Examination Of Daddy And Lady Lazarus Two Poems By Sylvia Plath
Literature is most successful when it is dealing with the big issues of the world.
Successful literature is one in which we can gain insight and understanding into the world around us from the subtle details of the text. Sylvia Plath’s poems ‘Lady Lazarus’ and ‘Daddy’ is two such pieces of literature that use the deeper, hidden meanings behind imagery to convey major issues such as oppression of women. Although the poem is centered around the narrator’s personal experiences with suicide she successfully uses her own experiences as a platform to address major issues of her time – oppression of women and this is what makes her poems particularly meaningful and successful.
Plath wrote her poem in the 60s, a time in which society was largely patriarchal. Plath successfully criticises this patriarchal nature in society through the use of Holocaust imagery and clever structure. By making references to the suffering of the Jews she is able to offer the reader an insight into the great degree of emotional suffering an oppressed woman feels, which was a major issue that was seldom discussed at the time. In the poem ‘Daddy’, Plath explains that she “began to talk like a jew” and she uses the simile “chuffing me off like a Jew. A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen” to compare her intense emotional suffering in a male dominated society to the suffering of the Jews. Similar to the way the Jews had no control over where they were to be taken by the Germans, the narrator feels that the life a woman was out of their own control, but rather under the absolute authority of men. This lack of control over oneself and the silenced voice of women in society at the time is further highlighted by the regimented five line stanza throughout the poem. The lack of variation in the line numbers gives the poem a rather mundane structure which reinforces the idea that oppression of an individual or lack of freedom takes away the vibrancy and enjoyment of living. Moreover, the rigid 5 line structure is also reminiscent of the inflexible role women were expected to assume in the patriarchal society of the Sixties which would have been of major concern to many. Plath also successfully uses repetition throughout ‘Daddy’. For instance she starts by repeating “you do not do, you do not do.” This repetition creates a rhythm to the poem which seems innocent, almost like a nursery rhyme. Through the constant repetitions throughout the poem, Plath successfully highlights the dangers of oppression individual is almost belittling as it forces the victim into a submissive, childlike state.
Plath uses her poems as a platform on which she is able to address major issues, particularly oppression of women in the Sixties. Lady Lazarus is another one of her poems which is also centered around this same idea of female oppression. As with Daddy, Plath uses Holocaust imagery to highlight just how profound and detrimental oppression can be to an individual as it strips a person of their identity and their ability to express themselves. This is evident through the metaphor “My face a featureless, fine Jew linen.” The face is part of a person’s identity and is how we distinguish between different people. However, here the narrator describes her own face as unrecognisable and the alliteration of “ff’ sound is gentle, suggesting that a person’s individuality is fragile and oppression can easily strip of person of what makes them their own unique self. Moreover, the narrator describes each individual body part separately as “my skin bright as a Nazi lampshade, my right foot a paperweight”. All of these comparisons allude to the terrible treatment of Jews during the Holocaust. It was rumored that the body parts of Jews were used by Nazis to make lampshades. Therefore, Plath again successfully highlights how big of an issue oppression is. Because like the Jews, oppression not only strips an individual of their identity but can lower an individual’s sense of self worth making them feel unworthy, similar to how lampshades and paperweights are often regarded as purposeless and unimportant objects.
Throughout the poem Lady Lazarus, Plath also uses rhetorical questions such as “Do I terrify? The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?. The listing of separate body parts reinforces that oppression is a serious issue the audience should be aware of. This is because the it successfully emphasises oppression as being able to strip an individual of their identity as we are unable to decipher an image of a full individual from the separate parts. But more importantly, the body parts seem to make reference to a skull. Hence, Plath suggests that oppression can cause an individual to feel dead inside or even lack the will to live if they can’t live with freedom. The use of rhetorical questions as well as the phrase “these are my hands, my knees” gives the narrator an almost patronising tone. As this is a confessional poem, Plath’s personal voice may be coming through as she seems to be belittling/criticising the patriarchal nature of society at the time. Another interpretation of this could be that the narrator is mocking the oppressive actions of men suggesting that by oppressing an individual we are putting them below ourselves, treating them like children causing them to feel unworthy and inferior. Plath’s use of circus imagery is another subtle yet successful way in which she brings up the major issue of oppression being almost dehumanising to its victim. Here she uses a metaphor to state that “the peanut-crunching crowd shoves in to see them unwrap me hand and foot”. Plath is again, reinforcing the dangers of the largely disregarded issue of oppression. This is because she compares a victim of oppression to a mistreated circus animal hence the narrator is suggesting that a victim of oppression also feels misunderstood, whilst on the surface they may appear to be content like an animal in a show, what goes on beneath the surface is unknown and often horrific. Furthermore, Plath may be criticising society’s disregard or ignorance for such a major issue as she feels that this issue of oppression isn’t taken seriously, rather it is being overlooked as some sort of entertainment, similar to how a circus audience overlooks the mistreatment of an animal and focuses on the entertainment of the show.
