Poem Analysis: Lady Lazarus In American culture, suicide is considered to be one of the darkest taboos. It has the particular quality of being equally gripping and repulsive. Although suicide is seen as overtly morbid, gruesome and disturbing, it has made many people famous. Sylvia Plath, the illustrious 20th century poetess, is one of them. Sylvia Plath was born on October 27th, 1932 of two parents in a middleclass household in Boston. At a very young age, she demonstrated great literary talent and a hardworking attitude, publishing her first poem at the age of eight and maintaining a straight A record throughout all of her studies.
A few days after she turned eight, her father deceased of diabetes. This event in her life is what most specialists believe to have triggered her depressive tendencies. It has also been known to have caused the poet to hate her father for the pain his death inflicted on her. Twenty-year-old Plath committed her first near-successful suicide attempt after a whole month of not being able to sleep, write or eat properly. She recovered from her nervous breakdown and met her to-be husband, renowned poet Ted Hughes, three years later.
However, after having their first child, their relationship started to go stale, and finally adultery on both their parts caused their painful separation. Soon enough, Sylvia returned to her old suicidal habits. During this feverish period of her life, “Lady Lazarus” and other poems of that genre were written. “Lady Lazarus” conveys a message about her own life, obsessions, weaknesses, and feelings. In recording her previous suicide attempts, she makes comparisons that are not always obvious to decipher or to understand without the right background information.
The poem serves as a metaphor that retains a morbid sensation through its description of the author’s psychological journey. This poem has always fascinated me in terms of the figurative language and the ever-precise vocabulary that is used. In light of her suicidal tendencies, while gathering the information necessary and using a decorticating method, I believe to have been able to make an estimated guess of the message Sylvia Plath intended to render when writing this poem. Take note that the entire “Lady Lazarus” poem can be found at the end of this essay. Upon reading the title, a first impression is made.
Plath creatively uses biblical allusion to connect the title of her poem, “Lady Lazarus,” to the book of John’s Lazarus of Bethany. As Lazarus was resurrected from the dead, so is Plath, or Lady Lazarus, ‘reincarnated’ after each suicide attempt. There is also a hint of her feministic side present in “lady,” a word that projects an image of a powerful woman. “I have done it again. One year in every ten I manage it—” This first stanza acts as an introduction to the poem. It introduces the idea of suicide and death. The first verse demonstrates this. “I have done it again” could be translated as “I have tried to kill myself again. When Plath declares “One year in every ten / I manage it,” she refers to the equal repartition of her near-death experiences, one per decade and one being premeditated at this stage. She specifies these later on in the poem. “A sort of walking miracle, my skin Bright as a Nazi lampshade, My right foot A paperweight, My face a featureless, fine Jew linen. ” For the times when Plath was ‘resurrected’ from the dead, she refers to herself as “A sort of walking miracle,” which reflects the meaning of the title; Lady Lazarus is miraculously raised from the dead.
She then uses the gritty and powerful comparison “Bright as a Nazi lampshade” to describe her skin, which designates the suicidal tyrant that lives within her, and ends up contrasting this image with the softer more subdued metaphor, “a featureless, fine / Jew linen,” to depict her face, which is the victim in a state of deterioration and weakness. These references to the holocaust are her way to demonstrate how she imposes, like the Nazis, her will to commit suicide on her body, which withers beneath her willpower, like the Jews. She is two different personas in this poem: the Nazis and the Jews, the strong and the weak.
Between these comparisons, there are the subtle verses, “My right foot / A paperweight,” which are rather ambiguous. They might mean that she cannot escape these archetypes that live in her given that she feels as if she were nailed to the ground, too heavy to move or act against these. Moreover, I noticed that these objects to which she compares herself may as well be things that were on her desk or within her eyesight when she wrote this: a lampshade, a paperweight, linen clothing. “Peel off the napkin O my enemy. Do I terrify? — The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth? The sour breath
Will vanish in a day. ” These stanzas mark the beginning of the crude sarcasm the author uses throughout Lady Lazarus. Plath dares her enemy to “Peel off the napkin. ” Although she is speaking to one distinct person in the poem, this is an invitation to everyone who wants to observe her with all the awe and disgust this performance inspires. She does, though, mention later that there is a charge to watch her, as if she were a freak show. To the enemy and to those who are willing to watch, she asks the rhetorical question, “Do I terrify? ” We know as the reader, the audience, that the answer is yes.
