Jon Rosenblatt: On "Lady Lazarus"

. . . The poem reflects Plath's recognition at the end of her life that the struggle between self and others and between death and birth must govern every aspect of the poetic structure. The magical and demonic aspects of the world appear in "Lady Lazarus" with an intensity that is absent from "The Stones."

The Lady of the poem is a quasi-mythological figure, a parodic version of the biblical Lazarus whom Christ raised from the dead. As in "The Stones," the speaker undergoes a series of transformations that are registered through image sequences. The result is the total alteration of the physical body. In "Lady Lazarus," however, the transformations are more violent and more various than in "The Stones," and the degree of self-dramatization on the part of the speaker is much greater. Four basic sequences of images define the Lady's identity. At the beginning of the poem, she is cloth or material: lampshade, linen, napkin; in the middle, she is only body: knees, skin and bone, hair; toward the end, she becomes a physical object: gold, ash, a cake of soap; finally, she is resurrected as a red-haired demon. Each of these states is dramatically connected to an observer or observers through direct address: first, to her unnamed "enemy"; then, to the "gentlemen and ladies"; next, to the Herr Doktor; and, finally, to Herr God and Herr Lucifer. The address to these "audiences" allows Plath to characterize Lady Lazarus's fragmented identities with great precision. For example, a passage toward the end of the poem incorporates the transition from a sequence of body images (scars-heart-hair) to a series of physical images" (opus-valuable-gold baby) as it shifts its address from the voyeuristic crowd to the Nazi Doktor:

[lines 61-70]

The inventiveness of the language demonstrates Plath's ability to create, as she could not in "The Stones," an appropriate oral medium for the distorted mental states of the speaker. The sexual pun on "charge" in the first line above; the bastardization of German ("Herr Enemy"); the combination of Latinate diction ("opus," "valuable") and colloquial phrasing ("charge," "So, so . . . ")—all these linguistic elements reveal a character who has been grotesquely split into warring selves. Lady Lazarus is a different person for each of her audiences, and yet none of her identities is bearable for her. For the Nazi Doktor, she is a Jew, whose body must be burned; for the "peanut-crunching crowd," she is a stripteaser; for the medical audience, she is a wonder, whose scars and heartbeat are astonishing; for the religious audience, she is a miraculous figure, whose hair and clothes are as valuable as saints' relics. And when she turns to her audience in the middle of the poem to describe her career in suicide, she becomes a self-conscious performer. Each of her deaths, she says, is done "exceptionally well. / I do it so it feels like hell."

The entire symbolic procedure of death and rebirth in "Lady Lazarus" has been deliberately chosen by the speaker. She enacts her death repeatedly in order to cleanse herse1f of the "million filaments" of guilt and anguish that torment her. After she has returned to the womblike state of being trapped in her cave, like the biblical Lazarus, or of being rocked "shut as a seashell," she expects to emerge reborn in a new form. These attempts at rebirth are unsuccessful until the end of the poem. Only when the Lady undergoes total immolation of self and body does she truly emerge in a demonic form. The doctor burns her down to ash, and then she achieves her rebirth:

Out of the ash 

I rise with my red hair 

And I eat men like air.

Using the phoenix myth of resurrection as a basis, Plath imagines a woman who has become pure spirit rising against the imprisoning others around her: gods, doctor, men, and Nazis. This translation of the self into spirit, after an ordeal of mutilation, torture, and immolation, stamps the poem as the dramatization of the basic initiatory process.

"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:

[lines 46-50]

This is language poured out of some burning inner fire, though it retains the rhythmical 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.

The colloquial language of the poem relates to its second major aspect: its aural quality. "Lady Lazarus" is meant to be read aloud. To heighten the aural effect, the speaker's, voice modulates across varying levels of rhetorical intensity. At one moment she reports on her suicide attempt with no observable emotion:

I am only thirty. 

And like the cat I have nine times to die. 

