Eileen M. Aird

Eileen M. Aird: On "Lady Lazarus"

A companion piece to 'Daddy', in which the poet again fuses the worlds of personal pain and corporate suffering, is ‘Lady Lazarus'. In this poem a disturbing tension is established between the seriousness of the experience described and the misleadingly light form of the poem. The vocabulary and rhythms which approximate to the colloquial simplicity of conversational speech, the frequently end-stopped lines, the repetitions which have the effect of mockingly counteracting the violence of the meaning, all establish the deliberately flippant note which this poem strives to achieve. These are all devices which also operate in Auden's 'light verse', but the constantly shifting tone of 'Lady Lazarus' is found less frequently in Auden's more cerebral poetry. At times the tone is hysterically strident and demanding:

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.

Then it modulates into a calmer irony as the persona mocks herself for her pretensions to tragedy: 'Dying/is an art, like everything else./I do it exceptionally well.' As in 'Daddy' Sylvia Plath has used a limited amount of autobiographical detail in this poem; the references to suicide in 'Lady Lazarus’ reflect her own experience. As in 'Daddy’, however, the personal element is subordinate to a much more inclusive dramatic structure, and one answer to those critics who have seen her work as merely confessional is that she used her personal and painful material as a way of entering into and illustrating much wider themes and subjects. In 'Lady Lazarus' the poet again equates her suffering with the experiences of the tortured Jews, she becomes, as a result of the suicide she inflicts on herself, a Jew:

A sort of walking miracle, my skin

Bright as a Nazi lampshade,

My right foot


A paperweight,

My face a featureless, fine 

Jew linen.

The reaction of the crowd who push in with morbid interest to see the saved suicide mimics the attitude of many to the revelations of the concentration camps; there is a brutal insistence on the pain which many apparently manage to see with scientific detachment. ‘Lady Lazarus’ represents an extreme use of the 'light verse' technique. Auden never forced such grotesque material into such an insistently jaunty poem, and the anger and compassion which inform the poem are rarely found so explicitly in his work. 'Lady Lazarus' is also a supreme example of Sylvia Plath's skill as an artist. She takes very personal, painful material and controls and forms it with the utmost rigour into a highly wrought poem, which is partly effective because of the polar opposition between the terrible gaiety of its form and the fiercely uncompromising seriousness of its subject. If we categorize a poem such as 'Lady Lazarus' as 'confessional' or 'extremist’ then we highlight only one of its elements. It is also a poem of social criticism with a strong didactic intent, and a work of art which reveals great technical and intellectual ability. The hysteria is intentional and effective.

From Sylvia Plath: Her Life and Work. Copyright © 1973 by Eileen M. Aird

Eileen M. Aird: On "Tulips"

The world of the hospital ward is a welcome one of snowy whiteness and silence, in which the woman grasps eagerly at the ability to relax completely because nothing is required of her. She has moved beyond normal activity, and relishes the opportunity to relinquish all responsibility, to become a 'body' with no personal identity:

I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the 


And my history to the anaesthetist and my body to 


The renunciation of individuality also includes the reduction of others to a depersonalised level, so that they make no claims on her and she is aware of making none on them; consequently she sees the nurses hurrying about the ward as being as alike as a flock of gulls flying inland. She sees herself as an inanimate object, a, pebble. . . .

The tulips erupt into the whiteness of the microcosm the patient has created as a painful reminder of the health which she consciously strives to reject. The world of Ariel is a black and white one into which red, which represents blood, the heart and living is always an intrusion. The tulips hurt beacuse they require the emotional response which will rouse her from the numbness of complete mental and physical inactivity; she feels that the flowers have eyes which watch her and increase her sense of her own unreality: ‘And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow/ Between the eye of the sun and the eye of the tulips.' This sense of unreality, of substancelessness, is not similar to the feeling of immersion in self which she has cultivated, it is a sense of inadequacy and alienation also described in "Cut": "I have taken a pill to kill/The thin/Papery feeling.' Eventually the tulips force her attention into focus and she merges from the world of whiteness and silence to a not unpleasurable anticipation:

And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes

Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.

The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea

And comes from a country far away as health.

Although ‘Tulips’ is written in the present tense it has less of the immediacy of some of the later poems in Ariel because the element of control exhibited in the meditative focus and the fashioning of thought and feeling into logically connected statements operates as a distancing device.