Most of us are terrified by such a sight, by suicide. She also wants us to look at her face especially, which she had characterized as the victim earlier: “The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth? ” The speaker’s appearance is infallible evidence to her condition; death emanates from her face and bears a certain walking dead quality. Although her face is now wan and drained, she is not beaten yet. In the last two verses, she reassures us derisively that she can get over that within a day, restoring her original beauty, strength and healthy state of mind. “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. ” In this section, the first stanza is a continuation of the idea of the restoration of her original self, “a smiling woman. ” “The grave cave” signifies death, or Plath may also be referring to the earth-bottomed crevice in the cellar of her house where she attempted suicide at twenty with sleeping pills. Next, she states her age with the pride of someone who has a lifetime ahead of them and makes a witty comparison with the cat and herself, who both have “nine times to die. Then, in a boastful tone, she declares that “This is Number Three. ” The capitalization of “Number Three” is effective in blowing out the proportions of this event, as if the act of committing suicide were a big and exciting occasion, which in fact translates Plath’s position on the matter. Then, as quickly as she swelled with pride, her self-disgust manifests itself in “What a trash / To annihilate each decade. ” These verses also confirm the fact that she nearly died at ten in a drowning accident, that she tried to kill herself at twenty with the sleeping pill incident, and that she will be trying again at thirty, all hese being at equal intervals, the markers of each decade. “What a million filaments. The peanut-crunching crowd Shoves in to see Them unwrap me hand and foot The big strip tease. ” These “million filaments” could be a physical representation of her guilt, its invading quality. The verse acts as a continuation of the self-disgust expressed in the previous stanza. “The peanut-crunching crowd” designates everyone really, including the doctors, Plath’s family, and the reader. Her self-aggrandizing gestures invite attention, and yet we, as the readers, are to be ashamed of ourselves if we accept the invitation.
The crowd is aggressive as it “shoves in to see,” and its interest is lascivious as they undress her, “unwrap” her; it is “The big strip tease. ” This crowd also seeks an illicit source of arousal, if not from her naked body, then from her naked psyche. She offers herself to the crowd like a vulgar piece of meat. “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. ” The usage of “Gentlemen, ladies” here is purely satirical and is meant to mock the audience.
We are still, in fact, the same shameful “peanut-crunching crowd” as before. Plath acts as a guide at this particular point as she demonstrates her features: “These are my hands / My knees. ” She emphasizes the fact that she has been reduced to “skin and bone[s],” yet she reassures us that she is “the same, identical woman” in spite of her altered physical appearance; she has not changed. Then, as any good guide would do, she supplies a historical record of past events. She mentions the swimming incident that nearly cost her her life when she was ten.
This was the first time she skimmed death. It was purely accidental. “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. ” Naturally, Plath doesn’t forget to speak of the second time she nearly died, at twenty, when she tried to kill herself with sleeping pills. She had “rock shut // As a seashell” in the earth-bottomed crevice in the cellar of her house. She was terribly well hidden like the second verse of the second stanza suggests.
Her mother and brother found her only three days later, practically dead, with earthworms crawling over her, as mentioned in the last verse. “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. ” In the first stanza of this excerpt, Plath considers dying like an exploit of sorts, and brags about the fact that she is talented in doing so as in anything else: “Dying / Is an art, like everything else, / I do it exceptionally well. This is where we are shown her perfectionist and masochistic selves surfacing and intertwining as she makes sure that she is real about it: “I do it so it feels like hell. / I do it so it feels real. ” It has become an obsession for her at this point, like “a call” or something related to fate. “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:” In these following stanzas, Plath provides an insight on how easy she finds it is to commit suicide: “It’s easy enough to do it in a cell. It’s easy enough to do it and stay put. ” In her case, you could nearly say it accomplishes itself on its own as Plath summons death upon herself so fervently. Next, she describes the disappointment she feels when she realizes she is still in this world, as it is only “the theatrical // Comeback in broad day / To the same place, the same face, the same brute / Amused shout. ” It is another act for the same harassing audience to attend and observe. “‘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. ” As she is resurrected, the crowd is in awe and entertained but completely indifferent to the fact that she is alive still. They’re watching a magic trick being performed: ‘A miracle! ‘ They are amused by the fact that death nearly took her from them. She is a martyr, unattainable and expensive as she needs to charge them “For the hearing of [her] heart” or her naked psyche. This kind of business “really goes,” says the author. Plath, here, makes a connection to the fact that the holocaust business has become a highly profitable entertainment industry over the years. 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. ” In these stanzas, Plath portrays herself as a parody while the people treat her as if she were a martyr, like Jesus or such personages. This unserious depiction is found in the following sardonic verses: “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. ” They very crudely ridicule the commercialization of Jesus, religious entities and even the holocaust, as I mentioned.
