Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath: SummaryThe poem begins on the real plane: 'I have done it again'. Sylvia Plath had made another attempt at suicide, after ten years of a previous one. Then she goes on to describe the situation, focusing especially on her body first.
But the very second tercet introduces Plath’s concern for the torture of the Jews: she compares her skin with the lampshade that the Nazi concentration camps made by flaying the Jew’s skin! Then another important stylistic element of the poem, that of surrealistic images, is also immediately introduced: the speaker irrationally compares her feet with a paperweight and her face with linen cloth, that the Jews wear.
She then addresses the reader as her ‘enemy’, assuming that the reader is just the same male. In the fifth tercet, Plath presents an image of her own dead body foreboding (and foreshadowing) her death. The image is horrible, but it seems that the speaker is trying to come to terms with death that she was trying to embrace by rejecting life and people. She continues of the vision in the next two stanzas also: she says that her flesh will soon be eaten by the grave. She is only thirty-one, and she has attempted three times. She finds it boring to attempt it again and again, and also irritating when a crowd of people surrounds to see her after the failed attempt at suicide.
Plath tells a personal truth; she was ten when she tried it for the first time. The second time she had meant to do it earnestly. But they pulled her back into life. She says she has an affinity and skill at death; dying, she says, is an art, and she does it exceptionally well. But the comeback is theatrical, coming to the same place, the same faces, the same brutes who call the rescue (and new life they think they have given her) a miracle. But there is a cost (charge) for all the things they do; the doctors, especially take advantage of it. The mention of doctor reminds her of the German doctors who experimented on the dead bodies of the Jews in the concentration camps. “So, so, Herr (Mr.) Doktor (German spelling). So Herr Enemy… Her God, Herr Lucifer…” this disgust and rage against the doctor, god and Satan brings the poem round to the general humanitarian protest that is at the symbolic center of the poem. This reminds her of the many images of torture of the Jews by the Germans in the Second World War, “I am your opus”, says the poet, to the doctor identifying herself with the victim on whom the doctor is going to perform an operation for learning something about the human body! Similarly, she is also the corpse for the scavengers to collect gold ornaments, for the ‘dentists’ to look for golden teeth, and for the German industry owner to make soap out of the fat from her body. The German actually did all these during the war! The second-last stanza however turns the table on all the enemies: Plath borrows the phrase “Beware, beware” from ST Coleridge to mean that the female poet has been born out of this atrocious murder, and so the people are now to be cautious of her. In Coleridge, the persona wishes that if he could revive the original, mythical power of music and poetry, he would be regarded as a heavenly inspired man, awesome to everyone. But here, Plath suggests that a vengeance female figure has been born and will “eat men like air”. This also suggests the birth of the Phoenix from the ashes of the traditionally burnt women. She means that all the traditions, including social, political, cultural and literary have tortured and destroyed the female identity; but now a new woman is being born. This poem can also be seen as an allegory of the feminist uprising in the sixties.
Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath: Critical AnalysisThis poem Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath like many other protest poems should be analyzed from a psychological point of view, as an outpour of a neurotic energy through the channel of creative art, or poetry. It is in a sense a kind of therapy.
Though it is slightly autobiographical, the poem must be interpreted symbolically and psychologically without limiting it to the poetess’s life experience alone. The extremity of anger in this poem is not justifiable as something possible with a normal person in real life. We should understand that this is partly due to the neurosis that Plath was actually suffering from. Besides, it is essential to understand from the psychoanalytical point of view, that the poem does not literally express reality alone: it is the relieving anger and frustration, and an alternative outlet of the neurotic energy in the form of poetic expression. Furthermore, it is necessary to understand the anger as being directed against the general forces of inhumanity, violence and destruction only symbolized by the males in the poem. By a process of association and surrealism, the protest moves from common males to Hitler, his experimenting doctor, the scavengers of gold on dead Jews, the dentists who had a turn before the corpses were disposed for leather, soap, nightshades and fertilizer! The individual is associatively linked to inhumanity and oppression. Sylvia Plath said that her “Personal experience is very important, but ….. I believe poetry should be relevant to larger things such as Hiroshima and Dachau and so on.” This means that the frustration and anger against a dominating father, or anyone for that matter, becomes a starting point or central symbol for larger issues including Hitler, torture and inhumanity. The poem is, therefore, also about the victimization of modern war. The persona is not only real people: they are types. The poem is less autobiographical than it is universal. In fact, the theme of universal female protest in the modern world is the most striking theme in the poem. The female speaker represents the creative force and she is angry with the destructive forces symbolized by males. The allusions of the Second World War are all real. The anger against the German soldiers, Hitler and his Nazi party is not too much. The reader will justify this anger if he tries to imagine the inhumanity of Hitler.
