‘Lady Lazarus’ is about Sylvia Plath’s failure in her previous suicidal attempts and her mental transformation before the third attempt. Plath is known for her tortured soul. This is what makes this poem intriguing to readers. Most people have experienced agony at least once. This agony is often so deep, there are no words to express the true anguish present. Plath, however, inserts delicate, beautiful words into dark, lonely feelings.
Explore Lady Lazarus
The poem begins directly with the main theme of this piece that is suicidal thoughts and death. According to the speaker, she has tried to kill herself once every ten years. The first time, when she was only ten, was not an attempt at all. It was just an accident. But, the second time she was determined to accomplish her goal of self-destruction. However, that attempt also bore no fruit.
It gave rise to bitter emotions in her heart concerning those who were around. She reveals her biggest enemy between her and the goal, is the doctor who saved her. So, before the last attempt, she bluntly says no matter what happens in this attempt. If she gets saved, she will rise like a phoenix and devour men like air.
Sylvia Plath titles the poem ‘Lady Lazarus’ to let her readers know that there will be references to death. Lazarus, the well-known bible character who was brought back to life after three days in the tomb, will set the tone for the rest of Plath’s poem. Since Lazarus was brought to life again, this poem will be one of victory over death, just like the biblical story. However, Plath intends to identify with the Lazarus decaying in the tomb rather than the Lazarus who had been brought back to life.
Structure and Form
Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’ is a free-verse lyric. The poetic persona describes her experiences from a subjective perspective. That’s why it is a lyric poem. Apart from that, it is a confessional poem. Plath’s style of confessionalism deals with the subjects of suicide, mental trauma, and individual experience. Events like the Holocaust and its impact are described in this poem.
The poem is composed of tercets or stanzas containing three lines. There is not any specific rhyme scheme. However, in some instances, readers can find some rhyming or slant rhymes. For example, the first two lines rhyme together. Likewise, the last two lines form a rhyming couplet. Plath composed this poem in an alternative iambic-trochaic meter.
The title of the poem ‘Lady Lazarus’ is an allusion to the biblical character, “Lazarus of Bethany”. Through the title, the poet implicitly compares the character with herself, not in a subjective manner but from the perspective of rebirth and decomposition. That’s why it’s also a metaphor.
Another important device of this piece is enjambment. This device is used throughout the piece. For example, the last line of the second stanza is enjambed with the first line of the next stanza. Plath uses this poetic device for maintaining the flow.
Some other literary devices used in this poem are simile, irony, and paradox. Readers can find a simile in “Bright as a Nazi lampshade”. The rhetorical question, “Do I terrify?” contains irony as well. Apart from that, the last two lines are paradoxical in sense.
Plath also uses palilogy, alliteration, and anaphora. For example, “Soon, soon the flesh” contains a palilogy. “Face a featureless” has an alliteration of the “f” sound. In the sixteenth stanza, readers can find anaphora.
I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it——
The first stanza of ‘Lady Lazarus’ cannot be properly understood until the entire poem has been read. At first glance, this doesn’t have much meaning, but after reading the entirety of ‘Lady Lazarus,’ readers can gather that Plath is referring to suicide. She admits right off the bat that she has tried to die once every decade of her life.
Plath then begins to explain to readers why she has tried to die so many times. She uses vivid imagery to compare her own suffering to that of the Jewish people. In other Sylvia Plath poems, readers can find such haunting and dark imagery.
A sort of walking miracle, my skin
In the second stanza, she compares her skin to a “Nazi lampshade”. This is significant because of the idea that the Nazi people used the skin of the Jews to make lampshades. Plath uses this horrifying metaphor to compare her own suffering to those in Nazi concentration camps.
Plath’s speaker conveys the heaviness of her pain by comparing her right foot to a “paperweight”. This metaphor helps the reader to understand that Plath’s pain was so real that it felt like a physical weight. The “paperweight” conveys the nature of her emotional pain.
The imagery of a featureless face reveals that she doesn’t feel any identity. Such an expression is set apart for any specific or important purpose. She feels like a face lost in the crowd, one that no one would remember.