Overall, Plath’s poetry, “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” are both highly successful pieces of literature. This is because she is able to use subtle techniques such as imagery and structure to evoke powerful emotions in the reader, allowing us to understand the harm oppression has on an individual. In turn, her poems were successful in addressing major issues such as oppression of women, a problem which was often disregarded or seldom mentioned at the time her poems were written.
How Lady Lazarus Understands Suicide as Depicted in the Poem
The general understanding of Lady Lazarus is that it informs about suicide. A woman is the narrator who is addressing no one in particular. The poem is intricate, murky and fierce. Its tome is ominous and sarcastic. The title alludes to Lazarus of the Bible who Jesus brought back from the dead. The narrator attempts to commit suicide three times, each in a decade. She has done it again for the third time, one time being by accident and the other time being intentional. Her recovery from that third attempt is painted as a letdown while her attempted suicides are shown as achievements. Dying is artful and she is very good at it. Since death is depicted as an art, there are audiences to death and resurrection. She terminates her life as a form of punishment to the audience who drives her to do it. The zealous crowd gets an invitation but also get condemned for its morbid compulsion. The reader can be said to be part of the crowd. This is because he reads the poem to see her darkness. She makes a postulation that her onlookers are invested to an extent that they would part with large amounts of money to peek into her heart and scars.
She filters through the crowd’s compulsion with severe criticism by comparing it with the unworried Germans who did nothing while the Jews were executed. Ultimately, it is apparent that the crowd is a burden and not an encourager as they are also present at her resurrection. She dislikes resurrection and the fact that people are present. Feminism views the poem as a depiction of the struggles of women in a largely patriarchal society. The formation of a male artist god by a woman proclaims the autonomous power of women. The poem denotes how male power tries to suppress female power but in the end, through her rebirth, is defeated. She knows that as soon as she resurrects, a man is going to claim her ownership. The society also views her as an object rather than a person. Therefore, suicide becomes a way of attaining autonomy.
Plath portrays women as people who want to be self-determined by the show of Lady Lazarus’ resolve to die. This portrayal leads her to discuss real-world situations just like the suicide attempts she unearths. The death imagery portrays the historical evils of the society that the women want to be rid of. The fortitude and resilience that Lady Lazarus has display women in a positive light. They show that women have power. Plath takes the negative societal stereotype associated with women who are bold and want to be independent and spins it to the positive image of women who voice their opinions and know what they want. It depicts women as very powerful. To put forward the power of women, Plath makes use of ideas that are considered weak due to their association with an evil that is, suicide. Women have the power to turn a disadvantage into an advantage. For instance, the use of tarot cards instead of big guns shows that women are able to fight with the most limiting of objects.
The narrator of Lady Lazarus is a woman and that interprets to literary power. The narration shows the artistic nature of women even without the men. Her creativity is able to draw the attention of listeners who stay throughout her death and her resurrection. Lady Lazarus is a feminist showing the oppression that women face and men gladly take part. The poem also generally shows that women are walking miracle.
The brutal deaths that Lady Lazarus undergoes show her ability to survive. She lets go of her past which she does not talk about as she only talks about who she is currently, ash, flesh, bone. Her indifference when it comes to death is indicative of how she resents the society that pushes her to her death. Through death, she defeats it and wins. She becomes an independent person. Lady Lazarus’ proclamation of her having nine lives shows resilience. No matter how much the society puts her down, she comes back up. She also defies societal norms that women are weak by that action of dying severally. She is determined to be free from the shackles of the negative connotation of women. By dying, she defeats men and society. She would rather die than submit. The fact that Lady Lazarus brings herself back to life shows the power she has. She was not brought back by anyone, just her. It tells us of the power that a woman possesses to reinvent herself.
