Analysis of Poem Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath

Updated on March 8, 2019
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath | Source

Sylvia Plath and A Summary of Lady Lazarus

Lady Lazarus is one of Sylvia Plath's best known poems. Written in the final few months of 1962, it is one of several powerful poems Plath wrote in quick succession, before her death on 11th February 1963.

  • Lady Lazarus is not a raw, direct confessional poem, despite that first person conversational opening line, but a melodramatic monologue on the subject of identity.
  • For Sylvia Plath, identity had a strong, inherent existential element. Her German father died prematurely when she was eight years old, leaving her emotionally bereft. She nearly drowned when 10 years old whilst swimming out to sea. Many think this was an attempted suicide. This incident is mentioned in the poem.
  • Later on in life she again attempted suicide and failed. Bouts of depression throughout her adult life had to be treated with medication and electroconvulsive shocks.
  • In the poem the speaker compares herself to a cat, having nine lives. But she also grotesquely states:

Dying

is an art, like everything else.

I do it exceptionally well.

  • There is also parody, performance and pain but in the end the reader is left in little doubt that the speaker, a suffering woman out for revenge, is reborn as a mythological creature capable of eating men.

Male characters play an important role in Plath's poetry and in Lady Lazarus they feature prominently. The fact that she used German words - Herr Doktor, Herr Enemy and so on - relates to her father, who was German. She had a complex relationship with Otto Plath. Her poem 'Daddy' attests to this.

Her marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes ended in the summer of 1962 when Sylvia Plath got to know of an affair between Hughes and one Assia Wevill. This must have influenced the tone of the poem with regards to the warning given to all males near the end.

It is clear from reading biographies and her letters that the final few months of Sylvia Plath's life were a mix of creative highs and devastating emotional and psychological lows. She never could quite find a tolerable way through.

From the title, with its reference to the biblical Lazarus, raised from the dead by Christ, to the final stanza where the speaker, having been burnt to ash, rises like a phoenix, the emphasis is on regeneration - new form, miraculous transformation - the artist, the artistic work, living on.

The most controversial aspect of the poem is the reference to the awful events at the Belsen concentration camp run by the Nazis in the second world war. Jews from all sorts of backgrounds were subject to the most gruesome experiments before being murdered.

Sylvia Plath was well aware of the provocative contents of her poem. She wrote:

'What the person out of Belsen - physical or psychological - wants is nobody saying the birdies still go tweet-tweet, but the full knowledge that somebody else has been there and knows the worst, just what it is like.'

Letter to Mother, Oct 1962

The speaker's suffering in the poem relates to that of any individual who went through the trauma of the holocaust. Many critics have questioned Plath's inclusion of Belsen and associated horrors; they see it as insensitive and gross.

Equally it could be argued that an artist has a duty to provoke and challenge and that no subject should be taboo.

Sylvia Plath must have known that by using such sensitive language she would shock and offend, just as she did in her poem Daddy, which focuses mainly on her father Otto. In the poem he is portrayed as a Nazi, yet in real life there is no evidence to suggest this. So the poet Plath is creating a poetic persona, a fictional character.

  • The same goes for Lady Lazarus. This is not a straight autobiographical confessional poem at all but a created drama, a set of scenes in which Plath's frustrations and struggles can play out.

From this the question arises - does her use of such controversial language actually work within the poem and enhance it as a work of art? The final answer must be up to the reader.

We'll let Sylvia Plath herself explain:

'The speaker is a woman who has the great and terrible gift of being reborn. The only trouble is, she has to die first. She is the phoenix, the libertarian spirit, what you will. She is also just a good, plain, very resourceful woman.'

Sylvia Plath, introduction to 1962 BBC recording of Lady Lazarus reading.

What Is The Theme of Lady Lazarus?

The basic theme of Lady Lazarus is the regeneration of identity through the cycle of life and death.

With this resurrection or rebirth comes new power, specifically that of the female (the speaker) now in a position to usurp the male.

Sub-themes include personal and collective suffering, family influences and history and a woman's place in a largely male dominated world.

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
O 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.

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—
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.

What Is The Tone or Mood of Lady lazarus?

Lady Lazarus has a single speaker with different personas, so as the poem progresses perspective changes. Overall the tone is defiant, perverse and grotesque. There is a hint of theatrical bravado and even comedy.

Stanzas 1 - 8 focus on the first person - What she is, what she thinks of her actions.

Stanzas 9 - 11 focus on other people as she reveals her true self.

Stanzas 12 - 19 focus on dying, her existential crisis

Stanzas 20 - 28 focus on dominant male influences and regeneration.

Analysis of Lady Lazarus Stanza by Stanza

Stanza 1

That famous opening line, end stopped for emphasis and effect, is matter of fact and fateful too. The conversational tone continues into the second line, as if the speaker is fully too familiar with her personal history and has been 'measuring' out whatever it is she has done, but not in coffee spoons (like Eliot's Prufrock).

The dash at the end of the third line leads the reader on and allows for that casual second stanza opening.

Stanza 2

Lazarus, from the title, was raised from the dead by Christ (bible John 11. 1-44) and this allusion is mirrored in the speaker's own use of the word. She's inferring that she shouldn't really be around (alive any longer) but she is.

