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Lady Lazarus (23-29 October 1962)Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)Critical Analyses

Sylvia Plath. An Introduction to the Poetry. Susan Bassnett. Second Edition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, 111-113.

The I-speaker, whose language is the brittle, acidly comic language of a female stand-up comedian who presents her act to the public:Its the theatricalComeback in broad dayTo the same place, the same face, the same bruteAmused shout:A miracle!That knocks me out.The peanut-crunching crowd that shoves in to see her resurrection wants a show but she tells them that this time they will have to pay a very large charge for it. She is only thirty and like the cat I have nine times to die, but this is her third resurrection: The first time it happened I was ten.It was an accident.The second time I meantTo last it out and not come back at all.In the first lines of the poem, the I-speaker boasts about her ability to keep coming back:I have done it again.One year in every tenI manage it But she has come back once again into the world of male savagery. Her impresario is a Nazi:So, so, Herr Doktor.So, Herr Enemy. (Bassnett 112)I am your opus,I am your valuable.She describes herself in terms of a concentration camp victim of that monstrous figure my skin / bright as a Nazi lampshade, my face a featureless, fine / Jew linen. Burned to ashes, flesh and bone dissolve. All that is left are the objects that would not burn, like the gold fillingor wedding ring and the cake of soap, made with melted body fat. But despite this horrific image of her destruction, Lady Lazarus is not finished yet. She has come back before and will come back again.The last lines of the poem are a warning to all men and to the system of male values that sets even a male god above all. God and Lucifer are both addressed as Herr, in a deliberate attempt to emphasise their common male-ness:Herr God, Herr LuciferBewareBeware.Out of the ashI rise with my red hairAnd I eat men like air.Introducing this poem for BBC radio, Sylvia Plath said:The speaker is a woman who has the great and terrible gift ofbeing reborn. The only trouble is, she has to die first. She is thePhoenix, the libertarian spirit, what you will. She is also just agood, plain resourceful woman.Lady Lazarus is a survivor, a woman who understands the nature of her enemy and returns to fight back. The anger of the fighting back poems is directed against men who wrong women and against the world which stands by and allows them to do it. (Bassnett 113)

The Cambridge Introduction to Sylvia Plath. Jo Gill. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008, 59-62.