Lady Lazarus refers to a man as Herr Enemy, Herr Doktor, Herr Lucifer and Herr God. This depiction serves to bring out the appalling environment which is patriarchy. Women are victims of patriarchy which is repressive and compares with the harsh conditions of the concentration camps where the Nazis threw the Jews. Men are presented as evil. However, Lady Lazarus cannot completely get rid of Herr Enemy because he needs him as a witness of her reincarnation in the future. Also, she threatens him to beware, hence, taking the path of the disobeyed futurist at the end. The warning asks the man to know that the woman can switch positions with him and he will become the oppressed.
Men are the oppressors. The reference of the Holocaust in the poem places Lady Lazarus as a victim, a victim of men’s oppression. The men are so oppressive that their victims have become used to the oppression, to death. The men possess power over women. Lady Plath resents both God and Satan. They are her enemies. The doctor plays the role of a god, a good person who tries to help but below the face value lies a devil. In the final stanza, Lady Lazarus states that she eats men like air and that they are nothing. They do not threaten her anymore. The power that men have can come to an end and women can take over. However, the last stanza shows that women can destroy men as the men do women. It should not be the case since that is just the same thing happening, just to a different group of people now. The men evoke feelings of bitterness from the women who suffer from their oppression.
When Lady Lazarus dies, she is aware that the doctor will demand her body. Men are depicted as claiming possession of a woman. Even though a woman is a different and independent being, she is seen as belonging to a man who does not hesitate to reinforce that by claiming her. Lady Lazarus dies to escape from situations such as these. She wants independence. She wants to be her own. That is why she gladly kills herself. When she comes back to life, she sees her resurrection as a failed attempt at finding peace. She not only wants to escape the claws of men but also the society.
The society depicts women as weak and stereotypes the audacious ones as evil. The society looks by as men oppress women. It is entertained by it. Lady Lazarus is resentful towards the society which she describes as complacent. The society despite possessing the power to right wrongs stands by. In fact, the society pushes her to her deaths. The society is rotten and Lady Lazarus wants to defy it. That is why she kills herself as an act of punishment for it. She kills herself to escape the society which views her as an object and not as a human. This is depicted by the way she refers to herself as parts, away from her body as a whole that is, skin and bones.
The society is patriarchal and consists of people who put an act of kindness but really, are evil inside. “Beware” is a warning to them. There were people who were convinced that Hitler was a good person, that the Nazi were good people acting in the interest of Germany. However, Plath exposes that they Nazis were very evil. It was an organization built on lies. The warning that Lady Lazarus gives demonstrates her power. It asserts that in the end, evil will be defeated. The doctor pokes her to find what remains of her that he can profit from that is, make further advancements in psychological treatment but this act only hurts Lady Lazarus. The society does not take into account that it hurts somebody. It will just take and take from one until that person is destroyed. She turns and burns. That stanza shows the powerlessness that the society puts her though and she has no way out. The society has the quality of rendering victims of situations powerless.
Lady Lazarus mentions feeling like Opus, a musical artwork that the onlookers are getting entertained by. She has the value of pure gold. Here, the society clearly enjoys finding the best of the best for its amusement. Plath could have used that stanza to also show that women deserve happiness but the society is hell-bent on gaining entertainment from their misery. They are victimized by the society which tries to fix them. However, the women remain the same. The society can try to fix them but nothing is changed.
The society stigmatizes, criticizes and misunderstands women. In contrast, it does everything to the benefit of men. Therefore, there is a power imbalance where men tower over women. The power imbalance makes a woman feel helpless, worthless even though she knows she is worthy, and completely dominated by men. It is the evils of the society that drives that little controlling voice in Lady Lazarus’ head, urging her to commit suicide. It takes control of her thoughts and makes her drawn towards death. She fails at dying each time because people try to resuscitate her. It is not for them but rather so that they can keep the show going and keep entertaining themselves. The society loves her as a theatrical exhibition. This also shows the lack of independence of a woman that the society causes. She cannot even die in peace.