Furthermore, she describes her face as a “fine Jew linen”. Jew linens were used to wrap the body of Lazarus before they laid him in the tomb. Those were also used to wrap Jesus’ body before he was laid in the tomb.
Plath’s reference to the “fine Jew linen” reaffirms that she already feels dead. Or rather, she feels nothing just as the dead feel nothing and this inability to feel is precisely what causes her to suffer. Plath continues to use imagery of death to reveal her deepest feelings in the following stanzas.
Peel off the napkin
Will vanish in a day.
When she asks the reader to “peel off the napkin” she is challenging the audience to look at her for who she really is. She doesn’t believe that anyone would want to really know her, to peer into her soul, and really know how she is.
She believes that if people were to do that, they would be terrified. The reason she thinks this way is because she is afraid that people will become aware that although she is alive in flesh, her soul is dead. This is why she continues to use imagery of death and decomposition to describe herself.
This is the point in ‘Lady Lazarus’ at which the reader can become aware that Plath identifies not with the risen Lazarus, but with the Lazarus who is dead and has already begun the decomposition process. For this reason, she describes herself as having a prominent nose cavity, eye pits, and teeth. These features would be most prominent in a decaying body. Moreover, Plath explains that the sour breath, the putrid smell of death, will soon vanish.
Soon, soon the flesh
And like the cat I have nine times to die.
In the sixth stanza, she continues to explain the effect of death. Plath uses this imagery to explain the emptiness and numbness that tortured her soul. She uses the description of physical decomposition to convey the way she feels that her soul is decomposing.
Plath then transitions from speaking of herself as an already dead woman to revealing that she is actually alive. However, the tone of ‘Lady Lazarus’ reveals that she is disappointed at being alive. It becomes obvious that she identifies with death far more than with life. She thinks of herself as a rotting corpse, not the “smiling woman” of only thirty that she sees when she looks in the mirror. She reveals an obvious disappointment that she has not been able to die when she compares herself to a cat, concluding that it will probably take many more attempts to reach death.
This is Number Three.
Shoves in to see
Plath then reveals that each decade, she has come very close to death. When she says, “this is number three” she reveals that she has tried to die a number of times. Plath then focuses on herself and her own misery and begins to criticize the people around her.
She calls them the “peanut crunching crowd” suggesting that they are only in her life to scoff at her and make a spectacle of her. This same view of people is conveyed when she compares herself, yet again, to Lazarus in the following lines.
Them unwrap me hand and foot——
I may be skin and bone,
This time, she doesn’t compare herself to Lazarus who is dead in the tomb. She compares herself to the one who has risen and is coming out of the tomb still wrapped in burial cloth. Only Plath’s tone is not triumphant, but rather skeptical.
She calls her exit from the tomb, “a big strip tease” revealing that when she came close to death but was brought back to life, the people around her were there not to rejoice with her or comfort her, but to be entertained by her. Her sarcastic tone reveals her frustration with the spectators and her disappointment that she was unable to stay dead.
At this point, she realizes that she is alive, though she wishes she were still in the tomb. This gives the reader the imagery of Plath looking at her hands, her knees, her flesh, and realizing she is still alive, at least physically. She realizes that she is just the same as she was before experiencing death.
Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
I rocked shut
This stanza explains that she is the same woman she was before her near-death experience. Plath then begins to give the reader some history on her experiences with death, explaining that the first time was an accident, and she was only ten years old. After reading the lines, it becomes clear that the first accidental near-death experience was traumatizing to Plath but somehow left her wanting another taste of death.
She does not reveal the age of her second encounter with her own death, which was her first suicide attempt. However, since she says she has tried once every decade, we can assume she was around 20 years old.
The thirteenth stanza of ‘Lady Lazarus’ reveals that Plath came so close to death, that she believed she had actually experienced death. She also “meant to last it out” which reveals that she truly does not wish to live any longer.
As a seashell.
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.
Plath identifies with death more than life or anything in life. She says during her second encounter with death she kept herself coffined like a seashell. The “seashell” is a symbolic reference to the body which kept her soul caged. She somehow tried to break through the shell and release her soul from her decaying self. At that time, those who found her had called her out of that suffocating chamber.