From Sylvia Plath: Her Life and Work. Copyright © 1973 by Eileen M. Aird.

Eileen M. Aird: On "The Colossus"

In 'Daddy' she addresses the dead father in the following way: 'Ghastly statue with one grey toe / Big as a Frisco seal', and this image recalls the title-poem of the earlier volume in which the father-daughter relationship is treated through the medium of an archeological metaphor. As in 'The Beekeeper's Daughter' the meaning of the poem lies not on the surface but through the accumulation of allusions and suggestions. The image of the devotion of great effort to the cleansing and repairing of a massive statue, a task which has already occupied thirty years yet seems no nearer completion, and which engrosses and subjugates the persona, whose humorous derision is underlain by a total commitment to her task, is fascinating and powerful in itself. However it seems impossible to separate meaning and metaphor without doing the poem a serious injustice for its menace lies in the skillfully maintained balance between the concrete situation with its appropriate visual details and the relation of these details to the underlying emotion. The last three lines of the poem, for instance, contain much more than a particularly striking image:

My hours are married to shadow.

No longer do I listen for the scrape of a keel 

On the blank stones of the landing.

This final image has considerable pathos and beauty and is imaginatively in unity with the growing despair of the earlier verses, but read in conjunction with the line which immediately precedes it, it is also a statement of the submission of the restorer to the broken statue and her acceptance, indicated in the word 'married', that there can be no escape from this memory into a more vital relationship. In such a life everything must be shadowy, blank, lonely, but she accepts her isolation almost with fervour.

'The Colossus' has the direct, conversational tone of the later poems and it is written in the five-line verse which Sylvia Plath was to use most consistently in Ariel, in fourteen out of the forty poems, although in this first volume only six poems have five-lined verses. The earlier tendency to choose the esoteric or archaic word has now disappeared, although the rather unusual 'skull-plates' is also used in another poem of this group, 'Two Views of a Cadaver Room'. The verses are not rhymed and the line lengths follow no regular pattern; the poem is by no means formless but is much less strictly and rigidly controlled than those poems written two years earlier. In this greater elasticity can be seen the forerunner of Sylvia Plath's later style which she admitted was much closer to the rhythms of spoken English than that of her earlier poetry,

From Sylvia Plath: Her Life and Work. Copyright © 1973 by Eileen M. Aird.

Eileen M. Aird: On "Daddy"

The poem has already received a good deal of critical attention which has focused on the autobiographical aspect. The danger of such criticism lies in its assumption that the poem is objectively 'true', that it bears a precise relationship to the facts of the poet's life. Without a doubt this poem embodies most forcefully the feeling which runs through her later poetry that the distress she suffered was in some way connected with her memories of her dead father, but the poem cannot be literally or historically true. Otto Plath, who was born in 1885 and came to America at the age of fifteen, died when his daughter was nine and certainly could not have been the active German Nazi officer of the poem. However he was of pure Prussian descent and one of his daughter's obsessions was that, given other circumstances, it might have been that he would have become a Nazi. In the same way her mother, Aurelia Plath, who is of Austrian descent, could have had Jewish blood and if she had lived in Europe might have become one of the host of murdered Jews. In terms of the poem itself the mother figure is unimportant; the daughter appropriates the mother's attributes and the relationship is developed through the father-daughter, Nazi-Jew complexity. Questioned about this poem by Peter Orr, Sylvia Plath explained:

In particular my background is, may I say, German and Austrian. On one side I am first generation American, on one side I am second generation American, and so my concern with concentration camps and so on is uniquely intense. And then, again, I'm rather a political person as well, so I suppose that's part of what it comes from.

When she described the poem at another time she did so in dramatic terms which included no overt hint that the situation described was her own:

The poem is spoken by a girl with an Electra complex. Her father died while she thought he was God. Her case is complicated by the fact that her father was also a Nazi and her mother very possibly part-Jewish. In the daughter the two strains marry and paralyse each other--she has to act out the awful little allegory before she is free of it.

