A Commentary on the first 30 lines of Lady Lazarus

This poem is written in first person, as we can see from the first line itself, which says, “I have done it again”. Since Sylvia Plath is known for her confessional style of poetry, we can assume that the speaker in this poem is Plath herself.

In the first 30 lines of this poem, there are ten stanzas with three lines each, also known as tercets. The length of the tercets as well as the lines is for most part, shorter than the complete sentences. This could be to demonstrate the importance of every sentence, seeing as the shorter and more succinct it is, the more forceful and effective it will be. Enjambment has also been used here in several instances, and this helps draw attention to certain words, and increases the dramatic impact and the theatricality of the poem as a whole.

As a matter of fact, this poem seems to take the form of a dramatic monologue, since the speaker, Plath, seems to be clearly addressing an audience in the form of the reader. This audience is given several different definitions, such as her “enemy”, and “the Peanut-crunching crowd”.

Most of Plath’s poetry is tied directly to her turbulent life, so we can link her real-life suicide attempts to the ones depicted in this poem. As in some of her other poems, like ‘Daddy’, ‘Lady Lazarus’ is replete with violent Holocaust imagery. She refers to popular hearsay, which says that upon the mass-slaughters of Jews in the concentration camps, Nazi’s made lampshades out of Jewish skin, and paperweights from body parts and limbs.

A sort of walking miracle, my skin

Bright as a Nazi lampshade,

My right foot

 

A paperweight,

My face a featureless, fine

Jew linen.

By comparing parts of her own self to these, she achieves two things—she successfully victimizes herself by equating herself with the Jews, and portrays herself as a fragmented, dead corpse who is being used by other people symbolized by the Nazis.

Peel off the napkin

O my enemy.

Do I terrify? — 

Here she directly addresses the reader as her “enemy”. By asking us to “peel off the napkin”, she furthers the assumption that she is already dead and as is usually the case with dead bodies, is covered with a sheet. “Do I terrify?” is almost a rhetorical question due to the grotesque imagery of a corpse that follows in the next tercet.

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?

The sour breath

Will vanish in a day.

 

Soon, soon the flesh

The grave cave ate will be

At home on me

 

And I a smiling woman.

Though it is clear that she is talking about her suicide attempt here, these tercets could be perceived in two different ways. It could indicate her return, and resurrection by the flesh coming back to her bones and the vanishing of the sour breath associated with her rotting carcass. However, it could also refer to her final decay, with her becoming more comfortable and “at home” with her decaying self.

I am only thirty.

And like the cat I have nine times to die. 

This line leads me to believe that Plath didn’t believe that she would die in her third suicide attempt. The strong theme of resurrection that echoes throughout this poem, as well as other poems, is indication of that as well. 

This is Number Three.

What a trash

To annihilate each decade.

The use of tenses here and in the first tercet differs, in an interesting manner. In the first line, she says “I have done it again”, using past tense which implies that she has already committed the act, while in this stanza, she says “This is Number Three”, using present tense, as if she were currently carrying out the act. However, we know that in reality, neither of this was the case, since she wrote this poem in October of 1962, about four months before her third and final suicide attempt. This suggests a distinction between Plath and Lady Lazarus, separating one from the other. However, it is possible that she had begun contemplating suicide around this time, and had probably even undergone it mentally—thus explaining the vivid imagery of her own dead corpse, since she viewed herself as one.

What a million filaments. 

Filaments are the parts of a bulb that light up, so a “million filaments” could possibly refer to the excessive lighting that is linked with the almost circus-like atmosphere depicted in the lines that follow.

The Peanut-crunching crowd

Shoves in to see

 

Them unwrap me hand and foot—

The big strip tease.

Gentlemen, ladies 

The act of self-destruction now garners a seemingly insensitive audience, that is merrily crunching peanuts and which “shoves in to see” Lady Lazarus’ exposure. Interestingly, Lady Lazarus herself does not control this exposure, but others do, the ones denoted by the “them” that unwrap her. By calling it the “big strip tease”, Plath shows how her vulnerabilities are being put on display, not by herself, but by some significant others. She is also concurrently displaying contempt for the audience, which is so eager to see the “strip tease”.

 

Although there’s no specific rhyming structure in this extract, there are a few slant rhymes, such as “again” and “ten”, and “tease” and “ladies”. There are also some masculine rhymes such as “be” and “me”, along with internal rhymes such as “see” and “me”. Violent Holocaust imagery become metaphors for Plath’s fragmented body in the second and the third stanza, while a simile is used to compare Plath’s unsuccessful suicide attempts to the cat’s nine lives in stanza seven.

 

Though the poem talks about Plath’s suicide attempts, there is a strong theme of resurrection that echoes throughout. The title of the poem itself, “Lady Lazarus”, is a biblical allusion to Lazarus, the man who Jesus resurrected from the dead. The addition of the word “Lady” is also significant since it indicates a feminine presence, and seeing how Plath was part of the feminist movement, it could also hint towards some deeper feminist meaning, such as the resurrection of the female in a position more powerful than that of males.

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