Paul Breslin: On "Lady Lazarus"

"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 University of Chicago Press.

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Paul Breslin: On "Lady Lazarus" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Paul Breslin Criticism Target Sylvia Plath
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 20 Jan 2014
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags No Data

Rate this Content

Item Type Criticism
Average Rating 0/100
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Total votes: 0
Use the above slider to rate this item. You can only submit one rating per item, and your rating will be factored in to the item's popularity on our listings.

Share via Social Media