Subsequently, there are other holocaust-related elements, such as the usage of German terms, “Herr” and “Doktor,” which mean ‘mister’ and ‘doctor’ respectively. She turns away from the audience to address a single person, the ‘Nazi Doktor,’ which turns out to be the enemy from the beginning of the poem. She taunts and pokes fun at him using mock movie talk. The enemy, thus far unspecified, is either a German male figure of authority, a scholar like Otto Plath, her father, who thinks of the speaker as his “pure gold baby” or she may simply be referring to doctors in general who keep reviving her after each fruitless attempt. 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. ” Still addressing herself to the ‘Doktor,’ she is defining what she represents for him. Otto Plath may be whom she’s talking to, as she says she is his “valuable, / The pure gold baby. ” Or yet still, the typical doctor may see her as an opportunity to receive gratitude, to become locally famous, or to do a good deed in bringing her back to life. In her ironically pretentious way, the image Plath creates of herself is overblown as usual.
Whether she is the daughter or the patient, she is either one’s masterpiece, an “opus,” a “pure gold baby,” and this exhausts her to a point where she “melts to a shriek,” “turn[s] and burn[s]. ” Finally, with more diplomacy, she reassures him that she knows he’s trying to do what he thinks is best for her: “Do not think I underestimate your great concern. ” However, this polite impression fails when we take into consideration the sarcastic tone behind it. In reality, she does not want anyone to save her or to have pity on her. “Ash, ash— You poke and stir. Flesh, bone, there is nothing there— A cake of soap,
A wedding ring, A gold filling. ” In this passage, she is growing vengeful as her tone becomes grittier. Plath is revolted by her own dehumanization and she would love to triumph over the enemy after she dies. She has burnt and reduced herself to ashes and nothingness in the first stanza shown here. This may allude to the use of an oven perhaps, as this would hint to the method by which she would try to kill herself in the future. Although nothing much remains of her at this point, she knows the enemy will be profiting from her death. She expresses this as if she were going to be made into merchandise, which once again efers to the Nazis, who manufactured their victims’ hair, skin, bones, rings and fillings. Historians are not certain that Nazis made cakes of soap with them, but they did, however, make wedding rings and gold fillings. “Herr God, Herr Lucifer Beware Beware. Out of the ash I rise with my red hair And I eat men like air. ” In an access of anger and grandiosity, she warns the great powers from above and below: “Herr God, Herr Lucifer / Beware / Beware. ” Additionally, she acknowledges no power greater than herself, as Plath accomplishes her own resurrection, unlike the biblical miracle of Lazarus of Bethany.
We can clearly see how she grows stronger by the end of the poem as she rises “Out of the ash” like a phoenix with “red hair. ” Finally, with her concluding and blatantly feministic verse, “I eat men like air,” she declares that she has defeated all her enemies, all the men in her life: the doctors who kept reviving her, the businessmen who sold her body to the crowd, and perhaps her father. In concluding this poem, Sylvia Plath finally has triumphed as her own puppet and puppet master. On February 11th, 1963, a few months after having written “Lady Lazarus”, Sylvia Plath committed suicide successfully by inhaling the gas from her stove.
In the process, she immortalized herself and became extremely popular after her death with her collection of poetry Ariel, which was written within the last few months of her life and published two years after her death. The famous poem “Lady Lazarus”, that had made a valid prediction of her destiny, can be found in this collection. Although she was never truly acclaimed as a writer during her lifetime, her much-anticipated compilation of poetry, Collected Poems, was finally released in 1981 and in 1982 won a rarely posthumously-awarded Pulitzer