She imagines if she would have died they would pick worms off her like “sticky pearls”. The reference to the “seashell” was far better than this comparison. Here, she in exasperation compares the worms to “pearls”.
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
It is one of the most important stanzas of the poem ‘Lady Lazarus’. In this section, she explains her own interest and “talent” in this “art” of dying. As she has tried to die a number of times, she has become an artist in this artform. She performs it better than others who die only once and forever. Like an artist tries throughout her life to creating an everlasting masterpiece. Plath is trying to complete her magnum opus in this art form.
In an inflated and confident tone, she says she does it exceptionally well. It makes clear that she has tried her best to die. But the circumstances were not favorable in each of her previous encounters with death.
I do it so it feels like hell.
It’s the theatrical
Each line of this stanza begins with the word “I”. The sound scheme of this line seems as if the speaker is making her point strongly and confidently. This scheme is followed in the next stanza too.
In the first few lines, she claims she is always working with the art of dying. It means that the thoughts of dying are always rampaging in her head. According to her, it turns her mind into hell. So she can claim that the concept of hell is real. It exists, not in an imaginary place but in her mind.
When she claims that death is her “call”, it reveals that she feels no purpose in life other than to die. She reveals that her only relief from suffering, emptiness, and numbness was what she experienced in her encounters with her own death. But every time she gets a taste of death, she ends up surviving, only to resume her former suffering.
The next stanza reveals her thoughts about her return to her life of suffering. She reveals that she thinks it should be easy enough to end her life in an isolated cell and stay put. The last line of this stanza is enjambed with the following stanza.
Comeback in broad day
There is a charge
She reveals that the hard part is coming back and facing the crowd. It seems to her as a theatrical process. That is rather performed than felt. When she returns to her normal life again, everything seems theatrical to her. It seems as if she already knows what is going to happen after her comeback. If she is unsuccessful in her attempt, she has to return to the same place. The same, brute faces will be starting at her in disdain and amusedly shout at her.
She feels she is being put on stage when people call her life “a miracle”. The sound of these two words just knocks her mind out. That’s why Plath takes on a tone of sarcasm when she suggests that there should be a charge for looking at her or touching her.
For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
Or a bit of blood
She feels so agitated that she welcomes them to look at her wounds and how she is feeling. But, they have to pay a charge for it. In this way, she compares herself to an object that is publically displayed as an example. As she masters the art of dying, people may gather around her and study the artist in her. They can find her scars. To hear the beating of her heart, there is a charge too. This line makes it clear that she is really alive, only physically. Her kind has already died a thousand times.
In the following section, Plath clarifies that there is a “very large charge” to hear a word from her or for touch. The last line is shocking as her she talks about “blood”. It is a symbol of her anger. If they want to see it they have to bear a significant “charge”. In this way, she depicts her body as a material that is displayed in return of something else.
Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.
For the first time in ‘Lady Lazarus,’ Plath makes her readers aware of the source of her suffering. She writes, “So, so, Herr Doktor./ So, Herr Enemy.” “Herr” is the German word for Mr. The use of the German word “Doktor” refers to the Nazi doctors who brought the Jewish victims back to health, only to resume their suffering. By putting an emphasis on the word “Herr” twice in this stanza, Plath reveals that men are the enemy and the cause of her suffering.
I am your opus,
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.
Plath then begins to explain why men are the enemy when she writes the quoted lines. This reveals her belief that she is valuable to men only as an object, beautiful, but hard and lifeless. She does not deny that she is valuable to some people, particularly men, but only as a cold, hard object of beauty, not as a human being.
Plath feels that her death would be nothing more than watching a beautiful piece of jewelry burn to the people around her. She uses heavy sarcasm when she says, “Do not think I underestimate your great concern.” Here, she feels that her death would be nothing more than watching a beautiful piece of jewelry melt to the people around her.
A gold filling.
