Sylvia Plath is one of the most controversial writers of the 20th century. Even as a child, she showed promise of being a great writer. However, as a teenager, she suffered a loss of faith following the death of her father, and later began to show outward symptoms of depression. During this time, she had multiple suicide attempts; this period of her life would eventually become the inspiration for much of her writing. Depression continued to follow Plath throughout her marriage and life, and she committed suicide at age 30.
"Lady Lazarus" was published posthumously and is considered one of her "Holocaust poems." These poems were written with allusions to the Nazi acts of World War II, but are not directly about the Holocaust itself. Plath also mixes in traditional mythology to create vibrant imagery for the reader.
Plath’s poem is considered to be of free verse structure. There is no distinct rhyme or rhythm patterns to be found. Each stanza is a trio of lines, and the flow of the poem exhibits Plath’s confessional format; she is essentially baring her soul through her writing.
I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it– –
Plath starts her with a sardonic admission that she has done "it" before; from the background, it is understood that she is referring to her suicide attempts. She continues on to refer to herself as a "walking miracle", indicating that she admits her survival was not expected or necessarily plausible.
As she continues on, she writes:
A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot
My face a featureless, fine
Interestingly through this section, she is essentially objectifying herself, but placing the objects in the context of the Holocaust. Plath, being Jewish herself, is identifying with suffering of the Jewish people; she sees the suffering that she causes herself to be of the same nature as that inflicted by the Nazis. While all of these object are described to be bright, beautiful, and useful, they can only be made through the pain, suffering, and dismemberment seen in the Holocaust.
Continuing on, she instructs her "enemies", generally understood to be her rescuers, to "peel off the napkin". This is a direct reference to her earlier line equivocating her face to "fine/ Jew linen". Essentially, she is daring those who saved her to look past her outward appearances and statements, and become acquainted with her true mentality. This is emphasized by her question, "Do I terrify?" This question is a ridiculing dare to her rescuers to look beyond the momentary staving off of the problem.
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 –
Throughout these stanzas, Plath is referring to the physical effects of her suicide attempt. Her suicide attempts are notable, including one attempt where she was found three days after having attempted a narcotic overdose – she was found unconscious in a crawl space. The physical signs of the suicide attempt are noted as "the nose, the eye pits", both places where malnourishment or abuse would be evident. However, the full set of teeth runs counter to the ongoing description, another indication of Plath’s sardonic tone. Her claims that the "sour breath/ Will vanish in a day" and the flesh the "grave cave ate" will return are both images indicating that Plath expects everything to return to normal, and that she will return to full health despite her attempt. She continues on in the poem, stating that she is a "smiling woman" and "only thirty", both descriptions that indicate life and vitality; however, this is
countered with her simile of a cat, emphasizing that she has more lives to lose if she does attempt suicide again.
What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see
Them unwrap me hand and foot—
The big strip tease.
These stanzas reflect Plath’s perception of those around her. She sees them as a circus crowd of sorts, willing to take pictures and watch, but only interested in their personal entertainment. She likens herself to a stripper; her reference to the "Gentleman, ladies" indicates the class perception of those around her. However, while they may feel distinguished, she notes that their nature still encourages them to want to be a viewer. These stanzas, along with the final line of stanza 4, has a clear circus or freak show theme, with Plath placing herself within the control of others, as seen by her statement that others "unwrap me hand and foot".
She goes on to state that as they metaphorically unwrap her, it is evident that she is the same person she has always been. This leads into her chronicling of earlier suicide attempts. She mentions that her first attempt at age 10 was accidental, but that subsequent attempts were purposeful. In her second attempt, which she attempted with more diligence, she notes that they had to "call and call", and that they "pick[ed] the worms off me like sticky pearls." The worms are a symbol that she had been dead for a while; Plath is pointing out the lengthy extent of her attempt. However, her satirical simile of the worms to pearls indicates that the rescuers found more personal value in saving her than she did.