Sylvia Plath Description of Lady Lazarus
Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath is a well written autobiography of her life. She cleverly uses words to describe her innermost thoughts and revelations of how she perceives her life.
In Protean Poetic, Broe states that Plath spoke of her later poems, I speak them to my self.and what ever lucidity they may have come from, the fact that I say them to myself, I say them out loud.(160) Writing to herself was a type of therapy, as was her suicide attempts. Sylvia Plath was an intelligent women who thinks that the root of all evil are men and gives a well rounded description of this in her writing and throughout her life.
Sylvia Plath was born to Otto Plath and Aurelia Schober in 1932, in Boston. Her parents were both of German descent and teachers at Boston University. In Literary Lives: Sylvia Plath, Linda Wagner-Martin says in her toddler life she already became angry with the male gender, as her parents favoured her brother Warren over her.(4) Her inability to love the opposite sex started at a very early age. She grew up in an well disciplined home, where her father was the centre of her mothers attention. It is possible that Plath became envious of the power that men had over women which taunted her throughout her life.
Plath was clinically depressed from a young age and struggled with every year to make it to the next, to the time she successfully committed suicide. In Lady Lazarus, Plath depicts her life and suicidal obsessions. She became so angry at men after her father died and left her, as she writes in Daddy. Plath feels her father stopped loving her by dying and in the poem she writes Daddy, I have had to kill you./You died before I had time.(2.6-7), and that was the reason why, she was who and what she became. Plath blames her father for her hatred towards the male gender and her unwillingness to accept things the way they are.
Lady Lazarus is a poem reflecting Plath’s suicide attempts. Lazarus is an allusion in the Bible and was resurrected from the dead. Plath believed that through death, she was reborn. She uses an audacious mixture of incongruities: the Lazarus story from the Bible and the Nazi extermination, states Broe.(176) Plath uses her religious side and combines it with her knowledge and obsession with the Holocaust. Her father, being from Germany, had encouraged her knowledge of the Nazi concentration camps. In the New Testament of the Bible and the story of Lazarus Jesus called for him to come out of the tomb or grave cave(6.18), as Plath writes in the poem. There were a crowd of people watching the miracle of the resurrection of Lazarus. (John 11:38). Plath makes reference to this resurrection in many lines of the poem such as The peanut-crunching crowd/Shoves into see.(9.26-27) and Amused shout:/ A miracle!(18.54-55), making reference to the miracle that everyone had witnessed.
Each of the stanzas in the poem makes suggestions to men including the title, where Lazarus is a man, and brings us to believe she may be feministic. Broe says to Plath, dying is the defeatest ritual of feminity(176) and she wants the male audience to see how they cannot destroy her. She wants the male to see that they can bring her close to death, but she is more powerful and is able to rise again, for the third time. In Bright as a Nazi lampshade(2.5), Plath brings us to the horrible treatment that was carried out by the Nazis (men). She refers to herself as an opus or valuable, That melts to a shriek.(24.70), in the arms of the doctors and tormenting them when she writes Do not think I underestimate your great concern.(24.72). In this line she thinks the doctors are not concerned for her well being, they are just illustrating the power they have to revive her.
In her last stanza, she is warning God and Lucifer to beware of her presence, and that she does have a call, maybe not now, not at the present time of her third attempt at suicide, but another time. Plath seems to get a laugh out of the taunting the male gender in her poems, and for some ill fated reason she enjoys the attention. The warning in Lady Lazarus applies to one of Plaths posthumous reputation.(179) She writes of her life as being ordinary and wants it to be exciting. Plath finds routine in her life hard to deal with, which does not help her inner depression.
Sylvia Plath is a prisoner within herself and she uses images of the Nazi concentration camps and the Jews who suffered to express it. Her expressions of her inner depression was written in her later poems, which was therapeutic for her. Plath struggled everyday just to do what comes natural for people. The weakness she illustrated was blamed on the opposite sex, and ironically, at the same time, this is why she committed suicide.
A Look at the Character of Lady Lazarus in the Bell Jar
“Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well.”