The best-known narrative rite of rebirth in Plaths canon is, of course, Lady Lazarus (CP* 244). The poem presents a resurgent subject, rising, renewed, from the ashes. Interestingly, it also develops the theme of the double, implicitly encoded in the use of echoes, mirrors and other duplicating devices mentioned above. Stan Smith argues that in Lady Lazarus the rapid shifts of the imagery enact the doubleness of a self which is a solid opus, a valuable, the pure gold baby of the collective patriarchy, and then, across an enjambment, melts to a shriek(Endnote 13: Smith, Stan. Inviolable Voice: History and Twentieth-Century Poetry. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1982, 218). Lady Lazarus exemplifies the difficulty, raised earlier, of differentiating between the lived experience, emotions or voice of the poet and those of an invented speaker, or I. Like the slightly earlier poem Daddy (they were written two weeks apart in October 1962), Lady Lazarus places that distinction under great strain. This is embodied by the urgency of voice in both poems, by the vividness of the imagery and by the metaphoric and symbolic intensity which make any supposed gap between biography and its representation seem highly suspect. In George Steiners words, the vehemence and intimacy of the verse is such as to constitute a very powerful rhetoric of sincerity (Endnote 14: George Steiner, Dying is an Art, in Charles Newman (ed.), The Art of Sylvia Plath: A Symposium. London: Faber and Faber, 1970, 21112). The emphatic repetition of the I sound, which reverberates throughout is also significant. In Lady Lazarus the I is frequently carried over into internal rhymes (smiling, like, nine, times, die in stanza seven and annihilate in stanza eight) with the effect that the I seems desperately to be asserting voice and agencyAlthough it is common to read the voice of Lady Lazarus as defiant and rebellious, one might counter by noting the flatness of its tone. At the very least, one might note the tension the poem establishes between the energy of the short, three-line stanzas (some lines containing only one or two words or two or three syllables my knees, dying) and the lingering discontent of the longer and more complex lines. Where these appear, they detail the grounds for despair, attenuate and thereby dissipate the energetic anger, and slow the whole poem down. The frequent assonance has a similar effect. The long, slow vowel sounds and the repetition of key phrases (I do it so it feels and its easy enough to do in stanzas sixteen and seventeen respectively) ensure the readers absorption in the scene. (Gill 59) The assumption of a confident and seductive salespersons voice mimics the process by which ideology interpellates the subject in modern consumer culture. The stultifying rhymes, half-rhymes and internal rhymes(crutch, crotch;missing, thing; proof, roof) and the flat repetitions (hand, hand; it, it; that, that) exemplify the claustrophobia of the situation and the impossibility of breaking free or of refusing to be one of us.Critics have read Lady Lazarusas exposing the artifice of modern femininityLady Lazarus looks more specifically at the construction and distortion of female subjectivity. It depicts the fragmentation of the female body whose dismemberment brings to mind the story of Diana and Actaeon again from Ovids Metamorphoses (Actaeon is torn apart by his own hounds as punishment for having attempted to see what should have remained unseen). Lady Lazaruss big strip tease (stanza ten) is, significantly, enforced by others. Although she assumes the voice of defiant bravado, it is others (them) who unwrap her. Thus she is coerced into performing, while seeming to authorise and enjoy, a spectacular femininity. Others have seen Lady Lazarus as an allegory of a psychotherapeutic return through successive stages to some point of origin a process which is dominated by Herr Doktor who is also Herr Enemy or as another attempt to negotiate the relationship between self and father, self and husband, and self and patriarchy in general (hence Herr God and Herr Lucifer inthe final lines). It is also possible to argue that Lady Lazarus sounds an early note of caution about the direction which Plaths work, along with that of other confessional poets of her time, seemed to be taking. Plath expresses misgivings about the commodification of suffering (the charge, the very large charge) and the exploitation and self-exploitation which seem to underpin the mode. Lady Lazarus has become so important in Plaths oeuvre perhaps because it allows readers coming from quite opposite theoretical positions to reach the same conclusions for different reasons. To quote Jacqueline Roses summary of the situation:

The concept of an emergent female selfhood . . . has been so crucial in a reading of these late poems. It is a reading which . . . is strangely shared by one form of feminist criticism and by Ted Hughes. What the two have in common is an image of transcendence poetic, psychological, political in which Plath finally takes off from, burns herself out of, whatever it was (false self for Hughes, Hughes himself for feminism) that had her in its thrall.(Endnote 15: Rose, Jacqueline. The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. London: Virago, 1991, 144, 1456.)

However, as she goes on to say, this is a problematic reading for a number of reasons. It views Plaths oeuvre exclusively in terms of its relationship to the final poems and it overlooks the extent to which images of dissolution, self effacement and abjection signify the impossibility ever of achieving the kind of subjectivity optimistically identified by some. As this indicates, Lady Lazarus is not only, if at all, a personal complaint, or a suicide note avant la lettre. It alsoencodes broader commentaries on creativity and subjectivity in a social and political context. Lady Lazarus, like Daddy, the poem wemove on to consider now, reflects on the lessons for modern civilisation of the Nazi Holocaust and other traumatic events.Steiner was one of the first critics to comment on Plaths engagement with this theme and his views are generally sympathetic: Sylvia Plath had no personal, immediate contact with the world of the concentration camps . . . But her last, greatest poems culminate in an act of identification, of total communion with those tortured and massacred. The relics in Lady Lazarus (the cake of soap, the wedding ring and gold filling) are more than the residue of one failed marriage, or even of a despairing femininity, they are among the poignant traces of the massacre of millions of Jews and others in the Nazi death camps. These notorious shards, as Steiner terms them, seemed to enter into her own being. (Steiner 16) For Steiner, a work of art such as Plaths poem is a crucial way of witnessing to the memory of the Holocaust.Other readers, most notably Irving Howe, have objected to this identification, describing the allusions in Lady Lazarus and Daddy as illegitimate. As he goes on to say, there is something monstrous, utterly disproportionate, when tangled emotions about ones father are deliberately compared with the historical fate of the European Jews; something sad, if the comparison is made spontaneously. (Endnote 17: Irving Howe, The Plath Celebration: A Partial Dissent, in Butscher, Edwa