Sylvia Plath's "Lady Lazarus" and its Grisly Triumph
For a work proceeding "Daddy's" fierce declaration of hatred by just eleven days, Sylvia Plath's "Lady Lazarus" easily rivals "Daddy's" intensity and precedents new ground in its control over moribund imagery and the mockery of the masters of life and death: "Herr Doktor [and] Herr Enemy" (65-66), "Herr God [and] Herr Lucifer" (79). "I have done it again," boasts the triumphant near-self-immolator in line one with the pride eerily reminiscent of any Einstein or Edison whose ambitions have climaxed into a success. This line is the foremost and most powerful assertion of Plath that one can find in the entirety of "Lady Lazarus" and it sets the tone for Plath's disturbing theme that is to carry throughout her poem in the fluctuating heartbeat iambs of her 28 tercets. Yet what is perhaps most disturbing about Plath's work is its utter lack of confession; its narrator enfleshed might be the writer but its sufferer is a universal one who is torn from her glorious death like the poem's eponymous figure, and not by any touch of God but by the "Herr Doktor...Herr Enemy" (65-66) figure. Thus, Plath's poem is not about the suffering and triumph over death. It is of the suffering of living and the triumph over life and those who control it.
The speaker's egotism is an important facet that contributes to the theme of triumph, and it is referenced as early as the ascribed "walking miracle" (4) that is the speaker after her attempted suicide. Very obviously it can be seen why she would be proud of a suicide, considering its nature as directly in violation of the covenants passed down by God and thereby an action set away from superimposed ruling. A breach in ordered conduct of living therefore becomes a triumph over the establishment of life. As the poem progresses, the reader sees this same egotism in the claim that "like a cat I have nine times to die" (21); ergo, nine times that the speaker is able to breach the authority of a detested God. The poem progresses and the God figure morphs into the "Herr Doktor...Herr Enemy" (65-66) figure who accordingly, regards the speaker in the immodest terms "opus" (67), "valuable" (68), and "pure gold baby" (69. There is sheer delight in tone as this "valuable" combusts into nothingness and the stanza is concluded with a mocking statement to the doctor: "do not think I underestimate your great concern [of life]" (72). No, the concern for her life is certainly not underestimated; it is realized and played upon with relish to the point that the reader can interpret a certain sadism to be found in the speaker's triumph in her own burning torment. What is achieved is what is explicitly stated: the delightedly unsalvageable and unredeemable commodities of "A cake of soap, / A wedding ring, / A gold filling" (76-79), and the "ash, ash" (73) that the poet will transform into a symbol of triumph in her final stanza.
Plath's rhyme does not carry the same haunting quality as the refrain "oo" of "Daddy," however its irregularity is interesting in drawing the reader's attention to the frequent rhyming pairs. Through this technique, a theme of entrapment amongst the pairs is introduced, starting with the morbid physicality in the words "skin" (4) and "Jew linen" (9) that form the "Nazi lampshade" of line five. This not only introduces the speaker's constriction in a macabre image of a household appliance; it references the plight of a Holocaustal Jew, establishing a universality in suffering as promised by the unspecific character of Lady Lazarus. Obvious entrapment appears as the poem progresses: there is in line 17's a death-signifying pair "grave" and "cave;" an extended rhyme from the words "seashell" (40), "well" (45), "hell" (46), "cell" (49) from which a theme of cloistered and dreary imprisonment is found; and stanza 26 holds a rhyme between "wedding ring" (77) and "gold filling" (78) which pinpoints imprisonment in marriage and in the cavities of one's tooth, although "gold filling" could be transcribed as a somewhat loose colloquialism for a wedding ring. It is of interesting note as well how Plath utilizes the remaining rhymes that do not apply to the imprisonment theme to illustrate duality, which can be seen particularly in the pairs "enemy" (11) vs "me" (18), "woman" (34) vs "ten [years]" (35), and "Enemy" (66) vs "baby" (69). Plath juggles the many personages freely, perhaps unintentionally, yet the duality coupled with the imprisonment theme lend a confusion to the poem that manifests itself into the conflagration of lines 70 through 73. Everything is wiped clean, as the author intended, and the reader continues on eerily reminded that all persons share the same Ragnarok. Following the "nothing there" (75) that the flames have rendered the speaker, we have Plath's most climactic scene in the passionate dictation to enemies God and Lucifer. "Beware/ beware" (80-81) she cries, and in the quintessential phoenix symbol of rebirth, the speaker is renewed from the grave of ashes that she has created herself, as a ghastly, fiery Lazarus come to claim her Herr Enemy, whether he be the Doktor or God or Lucifer. The rhyme here becomes organized with the "beware" (80, 81), "red hair," (83) and "air" (84) forming the connection between the final image of the speaker the audience will be left with: a doom-bringing figure, fervid and irascible, and already in ascent like the flaming firebird itself.
"Daddy" is Sylvia Plath's troubled confessional of a plighted woman rendering her situation by likening of the suffering of the Holocaustal Jews to her own. "Lady Lazarus" speaks for all plighted peoples with the message that one's greatest triumph is one's complete control over their life. As Plath writes, suicide transforms in the reader's eye from a cowardly submission into an achievement of individuality and control over the forces of Life, Death, and the humanity that would seek to imprison. Plath writes her speaker egotistically, a self assured and eternally triumphant people. Their explosion wipes clean the slate but builds for a cathartic reincarnation, an anti-biblical Lazarus moment in which death and rebirth have become forces of human control. Lady Lazarus emerges from her own ashes, and deigns to eat Life and Death.