On "Lady Lazarus"
She fears, in "Sheep in Fog," that her search will lead instead to a "starless and fatherless" heaven, carrying her into dark waters. Such dark waters are the subject of "Lady Lazarus," a much-quoted poem in which Plath compares herself to that Biblical figure once resurrected by Christ (and to a cat with its nine lives) because she has been "resurrected" from attempted suicide three times. The poem is also an act of revenge on the male Ego:
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
From "The Dark Tunnel: A Reading of Sylvia Plath." Modern Poetry Studies 3.2 (1972).
Eillen M. Aird
A companion piece to 'Daddy', in which the poet again fuses the worlds of personal pain and corporate suffering, is Lady Lazarus'. In this poem a disturbing tension is established between the seriousness of the experience described and the misleadingly light form of the poem. The vocabulary and rhythms which approximate to the colloquial simplicity of conversational speech, the frequently end-stopped lines, the repetitions which have the effect of mockingly counteracting the violence of the meaning, all establish the deliberately flippant note which this poem strives to achieve. These are all devices which also operate in Auden's 'light verse', but the constantly shifting tone of 'Lady Lazarus' is found less frequently in Auden's more cerebral poetry. At times the tone is hysterically strident and demanding:
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see
Them unwrap me hand and foot
The big strip tease.
These are my hands
Then it modulates into a calmer irony as the persona mocks herself for her pretensions to tragedy: 'Dying/is an art, like everything else./I do it exceptionally well.' As in 'Daddy' Sylvia Plath has used a limited amount of autobiographical detail in this poem; the references to suicide in 'Lady Lazarus reflect her own experience. As in 'Daddy, however, the personal element is subordinate to a much more inclusive dramatic structure, and one answer to those critics who have seen her work as merely confessional is that she used her personal and painful material as a way of entering into and illustrating much wider themes and subjects. In 'Lady Lazarus' the poet again equates her suffering with the experiences of the tortured Jews, she becomes, as a result of the suicide she inflicts on herself, a Jew:
A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot
My face a featureless, fine
The reaction of the crowd who push in with morbid interest to see the saved suicide mimics the attitude of many to the revelations of the concentration camps; there is a brutal insistence on the pain which many apparently manage to see with scientific detachment. Lady Lazarus represents an extreme use of the 'light verse' technique. Auden never forced such grotesque material into such an insistently jaunty poem, and the anger and compassion which inform the poem are rarely found so explicitly in his work. 'Lady Lazarus' is also a supreme example of Sylvia Plath's skill as an artist. She takes very personal, painful material and controls and forms it with the utmost rigour into a highly wrought poem, which is partly effective because of the polar opposition between the terrible gaiety of its form and the fiercely uncompromising seriousness of its subject. If we categorize a poem such as 'Lady Lazarus' as 'confessional' or 'extremist then we highlight only one of its elements. It is also a poem of social criticism with a strong didactic intent, and a work of art which reveals great technical and intellectual ability. The hysteria is intentional and effective.
From Sylvia Plat: Her Life and Work. Copyright © 1973 by Eileen M. Aird
Plaths late poems are full of speakers whose rigid identities and violent methods not only parody their torment but also permit them to control it. The peculiar nature of the speaker in "Lady Lazarus" defies ordinary notions of the suicide. Suicide is not the joyous act she claims it to be in her triumphant assertion that she has done it again. Her confidence, at the moment of recovery, that her sour breath will vanish in a day and that she will soon be a smiling woman is a perverse acceptance of her rescuers' hopes, although she calls her rescuers enemies. The impulse of the speaker is the overwhelming desire to control the situation. She is above all a performer, chiefly remarkable for her manipulation of herself as well as of the effects she wishes to have on those who surround her. She speaks of herself in hyperboles, calling herself a "walking miracle," boasting that she has "nine times to die," exclaiming that dying is an art she does "exceptionally well," asserting that "the theatrical/ Comeback in broad day" knocks her out. Her treatment of suicide in such buoyant terms amounts to a parody of her own act. When she compares her suicide to the victimization of the Jews, and when she later claims there is a charge for a piece of her hair or clothes and thus compares her rescued self to the crucified Christ or martyred saint, she is engaging in self-parody. She employs these techniques partly to defy the crowd, with its "brute / Amused shout:/ 'A miracle!' " and partly to taunt her rescuers, "Herr Doktor," "Herr Enemy," who regard her as their "opus." She is neither a miracle nor an opus, and she fends off those who would regard her in this way.
