By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Dying is an art, like everything else’: ‘Lady Lazarus’, as the poem’s title implies, is a poem about resurrection – but implicit within its title, and Sylvia Plath’s reference to the man whom Jesus brought back from the dead, is the idea of annihilation or extinction, a theme that is never far away from us with a Plath poem. You can read ‘Lady Lazarus’ here before proceeding to our analysis below.
Sylvia Plath wrote ‘Lady Lazarus’ in October 1962, only a few months before her suicide, and the poem is shot through with references to her previous suicide attempts. (Plath would kill herself in February 1963, in a London apartment she had decided to rent because W. B. Yeats had once lived there. As she suggests in ‘Lady Lazarus’, she had attempted suicide previously at roughly ten-year intervals.)
Sigmund Freud, in his 1920 book Beyond the Pleasure Principle, had described Thanatos or the death-drive – what Philip Larkin called ‘desire of oblivion’ – as a compulsion to repeat, and this is how ‘Lady Lazarus’ begins: with a reference to having ‘done’ something ‘again’, the something or ‘it’ being suicide, or attempted suicide. For Plath, her suicide attempts represent a sort of death, and her survival is more of a coming back from the dead than a mere continuation of living.
The death-imagery in the poem and references to suicide are darkened further by allusions to the Holocaust: death not on an individual scale but mass genocide against the Jewish population (Plath herself was part-Jewish). The ‘Nazi lampshade’ and references to ‘Herr Doktor’, ‘Herr Enemy’, ‘Herr God’, and ‘Herr Lucifer’ all evoke the recent atrocities of the Holocaust and place Plath’s own longing for extinction uneasily within the context of the mass-murder of those who were actually killed, and not by their own hands.
But ‘Doktor’ here also doubles up as a reference to Plath’s doctors and psychiatrists who treated her, both when she attempted suicide and when she underwent electroconvulsive therapy for her depression.
Another aspect of ‘Lady Lazarus’ – which is alluded to in Plath’s reference to the ‘peanut-crunching crowd’ – is the idea of suffering as spectacle, a theatre of cruelty to which people might pay to see: what the novelist J. G. Ballard, less than a decade later, would call the ‘atrocity exhibition’. And hiding within these references is the uneasy knowledge that Plath may secretly like the idea of making a spectacle of her suffering: ‘dying is an art’, as she famously puts it in this poem; something she does ‘exceptionally well’.
Plath’s use of Lazarus as a figure for her own near-death experiences may have come from T. S. Eliot, whose 1915 poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ features a reference to the Biblical figure who came back from the dead. And ‘coming back’ is key: the second time she attempted to end her life, Plath tells us, she ‘meant / To last it out and not come back at all.’ Eliot’s Prufrock, another figure who appears to long for escape and wishes he could have been born a ‘pair of ragged claws’ scuttling along the seabed rather than a shy balding man in twentieth-century America (and it’s worth mentioning here, in passing, that Plath, like Prufrock, is a product of early twentieth-century Boston), had imagined what it would be like to come back from the dead, to say, ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead, / Come back to tell you all’. Plath has ‘died’ and ‘come back’, and is now telling us all, perhaps half in the knowledge that next time she may not come back at all.
Ideas of death and resurrection – of, in a way, surviving or conquering death, which is a theme that characterises Ted Hughes’s poetry too, such as his ‘Examination at the Womb Door’ from his later sequence Crow – abound in ‘Lady Lazarus’, so it’s worth stopping to analyse a few of them. When Plath’s speaker announces, ‘like the cat I have nine times to die’, she acknowledges the old folk-belief that cats have nine lives: a proverb that implies the idea of cheating death, an idea that is, of course, fallacious, for cats are just as mortal as any other creature.
And perhaps chief among all of these images of resurrection and rebirth is that of the phoenix. ‘Lady Lazarus’ ends with an allusion this mythical bird which rose from its own funeral pyre. Like another late poem ‘Elm’, ‘Lady Lazarus’ is about rebirth but it is a dark and despairing take on the idea.
We don’t have many recordings of Sylvia Plath reading her poems, but we do have a fine 1962 recording of her reading ‘Lady Lazarus’. You can listen to Plath reading the poem here.
About Sylvia Plath
The life – and death – of Sylvia Plath (1932-63) can sometimes appear to eclipse her poetic achievement, as well as her achievement in fiction (she wrote one novel, The Bell Jar, as well as a collection of short stories). But this is partly because so much of her work drew on her life for its subject-matter, especially her unflinching analysis of her own struggles with her mental health.
Born in the United States, Plath moved to England in the 1950s, where she met fellow aspiring poet Ted Hughes, whom she quickly married. (They chose the date of their wedding in 1956 – 16th June – in honour of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, which takes place on that day in 1904.) Just one collection of Plath’s poetry, The Colossus (1960), appeared in her lifetime before she tragically took her own life in February 1963, during one of the coldest English winters on record. It was the publication of a posthumous collection, Ariel, in 1965 (edited by her widower, Ted Hughes) which really helped to ensure she was regarded as one of the greatest and most original voices in Anglophone poetry of the mid-twentieth century. Two further posthumous collections, Crossing the Water and Winter Trees, followed in 1971.
Plath is often grouped with the ‘Confessional poets’ – a group of (mostly American) mid-twentieth-century poets whose work engages with the darker aspects of their own lives, with the focus frequently on the poet’s own struggles with mental health issues. Plath attended a creative writing class led by the poet who helped to initiate the Confessional movement, Robert Lowell, in the late 1950s. But it’s important not to overlook Plath’s affinities with earlier female poets, especially modernists like H. D. and Mina Loy, who often used mythical personae to write about their own lives.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.