Helen Vendler: On "Lady Lazarus"
"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).