The techniques have another function as well: they display the extent to which she can objectify herself, ritualize her fears, manipulate her own terror. Her extreme control is intimately entwined with her suicidal tendencies. If she is not to succumb to her desire to kill herself and thus control her own fate, she must engage in the elaborate ritual which goes on all the time in the mind of the would-be suicide by which she allays her persistent wish to destroy herself. Her control is not sane but hysterical . When the speaker assures the crowd that she is "the same, identical woman" after her rescue, she is in fact telling them her inmost fear that she could (and probably will) do it again. What the crowd takes for a return to health, the speaker sees as a return to the perilous conditions that have driven her three times to suicide. By making a spectacle out of herself and by locating the victimizer in the doctor and the crowd, rather than in herself, she is casting out her terrors so that she can control them. When she boasts at the end that she will rise and eat men, she is projecting her destruction outward. That last stanza of defiance is really a mental effort to triumph over terror, to rise and not to succumb to her own victimization. The poet behind the poem allows Lady Lazarus to caricature herself and thus to demonstrate the way in which the mind turns ritualistic against horror. Although "Lady Lazarus" draws on Plath's own suicide attempt, the poem tells us little of the actual event. It is not a personal confession, but it does reveal Plath's understanding of the way the suicidal person thinks.
From Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Copyright © 1979 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
"Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy" are poems which seem written at the edge of sensibility and of imagistic technique. They both utilize an imagery of severe disintegration and dislocation. The public horrors of the Nazi concentration camps and the personal horrors of fragmented identities become interchangeable. Men are reduced to parts of bodies and to piles of things. The movement in each poem is at once historical and private; the confusion in these two spheres suggests the extent to which this century has often made it impossible to separate them.
The barkerlike tone of "Lady Lazarus" is not accidental. As in "Daddy," the persona strips herself before the reader ... all the time utilizing a cool or slang idiom in order to disguise feeling. Sylvia Plath borrowed from a sideshow or vaudeville world the respect for virtuosity which the performer must acquire, for which the audience pays and never stops paying. Elsewhere in her work, she admired the virtuosity of the magician's unflinching girl or of the unshaking tattoo artist. Here, in "Lady Lazarus," it is the barker and the striptease artist who consume her attention. What the poet pursues in image and in rhyme (for example, the rhyming of "Jew" and "gobbledygoo") becomes part of the same process I observed in so many of her other poems, that attempt, brilliant and desperate, to locate what it was that hurt.
Sylvia Plath never stopped recording in her poetry the wish and need to clear a space for love. Yet she joined this to an inclination to see love as unreal, to accompanying fears of being unable to give and receive love, and to the eventual distortion and displacement of love in the verse. Loving completely or "wholly" she considered to be dangerous, from her earliest verse on.
[. . . .]
Poems like"Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus in the end may not be the triumphs which their momentum and inventiveness at times celebrate. Instead, and this is my sense of them, they belong more to elegy and to death, to the woman whose "loving associations" abandoned her as she sought to create images for them.
From Modern American Lyric: Lowell, Berryman, Creeley,-and Plath. Rutgers University Press, 1978
. . . 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:
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:
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:
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 poembiblical, historical, political, personaldraw 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.
"Lady Lazarus," written in the same feverish thirtieth-birthday month that produced "Daddy" and "Ariel," is a mélange of incompatible styles, as though in a meaningless world every style could have its day: bravado ("I have done it again"), slang ("A sort of walking miracle"), perverse fashion commentary ("my skin/Bright as a Nazi lampshade"), melodrama ("Do I terrify?"), wit ("like the cat I have nine times to die"), boast ("This is Number Three"), self-disgust ("What a trash/To annihilate each decade"). The poem moves on through reductive dismissal ("The big strip tease") to public announcement, with a blasphemous swipe at the ecce homo ("Gentlemen, ladies/These are my hands/My knees"), and comes to its single lyric moment, recalling Plath's suicide attempt in the summer before her senior year at Smith:
I rocked shut
As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.