Plath continues to imply that the people in her life, particularly men, value her only as an object. This is revealed when she writes, “Ash, ash…there is nothing there”. They only pike and stir the ashes of her mind and try to trigger her bodily emotions. But, their hard work will be worthless as she says, “Flesh, bone, there is nothing there”. It means she has already detached herself from her body. What remains, is only her mind that is also traumatized.
The Nazis were known to use the remains of the burned Jewish bodies to make soap. They also rummaged around heaps of human ashes to find jewelry and gold fillings. This is how Plath views her value to other people in the following stanza.
Herr God, Herr Lucifer
In the next stanza of ‘Lady Lazarus,’ Plath turns to a tone of revenge. She continues to blame men, God, and the Devil, specifically pointing out that both God and Lucifer (the Devil) are men. This also reveals that she feels powerless under men. She refers to the “Doktor”, God, and the Devil all as men who hold some kind of power over her. That’s why she tells other women to keep a safe distance from them. “Beware” she harks to all those who are going through similar mental turmoil.
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
It is difficult to tell whether Plath is referring to herself when she “rises from the ashes” as a physically alive woman who has failed yet again at trying to end her life, or as one who has died and will return as an immortal. She may plan to stop attempting suicide and take her revenge on men instead of herself. Or she plans to come back as an immortal after she has died to take her revenge on men.
The “red hair” suggests that it could symbolize the mythical creature, phoenix, who can burst into flames and then be reborn from its ashes. Either way, Plath warns men everywhere, that she is no longer a powerless victim under them, but that she is ready to take her revenge.
The poem ‘Lady Lazarus’ was published in 1965 in Sylvia Plath’s poetry collection “Ariel“. It was published two years after her suicidal death. From Plath’s biographical sketch, it can be known that she has suffered through depression and existential crisis. She attempted suicide several times. This poem depicts her mental state while she was going through tough times and her mind was flooded with suicidal thoughts.
This poem is also regarded as one of her Holocaust poems along with ‘Daddy’ and ‘Mary’s Song’. She describes the oppression she faced by alluding to Nazi Germany of World War II. Another interesting thing to mention regarding the poem is that several verses of the earlier text were excluded in the published version.
It can be assumed that the poem was written in the 1960s. Her biographical details imply that Plath wrote this poem in the years just before her death by suicide in 1963. The poem was published two years after her death in her poetry collection “Ariel” (1965).
‘Lady Lazarus’ is an allusion to the biblical character “Lazarus of Bethany”. Jesus’ magical power saved Lazarus from dying. However, in this poem, Plath compares herself to the character as she tried to kill herself several times but failed to do so. In this way, she was saved from death by those around her.
The main theme of this poem is death. Plath uses this theme to depict her mental state after she failed in killing herself. The following lines showcase this theme: “Dying/ Is an art, like everything else./ I do it exceptionally well.”
The speaker of this poem is the poet Sylvia Plath herself. This poem is Plath’s poetic expression for describing her suicidal thoughts.
Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’ is a confessional poem. It is a personal poem that centers on extreme moments of the speaker’s experiences, her psyche, and trauma. It explores the theme of suicide that is in relation to broader social themes.
According to the context of the poem, Plath tried to kill herself once in each decade. As she lived for only 30 years, she has attempted suicide three times.
The speaker of ‘Lady Lazarus’ compares herself to the mythological bird “Phoenix” which rises from its own ashes.
Here is a list of a few poems which explore similar kinds of themes present in Sylvia Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’.
- ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T.S. Eliot – It’s one of the best-known poems of T.S. Eliot. This poem also contains an allusion to the biblical character Lazarus and the speaker compares himself to this character. Explore more T.S. Eliot poems.
- ‘The Suicide’s Soliloquy’ by Abraham Lincoln – This dark poem describes a speaker who is in extreme sorrow and about to attempt suicide. Read more Abraham Lincoln poems.
- ‘Suicide’s Note’ by Langston Hughes – It’s one of the popular poems of Langston Hughes. This short emotional poem speaks very simply about life, suicide, and death. Explore more Langston Hughes poems.
- ‘Felo de se’ by Thomas Blackburn – This poem speaks on relationships, the treatment of women, and death. Read more Thomas Blackburn poems.