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Lady Lazarus

  1. Context & Subject Matter

Known for her emotional honesty,  Silvia Plath leaves little to our imaginations in these open candid self portrayals. Sylvia Plath was traumatised by the early death of her father when she was eight as she worshiped him. 

Though Plath was a good student, (winning scholarships to Smith’s College and Cambridge) she was a perfectionist and early already displayed signs of a fragile psyche; schizophrenia or some form of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, perhaps from the early death of her father.  When she failed to gain admission to Harvard University, she attempted to commit suicide with sleeping tablets.  Despite her anger at being “dragged back to life” that seemed to her, “sordid and meaningless”.

After her marriage to Ted Hughes failed she managed to successfully commit suicide by sealing off her kitchen, turning on the gas oven and placing her head in it.  

Much of the interest the public took to Plath’s poetry has a salacious, ghoulish and voyeuristic stench to it.  As one uncharitable critic put it; “It was a smart career move”.

A published writer can have no private writing as every scrap will eventually come to light and posterity gives her a posthumous existence.

II. Sound Effects

Read the poem aloud. Comment on the Sound Effects, verbal music. It’s rhyme. Rhythm and melody. Assonance, alliteration. Onomatopoeia. etc. (Blending repetition patterns. slow/fast movement, harsh, discordant, sibilance, sotto, allegro,  Rhapsodic, lyrical, elegiac,  upbeat,  blue, staccato,  dirge, ode,   Melody. tone. mood. atmosphere. voice.

You can hear Sylvia Plath read Lady Lazarus  at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=esBLxyTFDxE&feature=related

Poets can make words sing by blending meaning and using sound to convey mood in an emotive and suggestive manner.  Some poets deliberately use incantation and repetition in an attempt to cast a spell over their readers, allowing them to escape reality and enter the world of dreams, imagination and fantasy.  The subtle repetition of vowel sounds (rhyme, assonance) can create a distinctive mood or ambience.  The repetition of consonants (alliteration) can also obliquely affect the emotions of the responders.

Assonance: all, call, well, hell, real, call, cell, theatrical – creates an incantory spell.

Grave cave ate – after three days, her brother found her under the house in a cavity drowsy from sleeping tablets.   

Others narrow the specificity of the myth by pointing to two recurring patterns in her texts and life:  namely that in some way Plath is enclosed ‘...in plaster, in a bell jar, a cellar, or a wax house...’ and that her central concern was one of revolt, ‘How to reactivate the myth of a flight so white, so pure, as to be a rebirth into the imagined liberty of childhood?’ (Gilbert and Gunbar in Brennan 1999:54)

Plath’s poetry is pared down to a minimum elliptical condensed style – stripped down - that still communicates. 

The persona appears detached and impersonal.  While there is intense feeling, pain and anguish, it is not maudlin or self-pitying or appealing for sympathy, rather realistically and resignedly fatalistic.

The tone modulates, beginning with self deprecation and self-mockery, it becomes accusingly sarcastic of her spectators, triumphant of her ability and finally threatening a vengeful resurrection to conquer the patriarchy.

 III. Themes, Issues, Values, Concerns

Perhaps the most intimate personal emotional experience exploring the dark feelings of the underside of life – “a cry from the heart”   or from a confessional poet who dares to probe private taboo subjects.  Plath cites influences from Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Ted Hughes and Robert Lowell who were not afraid to plumb the depths of their psychological problems in public declarations of their secret and private lives.  Lowell wrote about his treatment in a mental institution.   There is evidence that Plath may have been subjected to electro-shock treatment following a suicide attempt.   Poetry of raw emotion - Ted Hughes   - “Plath went straight for the central unacceptable things.”  What Craig Seligman called the “not-niceness of things”.

Sylvia Plath has openly and frankly admitted that she had a happy childhood but a sad adolescence after the death of her father.  Her mother, Aurelia Plath tells us that Sylvia was very active in caring for her father after his leg was amputated and spent a lot of time praying for his health.  In the morning, informed of his death, she pulled the covers over her head and cried, “I’ll never speak to God again”.     

As in Daddy Plath is using her writing as therapy; by a frank and full admission of her pain she is hoping for some cathartic release of tension and an exorcism of the demons that haunt her.  While the poem is intensely emotional, it never deteriorates into sentimentality.  There is no evidence of self-pity or appeal to sympathy.

The trauma of her loss makes it difficult to relate to men as she “eats men like air”.


Structure: linear, circular, episodic, flash backs, climatic.     Images: (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, gustatory) figures of speech:  similes, metaphors, personification, analogy, synecdoche, contrast, antithesis, unity, irony, Allusions, etc

Sylvia Plath is not a confessional poet though she claims it possible to deal with highly personal emotional experiences as long as you can control and manipulate those experiences with an informed and intelligent mind and relate them to greater issues.  Here she manages to strip herself naked by baring her soul and exposing the dark underside of her cries from the heart. It may or may not be possible to empathise with her.