Sylvia Plath has long been recognized as a poetic icon. After committing suicide in her thirties, many of her previously unrecognized works gained notoriety and praise. Throughout her life, she struggled to be accepted into the literary world. After writing many poems, short stories and “The Bell Jar,” she remained unsatisfied with the success and momentum she gained with each, and took her own life. It is through her words we see a woman that used her writing as a means of expression, many times expressing grief, sadness and anger. Plath began writing a series of poems shortly before her death that provide is with an opportunity to see the internal conflicts she felt. Many of these poems focus on death and suffering. Plath uses death imagery in poems found in Ariel to represent her need to escape reality and therefore dissociate herself from emotional and physical existence. I will show how Plath’s life experiences and more importantly, her reactions to them, have contributed to her depressive, death-obsessed state. I will also provide examples from several of her poems demonstrating Plath’s use of death imagery and analyze why it is used in the way that it is. Lastly, I will show how many of her poems from Ariel demonstrate Plath’s self-loathing, and her need to feel a sense of success-even if that success comes from an accomplished suicide.
Although Sylvia Plath had many opportunities throughout her life, and accomplished what many only dream of, we see how the few tragedies she did endure, affected her. At age eight her father died from complications related to diabetes. Plath had been very close to her father, and while not much is mentioned of him in “The Bell Jar,” the book that is thought to be Plath’s autobiography, we see the internal struggles she felt over his death in her poems found in Ariel.One of her highly acclaimed poems “Daddy,” shows her sadness and anger surface. This poem is written in an angry tone, as if she is struggling to understand something that is unclear to her- primarily the death of her father. Plath attempted suicide twice prior to writing the poems found in Ariel, and we see her expressing a need to die so that she can be with her father again. “I was ten when they buried you/At twenty I tried to die/And get back, back, back to you/I thought even the bones would do” (51). We see in these lines how the loss of her father has affected her life. When she says, “I thought even the bones would do” she is lacking realistic thought. She feels that just having some small portion of her father back would provide her with a sense of happiness, although it is highly evident this is not possible. This shows Plath’s confusion over her father’s death and her need to feel close to him. Later we see her speaking of a relationship that resembles more a marital one than that of father and daughter. “And I said I do, I do” (51). Because this was written when Plath was suffering from severe depression and her writing was at its peak, one can believe that her lines between her father and husband were somewhat “blurred” and she speaks of them both as “Daddy.” Linking the two together shows that Plath admits that her lack of relationship with her father has ultimately led to failed relationships with men throughout her life.
At the time the Ariel poems were written, Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, had left her and was having an affair with another woman. This became another event in her life that contributed to her deteriorating mental state and resulting use of death imagery. In “Daddy” we see Plath showing grief over the loss of her father, but also see her anger towards Hughes surface. “Daddy I have had to kill you” (49). Here Plath is confining herself to the fact that Hughes is not coming back, so she feels a need to “kill” him, or at least the idea of them being together again. The last line in this poem shows Plath’s contentment with death, and her erratic, angry thought patterns. “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” (51). Plath succumbs herself to the idea of death as her loss of Hughes is yet another failure for her, leaving her with yet another reason to no longer go on living.
While some of Plath’s works are cheerful in nature such as “The Bed Book,” a children’s book, the poems found in Ariel are laden with death imagery indicative of Plath’s loss of reality and her need to detach herself from emotions other than those that are negative. In “Lady Lazarus,” she writes the quote found at the beginning of this paper:
“Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well”(7). Most of us know that dying is not something that can be considered an art form. Once you’ve done it, there is no chance to do it again. However, Plath shows us how her obsession with death has consumed her to the point of taking pride in and making a “hobby” of it. We see how Plath almost becomes excited at the notion of death again in “Lady Lazarus” when she says, “Soon, soon the flesh/The grave cave ate will be/At home on me/And I am a smiling woman.” (6). In “The Birthday Present” we see Plath anticipating a gift, yet demonstrating ambiguity at the same time. She wonders what the present may be, yet she says, “I do not want much of a present, anyway, this year/After all I am alive only by accident”(42). This shows how Plath cannot be excited about a present when she is anything but excited about even being alive.