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
Interestingly, Plath identifies herself as an artist, and an exceptional one at that, with dying being one of her skills. The idea that dying is an art ties into an evident theatrical theme of descriptions throughout the story. In the first stanzas, she sees her body pieces as pieces of art; she continues on to then become a performer, emphasized her reference to the crowds viewing and her role as the object of the striptease. She continues to emphasize the theatrical throughout the next two stanzas, indicating that she does it to feel "like hell" and "real"; these description indicate that Plath sees life and Hell as equals in regard to the pain the inflict. However, she allows that she has "the call", or that the life chose her.
Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
That knocks me out.
There is a charge
These stanzas emphasize the theatrical nature of her returns after the suicide attempts. Those around
her are happy; however, her use of the word "amused" indicates a patronizing element to their happiness, again with the emphasis on the idea that she is there for their entertainment. The use of the word "miracle" is a biblical allusion, and is tied largely to the title of the poem. The idea that she is a female version of Lazarus, or that she is returning from the dead in front of everyone by God’s grace is seen with hilarity by Plath.
Plath follows these stanzas with two more describing the way people viewed her; she emphasizes their
ways of determining that she was alive (feeling her scars, hearing her heart), but notes that she charged
each of them for doing so; this continues the theatrical descriptive theme, and becomes darker as she
continues on by stating that they asked her for "a word or touch/ Or a bit of blood".
Plath then makes an obvious return to her Holocaust descriptions, referring to her audience (who were earlier described as "enemies" and "Gentleman, ladies") as "Herr Doktor" and "Herr Enemy". The idea that they are her enemy is clear; her emphasis of the German traits again puts her suffering alongside that of the Jewish Holocaust victims. The idea that a doctor is the cause of her pain is interesting, and could be a reference to Plath’s view of early psychological therapies – she went through many programs but had little success.
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.
Throughout these stanzas, she places herself as the object of the doctor’s interest, but notes that while she is told she is valuable to the doctor, she feels that value is seen in her as a subject of testing rather than a person. Her use of the word "opus" indicates that she is the doctor’s greatest work; the gold indicate her intense value. However, the doctor’s ability to melt her down or focus his tests at her expense creates the sarcastic final line indicating her disbelief of the doctor’s stated concern.
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there—
A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.
Plath continue on with the symbolism of burning, with the doctor essentially testing her until she is completely beyond hope. The next stanza reflects all that is left of Plath after having hers body burned. This idea that she has been consumed by the fire leads to the final two stanzas.
Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
The reference to "Herr God, Herr Lucifer" is a new reference to the audience in her poem. She sees them now assuming a more spiritual role, both as a judge and a tempter, in her quest for peace. However, her repeated warning indicates the idea that when she returns, it will be with vengeance. The final stanza references the cycle of a Phoenix, who burns when it dies but is reborn, to fight against those who imprisoned her. Throughout this poem, she refers to her audience as male, both in the emphasized "Gentleman" versus the de-emphasized ladies, and also by using the male pronoun on the German titles of Doktor and Enemy. Her reference to "eat[ing] men like air" is often seen as a statement of blame towards men for her condition, thus earning her cosmic vengeance.
The main theme of this poem is Plath’s belief that she is being for personal entertainment rather than out of care. She continually returns to the idea that she is on display, objectified, and her actions are being watched for enjoyment or personal gain by others rather than out of empathy. As such, she is lashing out at those people, and essentially blaming them for her continued condition. She sees them as contributing to her pain and holding her back from being free.
This poem begins with Plath reminiscing about her failed suicide attempts. She does not thank those who saved her, but holds hope that all will return to normal, and she will be fine. As the poem progresses, she focuses on those who are watching her for their entertainment, and continually gets more angry with them. She focuses her anger at those around her and her doctors, emphasizing that they care more about her body as an object, and are willing to pay for their entertainment. However, she concludes by referencing herself as a phoenix, and warns that when she returns, she will seek revenge on the men who caused her pain.