The poem exploits Freudian psychology which argues that the child is, at some stages in its development, 'in love' with the parent. The girl reacts with hate for the father who has made her suffer by dying at such a point in her development. The description of the father as 'marble-heavy' and a 'ghastly statue' reveals the ambivalence of her attitude for he is also associated with the beauty of the sea. The image of the father as a statue echoes the similar conception of 'The Colossus'; here, as in the earlier poem, the statue is of huge and awesome proportions. The ambivalent feelings of fear and love have remained with the daughter as an obsession which dwarfs and restricts her own life, and in an attempt to rid herself of it she must ritually destroy the memory of the father:

Daddy, I have had to kill you.

You died before I had time--

Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,


She first attempted to do this by joining the father through suicide but then found an escape through marriage to a man with many of the father's characteristics:

And then I knew what to do. 

I made a model of you,

A man in black with a Meinkampf look


And a love of the rack and the screw. 

And I said I do, I do.


The psychological is only one aspect of the poem however. Sylvia Plath extends the reference by making the father a German Nazi and the girl a Jew, so that on a historical and actual, as well as on an emotional level their relationship is that of torturer and tortured. The boot image of the first verse can now be seen not only as an effective image for the obsessional nature of the daughter's neurosis, but also as carrying suggestions of the brutality associated with the father as Nazi officer. The transition from father-daughter to the Nazi-Jew relationship is simply and dramatically effected. The hatred of the daughter merges into the emotional paralysis of her recognition, as Jew, of him as Nazi: 'I never could talk to you. / The tongue stuck in my jaw.' The jaw becomes the barbed wire of the concentration camps, and the repeated self-assertive 'Ich' of the German language recalls the sound of the engines carrying Jews to the camps. In revolt from the obscenity of the language--which is an extension of the emotional revolt against the father--the daughter begins to talk like a Jew, that is she identifies herself with the archetypal, suffering Jew of the camps. She now describes the father as a Nazi officer and no longer associates him with God but with a swastika 'So black no sky could squeak through'. The theme of intermingled love and hate arises again as the daughter comments on the sexual fascination of cruelty:

Every woman adores a Fascist, 

The boot in the face, the brute 

Brute heart of a brute like you.


It finds a further echo in the description of the husband who is also 'A man in black with a Meinkampf look', who has been chosen for his similarity to the father in the hope that his presence will exorcise the daughter's obsession.

A. Alvarez recalls that Sylvia Plath described this poem as 'light verse':

When she first read me this poem a few days after she wrote it, she called it a piece of 'light verse'. It obviously isn't, yet equally obviously it also isn't the racking personal confession that a mere description or précis of it might make it sound.

The significance of such a term applied to 'Daddy' becomes clearer if we consider the theory of light verse held by W. H. Auden. Auden has written:

Light verse can be serious. It has only come to mean vers de société, Triolets, smoke-room limericks, because under the social conditions which produced the Romantic Revival, and which have persisted, more or less, ever since, it has only been in trivial matters that poets have felt in sufficient intimacy with their audience to be able to forget themselves and their singing-robes.

Auden equates the writing of 'light verse' with a homogeneous and slowly changing society in which the interests and perceptions of most men are similar; difficult poetry is produced in an unstable society from which the poet feels detached. Undoubtedly, at the time of writing, Auden saw himself as belonging to an unstable society, and his use of 'light verse’ is highly sophisticated in that he consciously adopted it as a means of communication for his social criticism; it is not, according to Auden, the natural way in which any modern poet would express himself. 'Daddy' may reasonably be said to be 'light' in the sense that Auden's early poetry is ‘light'. This quality is purely an attribute of form and does not in any way characterise the subject which is fully serious. The strong, simple rhythm, the full rhymes and subtle half-rhymes, the repetitive, incantatory vowel-sounds sweep the poem along in a jaunty approximation to a ballad. The mood of the poem is conversational, the daughter directly addresses the memory of the father with energy and feeling. The vocabulary is simple, the last line scenting almost too indulgently colloquial until we realise that the strategy of the whole poem has been to undermine emotion. When Sylvia Plath described this poem as 'a piece of light verse' she was focusing our attention on the flippant, choppy, conversational swing of the poem which, with its dramatic structure, gives a measure of impersonality to a subject which, less surely handled, could have been destroyed by either self-pity or sensationalism.

From Sylvia Plath: Her Life and Work. Copyright © 1973 by Eileen M. Aird