Biblical Allusions:

Lazarus: the story is only found in chapter 11 of the Gospel of John. Lazarus, a brother of Mary and Martha and a friend of Jesus died and has already been in his tomb for four days. Jesus then calls Lazarus to come out and Lazarus does so.  Plath uses the allusion to refer to her own resurrections from the dead following her three suicide attempts.

Nazi allusions: As in Daddy Plath appropriates the persecution and torture of victims of the Nazis in their death camps.  – A bit of hyperbole.

Nazi lampshade,  Peel off my napkin,  A cake of soap, wedding ring, gold filling…

Ash:  Multiple possibilities, literal ash from the consumption of the melting gold baby, the ash of Jewish victims of the holocaust, or the ash from which the Phoenix firebird is reborn.

Phoenix:  a mythical bird; a fire spirit with a colorful plumage.  It has a 500 to 1000 year life-cycle, near the end of which it builds itself a nest of twigs that it ignites; both nest and bird burn fiercely and are reduced to ashes, from which a new, young phoenix or phoenix egg arises, reborn anew to live again.

It is one of the sacred symbols of worship at Heliopolis, Egypt closely associated with the rising sun and the Egyptian sun-god Ra. The Phoenix has long been presented as a symbol of rebirth, immortality, and renewal1   1Excerpts From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Like the Phoenix, Plath claims she will be reborn and declares to take revenge on men. Even in despair, renewal is possible.

Cat:  Like the cat having nine lives, Plath seems incapable of dying.

Peanut crunching crowd:  The morbid ghoulish circus show spectators -  (not a dignified theatre audience?)  voyeurs? critics?  - her fans?  The general public?  Us?

Strip tease: She compares herself to a performer in a strip club and itemises her body parts;”hands, knees, skin, bone, ….bit of blood, hair on my clothes”  


Approach: Subjective/Objective, Attitude or Tone, Audience,   Style: diction, word play, puns, connotative/denotative,   emotive (coloured biased,) /demotive, (technical, dispassionate) clichés, proverbial, idiomatic, expressive, flat, Jargon, euphemisms, pejorative, oxymoron.   Gender biases.  Register:  formal, stiff, dignified  or Colloquial;  relaxed, conversational, inclusive, friendly  or Slang;  colourful, intimate,  Rhetorical devices;  Questions,  exclamations,  cumulation,  crescendo,  inversion,  bathos,  repetition,  3 cornered phrases. 

Poets use suggestion and ambiguity to enrich their poems with multiple possibilities, enigma or mystique.  A good poem will always fascinate or resonate with us because of restless disquiet that we cannot fully get on top of the poem’s meaning.  Oscar Wilde claims that “as soon as you understand a great work of art; it dies for you”.

Grave cave ate – literally the deterioration of the body in a near death experience.

Call  - alludes to Jesus calling out for Lazarus or for her brother calling her back to life,  but seven lines later refers to a “calling” – an aptitude or predisposition – a gene?  Sadly on March 16, 2009, her son Nicholas 45, also committed suicide after battling depression for some time.

Brute shout – her audience or her tormentor – her father.

Charge -  Admission charge, a price for us to pay for her poetry, or a cost to the performer who shows us her scars? 

Herr Doctor/Herr Enemy -  Her father called Dr Otto Plath – not German but Polish.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer -   Heaven or Hell – Look out here I come, yet I shall be reborn and haunt men.

 VI. Evaluation:

Sylvia Plath wrote a letter to her brother claiming that she was writing her best ever poem.   Its tight construction may support that assertion.

 Barbara Hardy:

The personal presence in the poetry, though dynamic and shifting, makes itself felt in a full and large sense, in feeling, thinking, and language.

(from Enlargement or Derangement? Ariel Ascending: Writings About Sylvia Plath, Paul Alexander, ed. (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1985))

Elizabeth Hardwick:

We cannot truly separate the work from the fascination and horror of the death... It is interesting to make the effort to read Sylvia Plath’s poems as if she were still alive. They are just as brilliant, just as much creations of genius, but they are obscured and altered. Blood, reds, the threats do not impress themselves so painfully upon us.

(from On Sylvia Plath, Ariel Ascending: Writings About Sylvia Plath)

Al Alvarez:

hindsight can alter the historical importance but not the quality of the verse

(from Sylvia Plath: A Memoir Ariel Ascending: Writings About Sylvia Plath).

No reader of The Bell Jar, which was closely based on her experiences in the summer of 1953, can forget the scene in which Esther Greenwood, Plath’s alter ego, is asked to pose for a photograph holding a paper rose: “Show us how happy it makes you to write a poem,” the photographer cajoles her.

The rest of Plath’s life and work can be seen as her response to that inane, implicitly sexist suggestion: 

“I do it so it feels like hell. / I do it so it feels real,”

 “Lady Lazarus.” AMERICAN ISIS, The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath  By Carl Rollyson reviewed by ADAM KIRSCH

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