It’s really quite sad how those with immeasurable talent become most known for their fatal flaws. Mention the name “Sylvia Plath” and wait hardly 10 seconds before someone interjects by mentioning her infamous suicide: headfirst into a gas oven.
It’s because it’s hard to separate Plath’s poetry from her battle with mental illness. Her depression was the wood that fueled the fire of her poetry. Plath’s writing primarily deals with themes of pain and death, and “Lady Lazarus” is no exception.
I was first introduced to the poem in Professor Brent Wood’s class ENG201: Reading Poetry. Written from the perspective of the titular protagonist (often read as an alter ego of Plath’s), the poem tells the story of Lady Lazarus’s numerous suicide attempts—and constant revivals.
“The first time it happened I was ten / It was an accident,” she says. And yet she returns from the dead to tell the tale, and she does it again, and again. Lady Lazarus describes herself as a cat: “I have nine times to die.”
She suffers a death once in a decade and has now approached the age of 30. Her repeated deaths and revivals have attracted the attention of crowds who view her tragedy as a spectacle. With allusions ranging from the Jewish people grotesquely abused and skinned into lampshades in World War II to a circus where her death is the main act, Lady Lazarus dehumanizes herself. She is nothing more than a sideshow or a creepy art exhibition created for the amusement of others.
And yet Lady Lazarus is proud of dying: “Dying / Is an art, like everything else / I do it exceptionally well.” We all have skills of some sort, whether they are practical or unconventional, so why should Lady Lazarus be embarrassed of her cycle of death and revival when that’s what defines her? Sure, she’s not great at dying if she can’t stay dead, but maybe the true art lies in her repeated resurrections.
Even her name—a reference to the Biblical figure who was brought back to life by Jesus—raises up her power as comparable to Christ’s. Forget the doctor who feigns concern for her wellbeing and probes at her body in efforts to bring her back. Forget the powers of God himself. Lady Lazarus is the hero of her own story.
In the final stanza, Lady Lazarus shows off her true strength: “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.” She is not a female Jesus—she is the phoenix who rises from the ashes of its predecessor. She is powerful in ways that those around her could never comprehend. Like the phoenix, Lady Lazarus will again die, and again rise.