Many of Plath’s poems show a sense of self-loathing and internal disappointment. These poems show how her image of herself had contributed to her thoughts of death and failure. Plath wrote “Sheep In Fog,” found in Ariel, which shows Plath’s ideas of how others see her. “People or stars regard me sadly, I disappoint them…They threaten to let through to a heaven…”(3). Threatening is usually used to convey a negative consequence to an action. Most people regard heaven as the ideal place to go after death. Plath uses the line, “threaten to let me through to heaven,” to show how she feels she does not want to go there, or maybe doesn’t deserve to.
Plath’s poem “Cut” tells of a girl accidentally cutting her thumb and suddenly becoming entranced with it. It shows a point of view from the mind of a self-mutilator. Many people who mutilate themselves do so because it invokes an emotion. Many sufferers of this problem find that mutilating themselves creates a sense of accomplishment. In “Cut,” Plath says “What a thrill. My thumb instead of an onion” (13). This leads us to believe that she meant to cut the onion, but hit her thumb instead, and after thoroughly examining the results-bleeding from the wound-she became infatuated with it. The last stanza reads: “How you jump-trepanned veteran/Dirty girl/thumb stump” (13). This leads me to believe that Plath is disappointed that she “jumped” when she cut herself, which to Plath shows weakness, whereas she should have tolerated it better. Calling herself “Dirty girl” again accentuates the idea that Plath uses her words to show her shattered self image.
We see Plath’s perceptions of herself and others through her works also. In “The Birthday Present,” Plath is awaiting a gift, as mentioned before, but her resistance about receiving it is evident. She uses the word “veil” many times to show that she feels people are not what they appear to be-they wear disguises. Plath says “only let down the veil, the veil, the veil” (44). Later she again relates these emotions to death. “If it were death I would admire the deep gravity of it” (44). If the gift were death, she could be happy about it, but not knowing for sure that’s what it is, she cannot find true excitement in receiving it.
Plath exhibits fear at becoming what others hope her to be. Although we see through her poems that she is truly unhappy, she does not take any measures to make her life better. In “The Arrival of the Bee Box,” Plath describes this box in which there are bees that she knows she should be afraid of, yet she finds herself drawn to them. “I have to live with it overnight/And I can’t keep away from it” (59). This shows her self-destructive behaviors surface again as she is drawn to a known evil. Later she says, “I wonder if they would forget me…They might ignore me immediately…I am no source of honey…so why should they turn on me?” (60) These lines show Plath’s perception of herself once again. Saying that she is “no source for honey” can be interpreted to mean that she feels that she does not provide what people need from her. On the other hand, this may mean that she should not be attacked for the way she is. In reality, bees go after honey. If she is not honey, they will not want her. In the same breath, if she does not want, or give them what they need, she can remain the way she is-depressed, lonely, and again…self-loathing.
Many interpretations can be made about Sylvia Plath’s works. One theme is certainly evident throughout her writings: death. Whatever meaning lies behind her use of death and terms relating to it may never be known, but it is used and that cannot be argued. Plath does a remarkable job of showing that although people can be granted the gifts of knowledge and success, they may long for more in their lives. She was given the gift of writing and words, she was intelligent and successful, but still woke everyday to a void and loneliness in her life. All of the virtues that life afforded her could not mount up enough to save her from the severe depression and turmoil she felt. Her writings show the inner workings of her mind. The thoughts she had just prior to her death poured onto paper and were reproduced into Ariel. While it is tragic that her death may have been prevented had her writings been recognized sooner, we will never know if they would have become what they did had she lived. Ironically, she wanted to be known for her writing, and her death was what accomplished that for her. Death was a theme found in many of her works, and I believe, her biggest inspiration. Although her works are fraught with depression, I feel Plath was happiest when she was writing, whatever the focus was. I feel that the death imagery shown throughout her works is indicative of her style and a reflection her life.
I have shown how the death of her father and split from her husband contributed to her feelings of depression and inadequacy, all leading to her lust for mortality. I have shown specific excerpts from her poems that accentuate her use of death imagery and analyzed why I feel she used it in the context and manner in which she did. I have also shown how the use of death as a theme in her works enables readers to understand the psyche behind the woman-the self-loathing and destruction that led to her eventual suicide. Plath’s works may be depressing and gruesome at times, but each tells a story-a story of a woman, her life, her struggles, her successes and her failures. All of them allow us to step into the broken mind and heart of Sylvia Plath.
