Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)
Though it is slightly autobiographical, the poem must be interpreted symbolically and psychologically without limiting it to the poetess’s life experience alone. The extremity of anger in this poem is not justifiable as something possible with a normal person in real life. We should understand that this is partly due to the neurosis that Plath was actually suffering from. Besides, it is essential to understand from the psychoanalytical point of view, that the poem does not literally express reality alone: it is the relieving anger and frustration, and an alternative outlet of the neurotic energy in the form of poetic expression. Furthermore, it is necessary to understand the anger as being directed against the general forces of inhumanity, violence and destruction only symbolized by the males in the poem. By a process of association and surrealism, the protest moves from common males to Hitler, his experimenting doctor, the scavengers of gold on dead Jews, the dentists who had a turn before the corpses were disposed for leather, soap, nightshades and fertilizer! The individual is associatively linked to inhumanity and oppression. Sylvia Plath said that her “Personal experience is very important, but ….. I believe poetry should be relevant to larger things such as Hiroshima and Dachau and so on.” This means that the frustration and anger against a dominating father, or anyone for that matter, becomes a starting point or central symbol for larger issues including Hitler, torture and inhumanity. The poem is, therefore, also about the victimization of modern war. The persona is not only real people: they are types. The poem is less autobiographical than it is universal. In fact, the theme of universal female protest in the modern world is the most striking theme in the poem. The female speaker represents the creative force and she is angry with the destructive forces symbolized by males. The allusions of the Second World War are all real. The anger against the German soldiers, Hitler and his Nazi party is not too much. The reader will justify this anger if he tries to imagine the inhumanity of Hitler.
Though the speaker intended to die, just yielding to death will not annihilate her. She completes the poem with a final comeback. The poem is technically a (bitter) dramatic monologue. The title ironically identifies a female Lazarus; whereas the original Lazarus was male, whom Christ brought back to life, the present speaker is identifying herself with a Lazarus different in sex, behavior, and everything. Plath’s persona is a figure who wants to subvert all that she can of the tradition that attempts to bring you back and torture, rather than let you choose death and die! This female figure also represents the oppressed modern woman conscious of the fact that the male society will bring her back to life, because it needs to satisfy itself by oppressing the woman. The poem destroys the myth; it borrows it to reject and state an antithesis. The poem’s persona does not conform to society’s traditional idea of lady-like behavior. She is angry and she wants to take revenge in every way. She owes only to herself, not to Jesses. Self-destruction pervades the poem as it did Plath’s life. As confession mutates to myth, subjectivity inclines to generalized feeling. Having taken up the battle with the enemy on his terms, she concluded by warning the male deity and demon that when she rises from the ashes, she will consume men as fire does; she will return from death like the sphinx and eat men like vampire, or fire. It is psychologically and symbolically about the aspiration to revenge that is felt by all the female victims of male domination, once they become conscious of the domination. The revenge would be against the institutions that dominate women. The poem is about a woman’s wish to turn the tables on the father and his kind. Its dramatic over-statement of male evil may sound intolerable to some readers, but it must be taken to poetically express the resentment in the female mind that was suppressed for ages against all kinds of injustice upon them by make society and traditions, rather than buy individual makes upon individual female. The anger will be justified if one thinks of the extremity of long-borne suffering of women through the ages. The myth of Lazarus is transformed in this poem into the myth of the reincarnating phoenix, the bird which immolates itself very five hundred years but rises whole and rejuvenated from its ashes. Besides, the bird has become a being that reincarnates not just to remain immortal, but to take revenge on its adversaries. Sylvia Plath provided a self explication during a radio reading. “The speaker is a woman who has the great and terrible gift of being reborn. The only trouble is, she has to die first. She is the phoenix, the libertarian spirit, what you will.”
The poem is written in 28 stanzas that are suggestive of the 28 days of the normal female menstrual cycle, or in a sense, their rebirth. The reproductive cycle echoes the creativity of the female poet; but here the creativity is also destructive of that entire stand against the female pursuit, including her freedom to die. The poem is said to evolve from many kinds of losses and tragedies that Plath experienced and wanted to turn into positive advantages; this poem can be called an attempt to interpret her suicidal attempt as a process to transform herself, whether she succeeded or failed. Plath experienced many losses, including abortion, miscarriage, childbirth, severe postpartum depression, divorce, and the like. She probably wanted to convert these into achievements, as a source of illumination and energy to fight against the adverse forces in order to survive.
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 rhythmic 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.
Sharma, Kedar N. "Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath: Critical Analysis" BachelorandMaster, 27 Nov. 2013, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/lady-lazarus.html.