Almost every stanza of "Lady Lazarus" picks up a new possibility for this theatrical voice, from mock movie talk ("So, so, Herr Doktor./So, Herr Enemy") to bureaucratic politeness, ("Do not think I underestimate your great concern") to witch warnings ("I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air"). When an author makes a sort of headcheese of style in this way--a piece of gristle, a piece of meat, a piece of gelatin, a piece of rind--the disbelief in style is countered by a competitive faith in it. Style (as something consistent) is meaningless, but styles (as dizzying provisional skepticism) are all.
Poems like "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus" are in one sense demonically intelligent, in their wanton play with concepts, myths, and language, and in another, and more important, sense not intelligent at all, in that they willfully refuse, for the sale of a cacophony of styles (a tantrum of style), the steady, centripetal effect of thought. Instead, they display a wild dispersal, a centrifugal spin to further and further reaches of outrage. They are written in a loud version of what Plath elsewhere calls "the zoo yowl, the mad soft/ Mirror talk you love to catch me at." And that zoo yowl has a feral slyness about it.
From "An Intractable Metal." The New Yorker (1982).
"Lady Lazarus," another anthology-piece, reveals that this vacillation has, in addition to its misplaced mimetic function, a rhetorical function as well. This poem, much more overtly than "Daddy," anticipates and manipulates the responses of the reader. The speaker alternately solicits our sympathy and rebukes us for meddling. "Do I terrify?" she asks; she certainly hopes so. By comparing her recovery from a suicide attempt to the resurrection of Lazarus, she imagines herself as the center of a spectacle—we envision Christ performing a miracle before the astonished populace of Bethany. But unlike the beneficiary of the biblical miracle, Plath's "lady Lazarus" accomplishes her own resurrection and acknowledges no power greater than herself. "Herr God; Herr Lucifer, I Beware I Beware," she warns. Her self-aggrandizing gestures invite attention, and yet we are to be ashamed of ourselves if we accept the invitation:
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see
Them unwrap me hand and foot—
The big strip-tease.
The crowd is aggressive ("shoves"), its interest lascivious; it seeks an illicit titillation, if not from the speaker's naked body, then from her naked psyche.
Again, one might argue that the divided tone of "Lady Lazarus" is a legitimately mimetic representation of the psychology of suicide. A suicide attempt is partly motivated by the wish to get attention and exact revenge on those who have withheld attention in the past by making them feel responsible for one's death. Those who attempt suicide in a manner unlikely to succeed—and Plath 's attempts, including the successful one, seem to have been intended to fail—are torn between the desire "to last it out and not come back at all" and the hope that someone will care enough to intervene. Moreover, a suicide attempt is itself a confession, a public admission of inward desperation: Recovering from such an attempt, one would have to contend with the curiosity aroused in other people. One might indeed feel stripped naked, sorry to have called so much attention to oneself, and yet suddenly powerful in commanding so much attention.
Plath's analogy of the strip-tease or the sideshow conveys, with force and precision, the ambivalence of suicidal despair. Had she extended that metaphor through the entire poem, holding its complexities in balance, "Lady Lazarus" might have achieved the stability of tone and judgment lacking in "Daddy." But unfortunately, Plath succumbed to the urge to whip up further lurid excitement with the analogy of the concentration camp, introduced in stanzas two and three but dormant thereafter until it returns at the end of stanza twenty-one. It reenters stealthily:
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.
The first five lines of this passage, which continue the metaphor of strip-tease or freak show, are witty and self-possessed in their bitterness. "Large charge" is of course, slang for "big thrill" and so glances at the titillation the audience receives as well as the price of admission. But with "a bit of blood / Or a piece of my hair or my clothes," we suddenly recall the "Nazi lampshade" of stanza two. The speaker's "enemy"' whether it be Herr God, Herr Lucifer, or the peanut-crunching crowd, would kill her and dismember the body for commodities (or, in the context of biblical miracle, relics; in either case she is martyred). Interestingly, as the irony becomes less controlled, more phantasmagorical and unhinged, the rhythm begins to fall into anapests, and the rhyme on "goes" and "clothes" is one of the most insistent in the poem. The sound of the poetry, reminiscent of light verse, combines strangely with its macabre sense, rather like certain passages in "The Raven" where one feels that Poe has been demonically possessed by W. S. Gilbert ("For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being / Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door").
In the last twenty lines of "Lady Lazarus," irony vanishes, its last glimmer coming ten lines from the end in "Do not think I underestimate your great concern." By this point, the speaker has turned from the crowd to address a single threatening figure:
So, so, Herr Doktor
So, Herr Enemy.