Female Perspective of Lady Lazarus
The primary concern of Sylvia Plath’s poem “Lady Lazarus” is how the female speaker views her relationship with men; the emotions associated with her views of sex are equated to death, and the desire for her to die. This metaphor of death, used throughout the poem, parallels how she sees sex as an act worse than death, and that the institution of marriage is not only a prison, but for her, can be likened to a Nazi concentration camp. By analyzing each metaphorical section (the concentration camp, the mummy Lazarus, the circus, and the phoenix), and by examining literary techniques such as line enjambment and repetition, one can conclude that the speaker equated conventional marriage and relationships to a prison (or concentration camp), and when trapped by this, she would prefer to view herself as dead, rather than acknowledging any sexual acts in that marriage.
Beginning in the second stanza, and continuing into the third — “Bright as a Nazi lampshade, / My right foot / A paperweight, / My face a featureless, fine / Jew linen” (lines 5-9) — one can immediately see how she’s comparing something (that one later learns is a relationship) to the Holocaust, specifically the way the Nazis viewed the Jews as household products worth nothing more than the material possessions produced from their torture, and ultimately, death. The fact that the speaker focuses on items commonly found around the house is symbolic in the aspect that she feels trapped in household life, as a possession, where she feels tortured as well. This also sets the tone of the poem as a personal holocaust, because of the persecution she fears and experiences.
The second metaphor to examine is that of Lazarus, the namesake of the poem. Like Lazarus, the speaker feels she has the power to rise from the dead.
Soon, soon the flesh / The grave cave ate will be / At home on me. / And I a smiling woman. (16-20)
This passage is in reference to Lazarus’s rise from the dead emerging from the cave. The speaker uses this to show her inner strength: that when forced into a cave, paralleled to a relationship, she will emerge better than before, that this rebirth will bring an end to the tortuous time, and that she will smile outwardly throughout the ordeal.
In the next stanza, lines 23-24 — “What a trash / To annihilate each decade” — show the reader that she is equating something to death, that around every ten years something forceful occurs that compels her to view the last decade as a waste. This is the emergence of her views of sex in the poem. Here she references a forced sexual act, or some form of abuse that has happened twice in the speaker’s life, which she fears is going to happen again. Stanzas 12 and 13 give us a limited background of the speaker; she notes in lines 35 and 36: “The first time it happened I was ten. / It was an accident.” By now, one has established that she equates death to sex, as she couldn’t possibly have actually died a physical death at age ten; her claim that it was an accident shows her innocence of youth, that even twenty years later, she can maintain that a sexual act could have been an accident. In the next stanza, she states: “The second time I meant / To last it out and not come back at all” (37-38). That passage simply lets the reader know that by the second time, chronologically at twenty years old, the speaker wanted nothing more to do with the act of sex, or for her, the pain and suffering that “death” or sex brought. But she then goes on to say that “Dying / is an art… / I do it exceptionally well” (43-45). The speaker feels that she dies each time she has sex, and eventually, she has come to accept this as her gift, a sordid way to kill herself (or a part of herself) every time she engages in the act.
“The peanut crunching crowd” (26) exemplifies how the speaker views her life almost as a circus; she feels constantly watched by spectators, that she is being judged for each and every action. “The big strip tease” (29) is a reference back to the mummy of the Lazarus metaphor, but adds more to the tone of anger, the sarcasm apparent in this entire poem. The speaker has almost mummified herself, a form of perseverance; even if she is a spectacle in the circus, judged and monitored when they strip away all the layers, she realizes “…I am the same identical woman” (34).
The final metaphorical section to examine is found within the last stanza:
Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air. (82-84)
In this passage, the speaker compares herself to a phoenix; like the phoenix (and Lazarus), the speaker is born anew after each “death.” Similarly, she feels she rises out of her own remains, stronger than before. These final lines seem almost a warning to not only “Herr God, Herr Lucifer” (79), but to all men, a warning that they should watch out because, like a fire, she plans to consume and destroy all men in her rage and rebirth.