Though the speaker intended to die, just yielding to death will not annihilate her. She completes the poem with a final comeback. The poem is technically a (bitter) dramatic monologue. The title ironically identifies a female Lazarus; whereas the original Lazarus was male, whom Christ brought back to life, the present speaker is identifying herself with a Lazarus different in sex, behavior, and everything. Plath’s persona is a figure who wants to subvert all that she can of the tradition that attempts to bring you back and torture, rather than let you choose death and die! This female figure also represents the oppressed modern woman conscious of the fact that the male society will bring her back to life, because it needs to satisfy itself by oppressing the woman. The poem destroys the myth; it borrows it to reject and state an antithesis. The poem’s persona does not conform to society’s traditional idea of lady-like behavior. She is angry and she wants to take revenge in every way. She owes only to herself, not to Jesses. Self-destruction pervades the poem as it did Plath’s life. As confession mutates to myth, subjectivity inclines to generalized feeling. Having taken up the battle with the enemy on his terms, she concluded by warning the male deity and demon that when she rises from the ashes, she will consume men as fire does; she will return from death like the sphinx and eat men like vampire, or fire. It is psychologically and symbolically about the aspiration to revenge that is felt by all the female victims of male domination, once they become conscious of the domination. The revenge would be against the institutions that dominate women. The poem is about a woman’s wish to turn the tables on the father and his kind. Its dramatic over-statement of male evil may sound intolerable to some readers, but it must be taken to poetically express the resentment in the female mind that was suppressed for ages against all kinds of injustice upon them by make society and traditions, rather than buy individual makes upon individual female. The anger will be justified if one thinks of the extremity of long-borne suffering of women through the ages. The myth of Lazarus is transformed in this poem into the myth of the reincarnating phoenix, the bird which immolates itself very five hundred years but rises whole and rejuvenated from its ashes. Besides, the bird has become a being that reincarnates not just to remain immortal, but to take revenge on its adversaries. Sylvia Plath provided a self explication during a radio reading. “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.”
The poem is written in 28 stanzas that are suggestive of the 28 days of the normal female menstrual cycle, or in a sense, their rebirth. The reproductive cycle echoes the creativity of the female poet; but here the creativity is also destructive of that entire stand against the female pursuit, including her freedom to die. The poem is said to evolve from many kinds of losses and tragedies that Plath experienced and wanted to turn into positive advantages; this poem can be called an attempt to interpret her suicidal attempt as a process to transform herself, whether she succeeded or failed. Plath experienced many losses, including abortion, miscarriage, childbirth, severe postpartum depression, divorce, and the like. She probably wanted to convert these into achievements, as a source of illumination and energy to fight against the adverse forces in order to survive.
Lady Lazarus defines the central aesthetic principles of Plath’s late poetry. First, the poem derives its dominant effects from the colloquial language. From the conversational opening (“I have done it again”) to the clipped warnings of the ending (“Beware/ Beware”). Lady Lazarus appears as the monologue of a woman speaking spontaneously out of her pain and psychic disintegration. The Latinate terms (“annihilate,” “filaments,” “opus,” “valuable”) are introduced as sudden contrasts to the essentially simple language of the speaker. The obsessive repetition of key words and phrases gives enormous power to the plain style used throughout. As she speaks, Lady Lazarus seems to gather up her energies for an assault on her enemies, and the staccato repetitions of phrases build up the intensity of feelings.
This is language poured out of some burning inner fire, though it retains the rhythmic precision that we expect from a much less intensely felt expression. It is also a language made up almost entirely of monosyllables. Plath has managed to adapt a heightened conversational stance and a colloquial idiom to the dramatic monologue form.