I am your opus,
I am your valuable
The pure gold baby. . . .
The enemy, hitherto unspecified, turns out to be a German male authority figure, perhaps a scholar like Otto Plath ("Herr Doktor"), who thinks of the speaker as his "pure gold baby." An inward confrontation with this father imago replaces the confrontation with the intrusive crowd. The poem enters a realm of pure fantasy as the "Herr Doktor" rapidly assumes the cosmic proportions of "Herr God, Herr Lucifer." There is also a shift in the figurative language, corresponding to the shift in tone and implied audience. The clammy imagery of "the grave cave" and "worms . . . like sticky pearls" gives way to an imagery of death by fire. The resurrection of Lazarus becomes the birth of the Phoenix, and the extended metaphor of a public spectacle abruptly disappears. The threat of the final line, "And I eat men like air" (SP, 247), has little connection with anything in the first twenty-one stanzas.
As with "Daddy," one may try to save consistency by declaring the speaker a "persona." The poem, by this reckoning, reveals a woman gradually caught up in her anger and carried by it toward a recognition of its true object: not the crowd of insensitive onlookers, but the father and husband who have driven her to attempt suicide. The end of the poem, thus understood, breaks free of defensive irony to release cathartic rage. But it is hard to see why this rage is cathartic, since it no sooner locates its "real" object than it begins to convert reality back into fantasy again, in a grandiose and finally evasive fashion. Was it that Plath unconsciously doubted her right to be angry and therefore had to convict her father and her husband of Hitlerian monstrosities in order to justify the anger she nonetheless felt? Or did she fear that the experiential grounds of her emotions were too personal for art unless mounted on the stilts of myth or psycho-historical analogy? On such questions one can only speculate, and the answers, even if they were obtainable, could illuminate the poems only as biographical evidence, not as poems.
from The Psycho-Political Muse: American Poetry since the Fifties. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by the U of Chicago P.
Kathleen Margaret Lant
"Purdah" and "Lady Lazarus" - written within a week of each other during October 1962 - further reveal Plath's conviction that undressing has become for her a powerful poetic gesture, and in these poems it is the female speaker who finally disrobes - and here she attempts to appropriate the power of nakedness for herself. Plath does not simply contemplate from the spectator's point of view the horrors and the vigor of the act of undressing; now her female subject dares to make herself naked, and she does so in an attempt to make herself mighty. At this point, nakedness has somehow become strongly assertive, at least at one level in these poems. "Purdah" and "Lady Lazarus" take up the power of the uncovered body that Plath began to explore in "A Birthday Present." But in these two later poems, that figurative nakedness is compromised by the metaphorical significance of the female body. The naked force in "A Birthday Present" is ultimately masculine since it has the potential to enter the speaker like a cruelly sharp knife; the body that is unclothed encodes the assertiveness of the revealed male body. The body made bare in "Lady Lazarus" and "Purdah," however, is female, and for that reason the power of that body's undraping must be - at least in terms of Plath's metaphorical universe - necessarily diminished.
[. . . . ]
"Lady Lazarus" conveys the same sense of confusion or ambivalence in that the power of the speaking subject of the poem seems undermined by the melodramatic unclothing of that subject. Lady Lazarus is clearly - like the speaker of "Purdah" - meant to threaten; she asks rather sarcastically, "Do I terrify?", but the language by means of which she shapes her unclothing seems to compromise the grandeur of her act. She is not covered by grime or grit or falseness; her covering is somehow already too feminine, too ineffectual: My face a featureless, fine / Jew linen. // Peel off the napkin" (244). "Lady Lazarus" presents most clearly one of the central problems with Plath's use of the metaphor of nakedness, for in this poem Plath refers to this act of unclothing as "The big strip tease." And in this act, no woman is terrifying, no woman is triumphant, no woman is powerful, for she offers herself to "the peanut-crunching crowd" in a gesture that is "theatrical" (245) rather than self-defining, designed to please or to appease her viewers more than to release herself.
