Lady Lazarus

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Commentary on Lady Lazarus

Sylvia Plath uses dark imagery, disturbing diction, and allusions to shameful historical undertakings to create a morbid yet unique tone that reflects the necessity of life and death in her poem, Lady Lazarus. Even though the imagery, diction and allusions presented in Lady Lazarus are entirely dark and dreary, it seems, looking more closely at Plath’s use of poetic devices, as if that the speaker’s attitude towards death is a positive one. The speaker longs for death, and despises the fact the she is continually raised up out of it. Shown mainly through the word choice, images, allusions, this depressing tone emphasizes the speaker’s feelings about death.

Immediately from the title of the poem, the theme is made known. The title is a reference to a man in the Bible’s New Testament who had been dead for four days, and was raised to life by Jesus Christ. Plath uses this literary allusion to establish right off the bat that she is going to talk about death, and the seemingly inevitable rebirth that follows it. Although the biblical character Lazarus is never mentioned again in the body of the poem, the rebirth that he went through and the action that his name references is constantly mentioned.

In the first stanza, the speaker states “I have done it again. / One year in every ten / I manage it-----,” (1-3). From the title, it can be inferred that “it” actually to a resurrection of some kind. This conclusion is subsequently corroborated by the listing of how the speaker is reborn, the stages in which life is brought back to her. The entire poem references Lazarus by mentioning how she comes back to life, not just once, but so far, three times: “I am only thirty. / And like the cat I have nine times to die. / This is Number Three,” (20-22)

Plath also uses allusions to the infamous Nazi’s throughout her poem, in conjunction with her biblical allusion to Lazarus and his resurrection. The speaker of the poem refers to her skin as being as “bright as a Nazi lampshade,” which itself is a disquieting image because it has been reported that some Nazi soldiers during the Holocaust created lampshades out of the skin of the Jews they had persecuted. (5) Plath successfully creates a perfect image of what the speaker’s skin looks like as she is reawakened from death, and still manages to tie in a disturbing historical allusion that conjures up horrible images of death.

Later on, towards the end of the poem, Plath makes reference to another set of Nazi actions and by doing so, she strengthens the image of death and destruction. In lines 73 to 78, the speaker declares:

Ash, ash—
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there—
A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

These images and allusions to horrific crimes against humanity do an excellent job of creating an image of death as a horrible, painful thing. Plath alludes to the burning of the Jews in large ovens, burning them down to ash, so that nothing was left but “gold fillings,” and a “wedding ring,” as well as makes reference to another disturbing slander about the Nazi soldiers and how they made soap out of the Jew’s departed bodies as well as lampshades. These terrible images are designed to paint a wretched view of death. Interestingly enough, these images and ideas that death is a horrible, bad thing runs contrary to the speaker’s actual feelings that death is a grand way to escape life, and in the end it is all she (the speaker) really wants to do.

Although Plath uses atrocious examples of death and uses the rebirth of Lazarus as the basis of the poem, the underlying tone presented is not one of joy. Unlike Lazarus, who was overjoyed to be back among the living, the speaker in Plath’s poem seems to harbor feelings of resentment for being brought back to life over and over again. The speaker states that she is reborn every ten years, and now that she is thirty, she has died...
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