personal nature more akin to Walt Whitman’s self revelatory “I”
18
Ibid.
19
Ibid.
20
Cate Marvin, ‘Tell All the Truth but Tell it Slant: First Person Usage in Poetry’, Poets.Org
<http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5888> [accessed 20/08/2009]
33114823 9

than William Shakespeare’s. The transition of Plath’s utilization of “I” from the

personal to the wider world demonstrates a shift from the doctrine of impersonality

that defined the poetic orthodoxy of modernism in the early 20th century. I would

argue that to Plath, the aim of the Confessional mode was to widen its net outwards

and by equating the psychological torment of Lady Lazarus with the ritualized

victimization of the Jews she achieves this. The speaker, however, ironically reverses

the passivity inherent in this comparison to the Jews in her transmutation into the

rising phoenix at the close of the poem. As Leonard Sanazaro points out in Linda

Wagner’s Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath: "This willfulness to arise and devour

humankind in the form of a self-fulfilled deity points up the impotence of the

traditional concepts of good and evil".21 ‘Lady Lazarus’ can be interpreted as

intimating the intensifying torment of the modern age by resourcefully using the

imposition of Nazi ideology and experimentation on the Jew as a means of expressing

the patriarchal indignities Lady Lazarus must transgress in order to fulfill her mission

in liberating herself.

I think it is important to remember Cleanth Brooks’ definition of poetry in reading

this poem. Brooks defines poetry as the ‘language of paradox’ that is ‘hard, bright,

witty’ and shows awareness of the poetic language’s capacity to balance ‘denotations

with connotations’.22 It is vital in close reading the poem to apply this formalist

outlook to the voice Plath herself described as Virginia ‘Woolfish’ but ‘tough’.23 It is

through Plath’s acute attention to the details in language that she creates an

21
Wagner, Linda. Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath. (Boston: G.K. Hall & Company, 1984) p. 71.
22
Cleanth Brooks, “The Language of Paradox” in Literary Theory: An Anthology (London: Blackwell
Publishing, 1998), p. 54.
23
Christina Britzolakis Sylvia Plath and the Theatre of Mourning (London: Clarendon Press, 1999) p.
72.
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astounding landscape that reflects the contradictory nature of human experience. This

effect is what Brooks lucidly called the ‘continual tilting of planes’ in poetic metaphor

that creates universal insight. In my view Brooks description coincides well with the

primary awareness Plath used to remodel her experiences tactically into poetry rather

than uncomplicated admission. Plath uses techniques such as metaphor, mythological

allusions and radical imagery, always with contrast in mind, to create an ultimately

poetic vision rather than merely a confessional tract. Theme, language and form

combine within the poem to create the continuation of Plath’s Ariel voice. Al Alvarez

describes it as ‘grief stricken but pared down’ he astutely observes how it veers

between the ‘minor-key’24 and finely tuned violence: The ‘smiling woman’25 (19)

becomes ‘The pure gold baby/ That melts to a shriek.’26 (69-70) in a manner that

mimics the progression of the poem into an increasingly rapturous tone.The dramatic

monolgue is a form that best showcases the speaker’s physical and psychological

response to a cycle of metaphorical deaths and rebirths. For instance, we are provided

insight into how her body is objectified and her reaction to this:

The peanut-crunching crowd


Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot


The big strip tease.
Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands


My knees […]27 (25-33)

As Frank Bidart astutely observes Plath is “using something from the tradition…using
24
Al Alvarez, ‘How Black Magic Killed Sylvia Plath’, The Guardian, Wednesday 15 September 1999
<http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/1999/sep/15/features11.g2> accessed [20/09/2009]
25
Sylvia Plath, ‘Lady Lazarus’, in Ariel: The Restored Edition (Great Britain: Faber and Faber Limited,
2004), p. 14.
26
Ibid., p. 16.
27
Ibid., p. 15.
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a form or container, but… making it seem so necessitous, it is so animated by a sense

that this is how I must speak, that it feels fresh and original”.28 The Tradition Bidart

refers derives from Eliot’s hugely influential essay “Tradition and The Individual

Talent”: an essay that defines poetic originality by an ability to embody the whole of

literature’s past and make it new. In my view, Plath achieves this by manipulating the

dramatic monologue to contain a forceful female centered consciousness rather than

the more common male speaker central to poems such as T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love

Song of Alfred Prufrock’ in lines such as: ‘I may be skin and bone. / Nevertheless I

am the same, identical woman’29 (34) she also illustrates knowledge of the Tradition

by using an open verse structure that does not abandon symmetry in its tercets and

does not abandon rhyme. In this sense she is making it new lyrically and contextually.

The tercet metre scheme in Lady Lazarus does not follow a constant rhyming pattern

however it contains near rhymes that often spill onto the next line or create internal

rhymes such as ‘hair’ and ‘air’ ‘shell’ and call’. Alternatively she uses perfect rhyme

for more obvious emphasis such as: ‘I turn and burn’.30 (72) Plath also employs

anaphora in a way that recalls Whitman’s fondness for the rhythm accentuated by this

technique: ‘It's easy enough to do it in a cell. / It's easy enough to do it and stay put.’31

(49-50) Repetition such as: ‘Ash. ash --- ’32 (73) and ‘Beware, / Beware.’33 (80-81)

creates an incantory and sinister atmosphere. When the speaker declares:

[…] There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge


For the hearing of my heart----
28
Frank Bidart, ‘Video: “Lady Lazarus” and the Received Form’, Poets.Org,
<http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20419> accessed [18/09/2009]
29
Plath, p. 15.
30
Ibid.., p. 16.
31
Ibid., p. 15.
32
Ibid., p. 17.
33
Ibid.
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It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge


For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood34 (57-63)

The charge, in this visceral image, does not merely represent the literal payment of

the peanut crunching crowd to watch her resurrection. Plath’s repetition of the word

charge establishes this female figure’s monstrous power and the unyielding dominion

she has over her entire body. Plath effectively houses a dark monologue on death and

rebirth within a rhythmic structure that is unpredictable but always present and

provocative. She subsequently infuses the poem with a sense of pulsing urgency that

stresses the archetypal nature of the poem’s themes.

In ‘Lady Lazarus’ the struggle to regain a unified sense of self is transformed into a

universal concern. The subject of “I and its personal agonies and grievances with the

conflict of the internal and external world are transported into wider artistic and

anthropological relevance. Firstly ‘Lady Lazarus’ displays the poetic workmanship

characteristic of Plath’s meticulous style and an approach to language that deems it

independent from its inspiration. Secondly it provides a gateway into the nature of

man as whole. The poem is much larger than one individual’s personal experiences

and demonstrates how one can make signs and signifiers out of them, imparting a

form of knowledge that may derive from “I” but radiates outwards to capture the

idiosyncrasies of modern society’s increasing instabilities. Al Alvarez lucidly

observes in “How Black Magic Killed Sylvia Plath” that poets “experiment with new

forms not in order to cause a sensation but because the old forms are no longer

adequate for what they want to express”. Alvarez describes Plath making it new as an

‘astonishing’ product of ‘the bravery and curious artistic detachment with which she

34
Ibid., p. 16.
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went about her task’35 Indeed, Plath shapes experience as if she were a blacksmith

manipulating iron into steel. Her style is both crushing in its blows and characterized

by a desire to achieve purity through figurative language and a relentless will to

construct art out of experience.

35
Al Alvarez, ‘How Black Magic Killed Sylvia Plath’, The Guardian, Wednesday 15 September 1999
<http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/1999/sep/15/features11.g2> accessed [20/09/2009]