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Sylvia Plath's "Lady Lazarus"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath

Introduction and Text of "Lady Lazarus"

Sylvia Plath once asserted, "I've tried to picture my world and the people in it as seen through the distorting lens of a bell jar." This claim explains Plath's poems with exceptional precision. Her poems do indeed distort. The neurosis that led to her suicide became her muse, and her goal of ending her own life seems to have distorted her perception of reality. Could there be better foremother of the distortions perpetrated on culture by the structural feminists?

In "Lady Lazarus," Plath demonstrates her distortion technique with amazing technical prowess. The poem consists of 28 unrimed versagraphs of three lines each. The title alludes to the Biblical character, Lazarus, who though dead was returned to life by Jesus Christ. The speaker is bemoaning, while at the same time boasting, that she has been rescued from three suicide attempts.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

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.

Sylvia Plath reading "Lady Lazarus"

Commentary

The surrealistic style of this poem gives it an eerie, ominous drama for which Plath became well-known.

First Movement: Ritual Suicide

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.

In the beginning of the poem, the speaker announces that she has "done it again,"—that is, attempted to commit suicide again, and she boasts that it has become a ritual with her: "One year in every ten / I manage it." She resembles a "walking miracle," and she claims her skin is like a "Nazi lampshade." Again, Plath is employing the Holocaust metaphor to express her feelings of oppression, as she did in her poem, "Daddy." Next, the speaker likens her "right foot" to a paperweight, and her face resembles "featureless, fine / Jew linen." Then she implies that after her rescuers unveil her face by "Peel[ing] off the napkin," she will frighten them with her terrifying appearance.

Second Movement: Making a Spectacle

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.

The speaker here suggests that she has attained only the age of thirty years. For the past three decades, she has attempted suicide. Now for the third time, she has attempted to "annihilate" the decade with her death. The speaker paints a circle scene, metaphorically and colorfully creating an audience for her attempt to off herself. She calls the crowd "peanut-crunching" as she has them pushing to get closer to see the spectacle.

The speaker quickly converts her scene to the unwrapping of a "mummy," an act she refers to a "the big strip tease." She then shouts out like a circus barker at the ladies and gentlemen, commanding them to look at her various and sundry body parts. The speaker then reports that she is the same little girl who tried to kill herself when she was only ten years old. The speaker finally relates that the first time was "an accident" making it unclear why she has made all three sound deliberate. The second time she attempted suicide she was serious and meant to end her life.

Third Movement: The Art of Dying

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

The speaker now seems to be boasting, claiming that dying is an art form and that she is good at it. But one might doubt those claims wondering if she, indeed, is so good at it, how it is that she has thrice failed at each attempt? Versagraphs 16 and 17 find the speaker describing just how exceedingly well she accomplishes the art of dying. But then the speaker's bell-jar distortion makes itself known as she reports that after coming back to this life, there was a miracle that knocked her out with a charge.

The miracle is that she has been brought back from the dead, or more accurately, that she has been saved from completing the suicide. But the statement, "That knocks me out," remains unclear. Does she mean this literally or is she using slang, which means she is very surprised? And the "charge"—is she referring to a price or an electrifying burst?

Fourth Movement: An Image Jumble

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.

Versagraphs 22 through 27 are a jumbled mass of images that imply that people are, in fact, paying to see her "blood," "a piece of [her] hair," or her clothing. And again, she is speaking directly to a Nazi, calling him "Herr Doktor" and "Herr Enemy."

In the final versagraph, an oft-quoted group of lines, she says, "Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air." The lines seem to allude to the phoenix but also could allude to the burning Jews in the furnaces of the Nazis, with the exception that the Jews remained ashes.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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