To strip is to seduce; it is not to assert oneself sexually or psychologically. And by the end of the poem, the speaker seeks to shame the male viewer who is exploiting her; she threatens him openly: "Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air" (247). But the threat is empty. Alicia Ostriker observes, too, that the rage here is "hollow" because the reader is fully aware that the speaker of this poem "is powerless, she knows it, she hates it" (102). But Ostriker does not name the source of this powerlessness - the speaker's physical vulnerability. The female subject has offered here pieces of herself, she has displayed herself not in an assertive way but in a sexually provocative and seductive way, and - at the very end - she resorts to descriptions of her appearance - her red hair - but not delineations of her reality - her anger. She does not convince the audience that she is, in fact, dangerous, for she must offer the female body as an object rather than assert it as a weapon. It is telling, too, that the speaker's audience in "Lady Lazarus" is made up entirely of men (Herr God, Herr Lucifer, Herr Doktor), for by revealing herself only before such an audience, she ensures that her unveiling will be read not as a powerful assertion of identity but rather as a seductive gesture of submission and invitation.
from "The big strip tease: female bodies and male power in the poetry of Sylvia Plath." Contemporary Literature 34.4 (Winter 1993)
In "Lady Lazarus," for example, Plath collapses the "them and us" distinction by confronting readers with their voyeurism in looking at the subject of the poem. To apply Teresa De Lauretis's theorizing of the cinematic positioning of women to Plath's poem, in "Lady Lazarus," the speaker's consciousness of her performance for the readers (who are implicitly part of the "peanut-crunching crowd") works to reverse the gaze of the readers so that they become "overlooked in the act of overlooking."
By extension, in her parodic overstatement (Lady Lazarus as archetypal victim, archetypal object of the gaze) Plath highlights the performative (that is, constructed rather than essential) nature of the speaker's positioning as object of the gaze, and so (to extend Judith Butler's terms), Lady Lazarus enacts a performance that attempts to "compel a reconsideration of the place and stability" of her positioning, and to "enact and reveal the performativity" of her representation. This sense of performativity and the reversal of gaze likewise extends, in "Lady Lazarus," to compel reconsideration not only of the conventional positioning of the woman as object, and of the voyeurism implicit in all lyric poetry, but also of the historical metaphors as objects of the gaze. Readers feel implicated in the poem's straightforward assignment and metaphorizing of the speaker in her role as object and performer, and contingently are made to feel uncomfortable about their similar easy assimilation of the imagery (of the suffering of the Jews) that the speaker uses. In "Daddy," a similar relationship between reader, speaker, and metaphor is at work.
From "Boot in the Face: The Problem of the Holocaust in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath." Contemporary Literature 37.3 (Fall 1996).
Although Plath's 'confessional' tropes are often seen in terms of a Romantic parable of victimization, whether of the sensitive poetic individual crushed by a brutally rationalized society, or of feminist protest against a monolithic patriarchal oppressor, her self-reflexivity tends to turn confession into a parody gesture or a premiss for theatrical performance. The central instance of the 'confessional' in her writing is usually taken to be 'Lady Lazarus'. M. L. Rosenthal uses the poem to validate the generic category: 'Robert Lowell's 'Skunk Hour' and Sylvia Plath's 'Lady Lazarus' are true examples of 'confessional' poetry because they put the speaker himself at the centre of the poem in such a way as to make his psychological shame and vulnerability an embodiment of his civilization.' The confessional reading of the poem is usually underpinned by the recourse to biography, which correlates the speaker's cultivation of the 'art of dying' with Plath's suicidal career. Although Plath is indeed, at one level, mythologizing her personal history, the motif of suicide in 'Lady Lazarus' operates less as self-revelation than as a theatrical tour de force, a music-hall routine.
With 'Daddy', 'Lady Lazarus' is probably the single text in the Plath canon which has attracted most disapproval on the grounds of a manipulative, sensationalist, or irresponsible style. Helen Vendler, for example, writes that 'Style (as something consistent) is meaningless, but styles (as dizzying provisional scepticism) are all . . . Poems like 'Daddy' and 'Lady Lazarus' are in one sense demonically intelligent, in their wanton play with concepts, myths and language, and in another, and more important, sense, not intelligent at all, in that they wilfully refuse, for the sake of a cacophony of styles (a tantrum of style), the steady, centripetal effect of thought. Instead, they display a wild dispersal, a centrifugal spin to further and further reaches of outrage.' Here, the element of 'wilful' pastiche in 'Lady Lazarus' is measured against a normative ideal of aesthetic detachment. Yet the poem's ironic use of prostitution as the figure of a particular kind of theatricalized self-consciousnessof the poet as, in Plath's phrase, 'Roget's trollop, parading words and tossing off bravado for an audience' (JP 2I4)calls for a reading which takes seriously what the poem does with, and to, literary history.
