Poetry Sunday: Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath

I'm currently reading a biography of Sylvia Plath, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark. I'll be reading it for quite some time yet for it's about a thousand pages long and I'm only up to her twentieth year when she was a student at Smith College. It is rich with the most minute details of Plath's life. She was a prolific journal keeper. She was extraordinarily explicit about her experiences. She maintained correspondences with several people who kept her letters and all of this material was available to Clark in writing her book.

I've never read very much of Plath's poetry. I did read her one novel, The Bell Jar, which I found fascinating. But of course, it was the poetry for which she was primarily famous. Clark makes reference to several of her poems in the text of her book. One that she particularly references is this one, "Lady Lazarus."

Throughout her early life, in her journals and correspondence Plath made frequent reference to suicide. It was obviously a thought that returned to her time and again and, tragically, she did eventually commit suicide in 1963 at age 30. "Lady Lazarus" is generally accepted to be an expression of her suicidal thoughts and impulses. She writes of attempts at suicide and says:

Dying
Is an art, like everything else.   
I do it exceptionally well.

Sad. If only she could have seen that living is an art, too, a more complicated and difficult one than dying. 

Lady Lazarus


by Sylvia Plath



I have done it again.   
One year in every ten   
I manage it——

A sort of walking miracle, my skin   
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,   
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine   
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin   
O my enemy.   
Do I terrify?——

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.   
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.   
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.   
The peanut-crunching crowd   
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot——
The big strip tease.   
Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands   
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.   
The first time it happened I was ten.   
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.   
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Dying
Is an art, like everything else.   
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.   
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.   
It’s the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute   
Amused shout:

‘A miracle!’
That knocks me out.   
There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge   
For the hearing of my heart——
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge   
For a word or a touch   
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.   
So, so, Herr Doktor.   
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,   
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.   
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash—
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there——

A cake of soap,   
A wedding ring,   
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer   
Beware
Beware.

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair   
And I eat men like air.

Comments

  1. I read "The Bell Jar" too, but this is the first of her poems for me. As you say she was preoccupied with suicide, almost as though she were predestined for it by some chemical imbalance in her brain. She had prodigious talent and as you point out if she had been able to overcome her death wish who knows what she might have delivered to the world?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Reading her biography so far, her suicide seems inexplicable, except, as you say, perhaps as a chemical imbalance of the brain. Other than financial problems and the early loss of her father, she seems to have had a golden life. She was much loved, had many friends, was brilliant academically. Just inexplicable and tragic.

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  2. "Sad. If only she could have seen that living is an art, too, a more complicated and difficult one than dying."

    Yes. I agree.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In reading her biography, I am constantly struck by how little depression was understood back in the 1950s. I hope things have progressed at least a little now.

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