This is Number Three.

The next moment she becomes a barker at a striptease show:

Gentlemen, ladies, 

These are my hands.

Then she may break into a kind of incantatory chant that sweeps reality in front of it, as at the very end of the poem. The deliberate rhetoric of the poem marks it as a set-piece, a dramatic tour de force, that must be heard to be truly appreciated. Certainly it answers Plath's desire to create an aural medium for her poetry.

Third, "Lady Lazarus" transforms a traditional stanzaic pattern to obtain its rhetorical and aural effects. One of the striking aspects of Plath's late poetry is its simultaneous dependence on and abandonment of traditional forms. The three-line stanza of "Lady Lazarus" and such poems as "Ariel," "Fever 103°," "Mary's Song," and "Nick and the Candlestick" refer us inevitably to the terza rima of the Italian tradition and to the terza rima experiments of Plath's earlier work. But the poems employ this stanza only as a general framework for a variable-beat line and variable rhyming patterns. The first stanza of the poem has two beats in its first line, three in its second, and two in its third; but the second has a five-three-two pattern. The iambic measure is dominant throughout, though Plath often overloads a line with stressed syllables or reduces a line to a single stress. The rhymes are mainly off-rhymes ("again," "ten"; "fine," "linen"; "stir," "there"). Many of the pure rhymes are used to accentuate a bizarre conjunction of meaning, as in the lines addressed to the doctor: "I turn and burn. / Do not think I underestimate your great concern."

Finally, "Lady Lazarus," like "Daddy" and "Fever 103°," incorporates historical material into the initiatory and imagistic patterns. This element of Plath's method has generated much misunderstanding, including the charge that her use of references to Nazism and to Jewishness is inauthentic. Yet these allusions to historical events form part of the speaker's fragmented identity and allow Plath to portray a kind of eternal victim. The very title of the poem lays the groundwork for a semicomic historical and cultural allusiveness. The Lady is a legendary figure, a sufferer, who has endured almost every variety of torture. Plath can thus include among Lady Lazarus's characteristics the greatest contemporary examples of brutality and persecution: the sadistic medical experiments on the Jew's by Nazi doctors and the Nazis' use of their victims' bodies in the production of lampshades and other objects. These allusions, however, are no more meant to establish a realistic historic norm in the poem than the allusions to the striptease are intended to establish a realistic social context. The references in the poem—biblical, historical, political, personal—draw the reader into the center of a personality and its characteristic mental processes. The reality of the poem lies in the convulsions of the narrating consciousness. The drama of external persecution, self-destructiveness, and renewal, with both its horror and its grotesque comedy, is played out through social and historical contexts that symbolize the inner struggle of Lady Lazarus.

The claim that Plath misuses a particular historical experience is thus incorrect. She shows how a contemporary consciousness is obsessed with historical and personal demons and how that consciousness deals with these figures. The demonic characters of the Nazi Doktor and of the risen Lady Lazarus are surely more central to the poem's tone and intent than is the historicity of these figures. By imagining the initiatory drama against the backdrop of Nazism, Plath is universalizing a personal conflict that is treated more narrowly in such poems as "The Bee-Meeting" and "Berck-Plage." The fact that Plath herself was not Jewish has no bearing on the legitimacy of her employment of the Jewish persona: the holocaust serves her as a metaphor for the death-and-life battle between the self and a deadly enemy. Whether Plath embodies the enemy as a personal friend, a demonic entity, a historical figure, or a cosmic force, she consistently sees warfare in the structural terms of the initiatory scenario. "Lady Lazarus" is simply the most powerful and successful of the dramas in which that enemy appears as the sadistic masculine force of Nazism.

From Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation. Copyright © 1979 by University of North Carolina Press.


Title Jon Rosenblatt: On "Lady Lazarus" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Jon Rosenblatt Criticism Target Sylvia Plath
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 20 Jan 2014
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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