Like 'Lesbos', 'Lady Lazarus' is a dramatic monologue which echoes and parodies 'The Love Song of J. AIfred Prufrock'. The title alludes, of course, not only to the biblical story of Lazarus but also to Prufrock's lines: 'I am Lazarus, come from the dead, | Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all'. Like Eliot, Plath uses clothing as a metaphor for rhetoric: the 'veil' or 'garment' of style. By contrast with Eliot's tentative hesitations, obliquities, and evasions of direct statement, however, Plath's poem professes to 'tell all'. Lady Lazarus deploys a patently alienated and manufactured language, in which the shock tactic, the easy effect, reign supreme. Her rhetoric is one of direct statement ('I have done it again'), of brutal Americanisms ('trash', 'shoves', 'the big strip tease', 'I do it so it feels like hell', 'knocks me out'), of glib categorical assertions and dismissals ('Dying is an art, like everything else') , and blatant internal rhymes ('grave cave', 'turn and burn'). As Richard Blessing remarks, both 'Lady Lazarus' and 'The Applicant' are poems that parody advertising techniques while simultaneously advertising themselves. The poet who reveals her suffering plays to an audience, or 'peanut-crunching crowd'; her miraculous rebirths are governed by the logic of the commodity. Prufrock is verbally overdressed but feels emotionally naked and exposed, representing himself as crucified before the gaze of the vulgar mass. Lady Lazarus, on the other hand, incarnates the 'holy prostitution of the soul' which Baudelaire found in the experience of being part of a crowd; emotional nakedness is itself revealed as a masquerade. The 'strip-tease' artist is a parodic, feminized version of the symbolist poet sacrificed to an uncomprehending mass audience. For Baudelaire, as Walter Benjamin argues, the prostitute serves as an allegory of the fate of aesthetic experience in modernity, of its 'prostitution' to mass culture. The prostitute deprives femininity of its aura, its religious and cultic presence; the woman's body becomes a commodity, made up of dead and petrified fragments, while her beauty becomes a matter of cosmetic disguise (make-up and fashion). Baudelaire's prostitute sells the appearance of femininity. But she also offers a degraded and hallucinated memory of fulfilment, an intoxicating or narcotic substitute for the idealized maternal body. For the melancholic, spleen-ridden psyche, which obsessively dwells on the broken pieces of the past, she is therefore a privileged object of meditation. She represents the loss of that blissful unity with nature and God which was traditionally anchored in a female figure. Instead, Benjamin argues, the prostitute, like commodity fetishism, harnesses the 'sex-appeal of the inorganic', which binds the living body to the realm of death.
Lady Lazarus is an allegorical figure, constructed from past and present images of femininity, congealed fantasies projected upon the poem's surface. She is a pastiche of the numerous deathly or demonic women of poetic tradition, such as Foe's Ligeia, who dies and is gruesomely revivified through the corpse of another woman. Ligeia's function, which is to be a symbol, mediating between the poet and 'supernal beauty', can only be preserved by her death. Similarly, in Mallarme's prose poem 'Le Phenomene Futur', the 'Woman of the Past' is scientifically preserved and displayed at a circus sideshow by the poet. For Plath, however, the woman on show, the 'female phenomenon' is a revelation of unnaturalness instead of sensuous nature, her body gruesomely refashioned into Nazi artefacts. Lady Lazarus yokes together the canonical post-Romantic, symbolist tradition which culminates in 'Prufrock', and the trash culture of True Confessions, through their common concern with the fantasizing and staging of the female body:
I rocked shut
As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.
The densely layered intertextual ironies at work in these lines plot the labyrinthine course of what Benjamin calls 'the sex appeal of the inorganic' through literary history. They echo Ariel's song in The Tempest, whose talismanic status in Plath's writing I have already noted. Plath regenders the image, substituting Lady Lazarus for the drowned corpse of the father/king. The metaphor of the seashell converts the female body into a hardened, dead and inorganic object, but at the same time nostalgically recalls the maternal fecundity of the sea. The dead woman who suffers a sea change is adorned with phallic worms turned into pearls, the 'sticky', fetishistic sublimates of male desire. In Marvell's poem of seduction, 'To His Coy Mistress', the beloved is imagined as a decaying corpse: 'Nor, in thy marble vault shall sound | My echoing song: then worms shall try | That long-preserved virginity: | And your quaint honour turn to dust; | And into ashes all my lust.' In T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, the refrain 'Those are pearls that were his eyes' is associated with the drowned Phoenician sailor, implicit victim of witch-like, neurotic, or soul-destroying female figures, such as Madame Sosostris and Cleopatra.
