Poem of the Week: Lady Lazarus // Sylvia Plath

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Utterly haunting – “Dying / Is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well”.  ‘Lady Lazarus’, which features in ‘Ariel’, was published after her death in 1965. Much of her work was intensely produced in a creative burst after finding out that her husband, Ted Hughes, was had an affair. The continuing tone of this collection is truly a gust of reality.

Alluding to Lazarus, who was risen from the dead in the Bible by Jesus himself, Plath uses such a metaphor to describe her own relationship with death and suicide. Plath’s first suicide attempt tragically occurred in 1953, at only ten years of age, followed by two later attempts. She would go on to survive this first attempt and would later graduate at Cambridge University, along with the creation of many poems and her novel, The Bell Jar.

‘Lady Lazarus’ illustrates her third suicide attempt: “This is Number Three / What a trash / To annihilate each decade”. Almost being introduced as a character, the survival of “Number Three” likens her to “a walking miracle”. Each line closely repels from the last, featuring repetition and rhyme which stop the reader in their path of deviation from such realities of depression and suicide – the poem almost reads as a first-person monologue. In a “theatrical comeback”, Plath makes references to the circus, as well as the Nazi concentration camps used during the Holocaust. Such a partnership of images present an atmosphere of disillusionment and moreover are the only awareness of setting within the poem.

In fact, Plath uses heavy imagery of the Nazis within ‘Lady Lazarus’, as well as imagery of the Jews. “My face a featureless, fine / Jew linen”. Nothing comes between the metaphor of her face in comparison to linen, stolen from Jews by Nazis, along with their other possessions. She presents herself as being stolen and controlled – her body takes on the place of material objects, her “right foot, A paperweight”.

A key theme which is diffused within the poem is womanhood. Plath is commonly considered to be a feminist writer; this can be most intensely explored within ‘Ariel’, where the voice of women becomes severely harsh – everything that is conventionally considered light and charming about femininity is savagely turned on its head. Despite the brutality and morbidity that features in ‘Lady Lazarus’, it is also a poem of empowerment. As Thomas McClanahan wrote, “she taps into a source of power that transforms her poetic voice into a raving avenger of womanhood and innocence”.

In the poem, she depicts herself as “a smiling woman” amongst immense imagery of body parts and figurative desperation. Through such a contrast, she ironically presents the oppressiveness of a patriarchal society and its expectations of women. The “sticky pearls,” which are peeled from her, do not present images of glamour – like the grandeur of ‘Mademoiselle’ in ‘The Bell Jar’ – instead, they are taken from her deceased body in desperation.

In 1963, Plath’s career was cut short when she took her own life. This poem is a classic representation of the chilling hallmark of metaphor within her poems. This poem is especially chilling when considering the conditions of her eventual death.

Words by Lydia Ibrahim

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