The first line ends with enjambment, the line running on. The second line, infamous, refers to the appalling fact that in the Nazi death camps the skin of victims was used to make lampshades (and soap).

Plath's use of this is shocking, the reasons complex, part to do with the relationship she had with her father Otto Plath, a German scientist who died prematurely, when Sylvia was only 8 years old. It seems that she never forgave him.

The third line alludes to the foot (also mentioned in her poem Daddy) which is a symbol of the speaker's life.

Stanza 3

Metaphorically the foot is a paperweight, an object used to keep papers in place, so not used for walking - this foot isn't getting anywhere, this life isn't going anywhere?

Her face is indistinctive, a fine Jew linen. Again, reference to the Jews and their awful treatment by the Nazis. There is something bleak and rather eerie about this masking effect. The image is also surreal - the speaker is steadily creating a weird persona.

Stanza 4

And the first appearance of the enemy, asked to peel off the napkin, presumably the one covering the speaker's face. This demand comes out of the blue - the speaker is not alone - and the eleventh line O my enemy has a dramatic feel.

The first of only two questions in the poem seems to be the speaker presuming that she terrifies the enemy, because she is dead?

Stanza 5

The second question goes through nose, eyes and teeth...and breath. So she is still alive? Yes it seems. But it will vanish in a day..is that the sourness or the breath itself?

This is a rather gruesome picture building, the speaker dead but alive, like a zombie.

Stanza 6

A curious mix of personification and metaphor make this one of the unusual stanzas.

Note the enjambment throughout this stanza, and the repeated soon, which is rather hopeful in tone, pointing to the near future. And just what is the grave cave? Is it a grave where the speaker has been buried? Perhaps it's not to be taken literally. It could be a symbol of domestic life, dull routine, which Sylvia Plath at times detested...so it ate her up.

Is she suggesting that in a short time the flesh will suit her and make her smile, make her happy? After all, she is Lazarus, who was dead but has been resurrected.

Stanza 7

Because of this resurrection she is relatively happy. But she has to remind herself just how young she is. 30 years old. Being so young and like a cat means she has plenty of lives yet to live. 9 in fact, according to folklore. Cats always seem to land on their feet it's true, but the speaker isn't so lucky?

Note the three lines, all end stopped, meaning pauses between each separate line, a technique the poet uses in other stanzas (12, 16, 22 and 24).

Analysis of Lady Lazarus Stanza by Stanza

Stanza 8

This is number three, the third life out of a possible nine. Again, a matter of fact statement, as if the speaker is ticking her lives off on a chart, as someone might days on a calendar.

The Americanism What a trash infers that the speaker is aware of wasting her life, again seen in terms of number, three decades.

Stanza 9

A million filaments - filaments are the slender wires in light bulbs or are thin fibres in plant or animal structures. So is the idea one of many many strands combining to make up the structure of the speaker's life dilemma? Or are they loose ends?

The next line offers up a different scene. There is now a crowd, a pushy audience who are eating peanuts eager to see some kind of show or performance.

Stanza 10

Up to this point only the enemy had seen her skin but now she is exposed before an audience, the public? She is being unwrapped by somebody but is it the length of her body or simply her hand and foot being exposed? Presumably its a full body strip - note the big strip tease - and then she herself takes over the announcements.

Stanza 11

One of the leanest stanzas in the poem. She points out various parts of her body. She's skin and bone, that is, thin. Form and content in harmony, of sorts.

Stanza 12

No matter her physical appearance she is the same person, she cannot change. The 35th line is based on Plath's actual biography, the time when she swam out to sea intent on drowning herself. So here the speaker is looking back, claiming the event was not planned.

Stanza 13

The second suicide attempt is outlined, perhaps a combination of fact and fiction. Things are getting more serious because this seems to be a conscious attempt, unlike the first which was an accident.

Stanza 14

The reference to a seashell points to another maritime event but what about the worms that stick to her, and the calling of those close to her? The seashell image enhances the idea of someone being tight to themselves, darkened, closed off from the world.

Close Analysis of Lady Lazarus Stanza by Stanza

Stanza 15

An evocative stanza, with that poignant first word leading in through enjambment to the second line which relates death to art and both to the whole. The speaker here is declaring that she excels at dying, she is an artist to the core.

A devastating three line delivery.

Stanza 16

Anaphora ... repeat of I do it....at play in lines 46 and 47, building on the previous stanza's claim. This is the speaker reinforcing the idea that her dying is a conscious choice, she attempts suicide for the extreme feeling it brings. It is painful and shocking (it's hell), it helps dismiss uncertainty and anxiety (it's real here and now experience).

The rather flippant...I guess you could say...is another attempt by the speaker to explain her actions. She has a calling, a compulsion, to end it all, again and again.

Stanza 17

Anaphora...again...It's easy enough...the repeated explanations continue in bizarre and dark fashion. She's saying that if you want to do away with yourself choose a cell (in prison or institute?) and let happen what will happen.

The last line of this stanza points to the dramatic again. This is one big show taking place in broad daylight.