Lady Lazarus stages the spectacle of herself, assuming the familiar threefold guise of actress, prostitute, and mechanical woman. The myth of the eternally recurring feminine finds its fulfilment in the worship and 'martyrdom' of the film or pop star, a cult vehicle of male fantasy who induces mass hysteria and vampiric hunger for 'confessional' revelations. Lady Lazarus reminds her audience that '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.' It is as if Plath is using the Marilyn Monroe figure to travesty Poe's dictum in 'The Philosophy of Composition' (I846) that 'the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world'. The proliferation of intertextual ironies also affects the concluding transformation of 'Lady Lazarus' into the phoenix-like, man-eating demon, who rises 'out of the ash' with her 'red hair'. This echoes Coleridge's description of the possessed poet in 'Kubla Kahn': 'And all should cry Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair!' The woman's hair, a privileged fetish-object of male fantasy, becomes at once a badge of daemonic genius and a flag of vengeance. It is tempting to read these lines as a personal myth of rebirth, a triumphant Romantic emergence of what Lynda Bundtzen calls the female 'body of imagination'. The myth of the transcendent-demonic phoenix seems to transcend the dualism of male-created images of women, wreaking revenge on 'Herr Doktor', 'Herr God', and 'Herr Lucifer', those allegorical emblems of an oppressive masculinity. Yet Lady Lazarus's culminating assertion of power'I eat men like air'undoes itself, through its suggestion of a mere conjuring trick. The attack on patriarchy is undercut by the illusionistic character of this apotheosis which purports to transform, at a stroke, a degraded and catastrophic reality. What the poem sarcastically 'confesses', through its collage of fragments of 'high' and 'low' culture, is a commodity status no longer veiled by the aura of the sacred. Lyric inwardness is 'prostituted' to the sensationalism of 'true confession'. The poet can no longer cherish the illusion of withdrawing into a pure, uncontaminated private space, whose immunity from larger historical conflicts is guaranteed by the 'auratic' woman. . . .for Plath the female body, far from serving as expiatory metaphor for the ravages of modernity, itself becomes a sign whose cultural meanings are in crisis.
from Sylvia Plath and Theatre of Mourning. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Christina Bitzolkais
[NB. Prosopopoeia: a rhetorical figure involving the adoption of the voices of the imagined, absent dead.]
If identification with the victims who could not disidentify with their tormentors constitutes the trap of prosopopoeia in "Daddy," the trope functions as a trip in "Lady Lazarus." What does it mean to think of the imperilled Jews asto borrow a phrase Maurice Blanchot used to approach the complex subject of Holocaust-related suicidesfetishized "masters of un-mastery"? The wronged speaker here can only liberate herself from "Herr Doktor" or "Herr Enemy" by wresting the power of persecution from him and turning it against herself. We know that the ongoingness of the torments of the Shoah perpetuated postwar suicides, but did those casualties mutate into mystic scapegoats whose envied status as paradigmatic victims would in turn generate ersatz survivor-celebrities? This is one way to grasp the shock of "Lady Lazarus," for the narcissistic and masochistic speaker has become obsessed with dying, relates to it as "a call." With her skin "Bright as a Nazi lampshade," her foot "A paperweight," and her face "featureless, fine / Jew linen," Lady Lazarus puts her damage on theatrical display through her scandalous suicide artistry (244). Have Jews been made to perform the Trauerspiel for a "peanut-crunching crowd" at the movies and on TV, like the striptease entertainer through whom Plath speaks? Does Lady Lazarus's "charge" at making death feel "real" and at "the theatrical / / Comeback" anticipate a contemporary theatricalization of the Holocaust? Certainly, her vengeful warning that "there is a charge / for the hearing of my heart" evokes the chargethe cheap thrill and the financial price and the emotional costof installations, novels, testimonials, college courses, critical essays, and museums dedicated to the six million.
