The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Lady Lazarus” is an extraordinarily bitter dramatic monologue in twenty-eight tercets. The title ironically identifies a sort of human oxymoron, a female Lazarus—not the biblical male. Moreover, she does not conform to society’s traditional idea of ladylike behavior: She is angry, and she wants revenge. She is egocentric, using “I” twenty-two times, “my” nine. Her resurrection is owing only to herself. This is someone much different from the grateful man of John 11:2 who owes his life to Jesus.

Given Sylvia Plath’s suicide, one might equate this Lazarus with Plath. Self-destruction pervades the poem as it did her life, but she has inventively appropriated Lazarus in constructing a mythical female counterpart who is not simply equatable with herself. This common tactic of distancing autobiography tempers one’s proclivity to see the poem as confessional. As confession mutates to myth, subjectivity inclines to generalized feeling.

Lady Lazarus resurrects herself habitually. Like the cat, she allows herself nine lives, including equally their creation and cancellation. The first line may stress her power over her fate, but “manage” (line 3) suggests an uneasy control. It also connotes managerial enterprise, an implication clarified when the speaker’s language takes on the flavor of the carnival.

The first eight stanzas largely vivify this ugly but compelling experience. The reader sees the worm-eaten epidermis and inhales the sour breath. More cadaver than person, Lady Lazarus intends terror, however problematic her bravado. Nevertheless, she will soon smile, when time restores flesh eaten by the grave. (The smile will not prove attractive.) For the...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Lady Lazarus” plays distinctively on the ear. It blends staccato, irregular versification with a dense mixture of highly patterned sounds. End and internal rhymes, both exact and slant, are rapidly mixed and steadily joined to consonance, assonance, alliteration, and sheer repetition. At the outset, Plath makes end rhymes of “again,” “ten,” “skin,” “fine,” “linen,” and “napkin” before the eleventh line. She dares, in one line, “grave cave ate” and, in another, “million filaments.” The “brute” that ends line 53 is followed at once by the only slightly dissimilar “amused.” Plath’s prosody ingeniously restrains the metronome while rendering sound almost childlike.

The nazification of the speaker’s antagonist is a perhaps hyperbolic but crucial feature of the poem. Plath once said to George Macbeth, “I see you have a concentration camp in your mind too.” For Lady Lazarus, the model of her victimization is the modern slaughter of the Jews. The “Nazi lampshade” refers to the commandant’s practice at Buchenwald of flaying inmates and stretching the skin, often tattooed, over a lampshade frame. The most notorious of the Nazi gas chambers and crematories were housed at Auschwitz, where blankets were made of human hair and soap from human fat. Those who emptied the ovens poked in the ashes for hidden gold wedding bands and for gold fillings missed by camp “dentists.” It was at Auschwitz that the infamous and sadistically curious Doktor Mengele listened to the camp symphony, oversaw experiments on humans, and quizzically dropped in at the ovens. Hence the primal “brute” becomes “Herr Doktor” and “Herr Enemy.” “Herr God” and “Herr Lucifer,” two sides of the same coin, are but extensions of the Nazi male stereotype.

To this frame of reference, Plath adds an amusing filmic touch, after the fashion of the “vampire” and the “villagers” in her poem “Daddy.” “So, so, Herr Doktor./ So, Herr Enemy” parodies the stereotypical speech of Nazi officers interrogating prisoners in American war films of the 1940’s. That the words are Lady Lazarus’s indicates that she is exorcising the victim within her and preparing to adopt her enemy’s tactics against him. She had told her nemesis to “Peel off the napkin” of her “featureless face,” the manifestation of her passivity, represented as a “Jew linen.”


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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