Stanza 18

The speaker refers to the resurrection as a Comeback...the return of...back to the identical same place and face...and body. Everyone can see, everyone shouts 'A miracle!' it's happened again. Bravo speaker, you haven't managed to kill yourself.

Or is that the single individual shout of the speaker? Could be both.

Stanza 19

It's this return to the status quo that is the big surprise for the speaker. Another Americanism 'That knocks me out' sums it all up. She cannot believe the return has been successful, the suicide attempt a failure.

But someone has to pay for this performance. It's not a free show.

Stanza 20

People have to pay a charge, not in monetary terms but in emotional terms, psychologically. The scars gained, the heart still beating. Can the speaker believe it really goes?

Stanza 21

There's even more to pay for a word, a touch, some blood...these are more intimate, more personal. This is the reduction of a person, the taking apart of the physical and mental, the stripping down.

Echoes of the death camp victims again, a parallel with that of the speaker's painful suffering.

Stanza 22

And also a price to pay for hair and clothes. The mention of Herr Doktor, Herr Enemy, points to Plath's actual father (and possibly her husband Ted Hughes) and generally speaking the male ego.

Stanza 23

She speaks directly to them saying that she is their work of art (opus), she is their valuable (personal property), something innocent and precious (pure gold baby), all in one.

Stanza 24

This precious work of art however melts down to nothing but a shriek (piercing cry) and then starts to burn. That line 72 'Do not think I underestimate your great concern' is either sarcasm or a genuine acknowledgement that people care.

Stanza 25

The fire dies down, all that's left is ash. Someone pokes at the flesh and bone but it's gone.

Stanza 26

Flesh has been turned into soap,(another death camp reference) and there's a wedding ring (allusion to her marriage with Ted Hughes which failed) and a gold filling from a tooth.

Stanza 27

Herr God and Herr Lucifer (the devil) are told to beware. Things are becoming more dramatic and unreal. Again, the German Herr (mister) relates to the father and the Nazi regime - they are here portrayed as all powerful.

So the repeated Beware is a definite warning to the all powerful male supremacy. Plath was inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem Kubla Khan :

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

Stanza 28

The speaker rises, like a phoenix, from the ash. The phoenix is a mythological bird which perishes in flames in the nest but then rises again to start a new life.

So here we have Lady Lazarus finally rising up, a new entity, red hair and all, capable of devouring men simply by breathing them in.

Analysis of Lady Lazarus - Literary Devices, Rhyme and Rhythm

Lady Lazarus is a poem of 28 stanzas, each with three short lines, 84 lines in total. On the page it resembles a slender chain, a tight-knit ladder of a poem which has to be negotiated carefully by the reader.

Short lines tend to slow down the reading; the irregular rhythms (metrically) also have a stumbling effect as the poem progresses.

Syntactically this poem is complex - momentum never quite builds, there is no sustained beat because of the short clauses, line length chops and heavy punctuation...end stops, dashes and so on.

Alliteration

When words are close together in a line and begin with the same consonant they are alliterative, bringing texture and interest for the reader: face a featureless, fine...hearing of my heart...bit of blood...rise with my red.

Anaphora

Is the repeat of words or phrases in clauses. This reinforces meaning and relates to cyclic acts or events. Stanza 16:

I do it so it feels like hell.

I do it so it feels real.

Look for more anaphora in stanzas 17,20,22,23 and 27.

Enjambment

When a line carries straight on without punctuation into the next line it is said to be enjambed. There is hardly a pause, or no pause for the reader. The sense or meaning also continues.

There are several examples of enjambment, between lines and stanzas:

A sort of walking miracle, my skin

Bright as a Nazi lampshade,

My right foot


A paperweight,

Metaphor

There are several examples, remembering that a metaphor is a figure of speech in which a non-literal word or phrase is used instead of the actual word or phrase:

I am your opus,

I am your valuable,

The pure gold baby

Prosopopoeia

A figure of speech in which an absent or imagined person is represented as speaking. In stanza 19 - 'A miracle!'

Rhyme

Lady Lazarus is essentially a free verse poem - there is no set regular consistent rhyme scheme. Some lines do chime together however, with full rhyme. The first two lines for instance:

I have done it again,

One year in every ten

Other stanzas contain lines with full rhyme but this is a hit and miss affair, there is no sound pattern or regular closure: stanzas 6,24,26,27,28.

There are irregular sets of full and slant rhyme which bring faint harmony and dissonance to the sounds as the poem progresses. Look for these combinations:

again/ten/skin/fine/linen/napkin/woman/bone/ten/burn/concern.

seashell/call/well/hell//real/call/cell/pearls/miracle/theatrical.

stir/there/Lucifer/Beware/hair/air.

enemy/terrify/be/me/thirty/die/day/baby.

it/foot/weight/put/brute/shout/out.

Three/see/tease/knees.

Simile

There are several examples of simile, when a comparison is made between one thing and another:

And like the cat I have nine times to die.

And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

I rocked shut/As a seashell

I do it so it feels like hell

And I eat men like air.

Sources

www.poetryfoundation.org

The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 1997

The Poetry handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005

www.poets.org

© 2019 Andrew Spacey

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