The commodification of Lady Lazarus's exhibitionism issues in spectators paying "For a word or a touch / Or a bit of blood / / Or a piece of my hair or my clothes"; she brags about her expertise at the art of dying: "I do it so it feels like hell. / I do it so it feels real" (245, emphasis mine). The spectacular quality of Plath's figure adumbrates the notorious celebrity of a writer like Benjamin Wilkomirski, whose gruesome bestseller Fragments (about a child's experiences in the camps) was praised as "free of literary artifice of any kind" before it was judged to be a fraud. In remarks that gloss Plath's suicide-performer's pandering to her audience, Daniel Ganzfried argued that Wilkomirski's suicide would be read as an authentication of his identity as a victim: "These people talking about suicide will suggest it to him. . . . Some of his supporters would love him dead because then it looks like proof that he's Wilkomirski." Plath's poetry broods uponjust as Ganzfried's argument reiteratesthe contamination of the very idea of the genuine. As Blanchot cautions, " If there is, among all words, one that is inauthentic, then surely it is the word 'authentic."' To the extent that the impresario of Plath's stage, "Herr God" / "Herr Lucifer," has reduced Lady Lazarus from a person to an "opus" or a "valuable," the poem hints that even reverential post-Shoah remembrances may be always-already defiled by the Nazi perpetratorsthat prosopopoeia will not enable the poet to transcend the tarnished uses to which the past has been, can be, will be put. In the voice of a denizen of disaster, Plath mocks the frisson stimulated by the cultural industry she herself helped to spawn.
Revolted by her own dehumanization, Lady Lazarus then imagines triumphing over the murderous Nazis by turning vengeful herself, if only in the incendiary afterlife conferred by the oven:
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there
A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.
Herr God. Herr Lucifer
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
As it feeds on "men like air"predatory psychic dictators but also perhaps men turned to smokethe red rage that rises out of the ashes only fuels self-combustion, debunking the idea of transcendence or rebirth at the end of the poem. With its ironic echo of the conclusion of Coleridge's "Kubla Kahn""Beware, beware, his flashing eyes, his floating hair""Lady Lazarus" repudiates Romantic wonder at the power of the artist, replacing the magical "pleasure dome" of his artifice with the detritus to which the Jewish people were reduced. The poem's speech act amounts to a caustic assessment of the aesthetic sellout, the disaster-imposter luminary: "there is nothing there." That no consensus exists among contemporary historians over whether the Nazis made cakes of soap out of their victims (though they certainly did "manufacture" hair and skin, rings and fillings and bones) drives home the bitter irony that propels the poem, namely that imaginative approaches to the Shoah may distort, rather than safeguard, the dreadful but shredded historical record. Reenactments of the calamity, including her own, are indicted, even as Plath issues a warning that they will take their toll.
Will the figure of prosopopoeia, so seductive for poets from Jarrell and Plath to Simic and Rich, outlive its functions as the Holocaust and its atrocities recede into a past to which no one alive can provide firsthand testimony? Or will the imperatives of "post-memory" imbue this rhetorical strategywhich insists on returning to the unbearable rupture of sufferingwith newfound resonance once the Shoah can no longer be personally recalled? Given the passage of time as well as the flood of depictions of the catastrophe, the very vacuity of the desecrated (buried alive, incinerated, unburied, dismembered) bodies that licensed the personifications of prosopopoeia may make verse epitaphs seem shoddily inadequate. Plath's taunting sneer"I turn and burn. / Do not think I underestimate your great concern" (246)chronologically preceded the highly profitable entertainment industry the Holocaust business has so recently become. However, besides forecasting it, "Lady Lazarus" offers up a chilling warning about the fetishization of suffering with which the figure of prosopopoeia flirts. Indeed, Plath's verse uncannily stages the bases for accusations of exploitation, larceny, masochism, and sensationalism that would increasingly accrue around Holocaust remembrance. In addition, her impersonation of the real victims invariably generates awareness of the spurious representation put in the place of the absence of evidence. Calling attention to what Geoffrey Hartman and Jean Baudrillard term our propensity to adopt a "necrospective," poems deploying prosopopoeia draw us closer to an event that is, simultaneously, distanced by their debased status as merely simulated and recycled image-substitutions.
from "Prosopopoeia and Holocaust Poetry in English: Sylvia Plath and Her Contemporaries." Yale Journal of Criticism (2001)
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