The form of this poem is rather constant: it’s a collection of three-lined stanzas with no discernible rhyme pattern or syllabic scheme. It is very repetitive in form, and, in fact, as the poem progresses, the same words are repeated. This is not so much for emphasis, but for one to see how trapped the speaker feels inside of her life, her relationships, and even the very poem describing her entrapment. There are a few cases of enjambment, but the most important and relevant occurs in line 53: the repetition “…the same place, the same face, the same brute” automatically makes the reader assume that “brute” is a noun, presumably referencing her partner. Upon continuation in line 54, however, the phrase “Amused shout” makes “brute” into an adjective describing the doctor’s shouts. There is also repetition of the phrase “I do it” (“it” referring to sex) in lines 45-47, as a mantra for her to regain some sense of control, to reclaim a part of herself that she feels is lost; by repeating this phrase, by convincing herself that she is in control, she can maintain some power in the matter. In lines 65 and 66, there is not only repetition — “So, so Herr Doktor. / So, Herr enemy” — but a uniting of all of the metaphors. “Herr” is German (the language spoken by the Nazis) for “mister” or “sir,” the title given to all men. To paraphrase the following stanzas, the speaker states that she recognizes that she feels like a valuable piece of property that one man claims to own, and then she becomes incensed. At this, she proceeds to announce her likeness to the phoenix and issues a warning to all men, both in this world and in the “afterlife.”
Essentially, the poem “Lady Lazarus” by Sylvia Plath uses multifaceted metaphors to show how the speaker feels scrutinized and owned by her relationships, trapped in a marriage. Plath accentuates this feeling by repetition, enjambment, and the underlying equation of sex to death. The speaker has continued to “die” and has reached her breaking point. She plans to rise again, and all men should take heed to beware her wrath.
Plath, Sylvia. “Lady Lazarus.” The Norton Introduction to Poetry. Ed. Alison Booth, J. Paul Hunter, Kelly J. Mays. 8th edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Ltd., 2002. 519-521.
Theme of Suffering in Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath
Mental health is a very prominent issue in the world today. While the stigmas attached to mental health have lessened over the years and resources like psychotherapy are available to people, these resources were not always available especially during the post war era. Many were left to fend for themselves; some were helped by placed into institutions while others used writing to express their emotions. Sylvia Plath, an American poet and a short story writer, was one of the many people who used writing to express her emotional turmoil. One of her renowned works is Lady Lazarus which was published in 1965, two years after her passing by suicide. Lady Lazarus offers indications to various suicide attempts made by the distressed speaker. The title alludes to the character of Lazarus from the Bible who was resurrected by Jesus four days after his death. Similarly, Lady Lazarus experiences death repeatedly and is brought back to life but she is in control of her fate unlike Lazarus. In the poem Lady Lazarus, Plath uses literary devices such as dark imagery, setting, and allusions to historical happenings to portray the speaker’s subjection to enduring at the hands of those around her who wish for her to live.
Lady Lazarus compares her suffering to the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust to show the extent of her pain. Plath compares the speaker to some of the most horrifying events that took place during the Holocaust. Plath pushes past idyllic tradition with her choice of metaphors, attacking the reader’s sensibilities with the startling viciousness of her imagery. The speaker states: “A sort of walking miracle, my skin / Bright as a Nazi lampshade” (Plath 4-5). Lady Lazarus refers to herself as a “walking miracle” (Plath 4) for the times that she was revived. This also alludes back to the title because Lady Lazarus is miraculously raised from the dead. She says that she shouldn’t be alive after all her suicide attempts but miraculously, she is. Plath uses simile to compare her skin to a “Nazi lampshade” (Plath 5). This refers to the practice of making lampshades using the skin of Jewish victims in the concentration camps. This horrifying simile is significant because it compares Lady Lazarus’s suffering to the victims of the Nazi death camps. The speaker further states: “A paperweight, / My face a featureless, fine / Jew linen” (Plath 7-9). Linen was used to wrap the bodies of the Holocaust victims. The speaker uses this metaphor to emphasize the point that she does not feel anything; she is numb like the dead. Shockingly, this dark imagery is alluding to the speaker’s living body after it is restored. She depicts her encounter of living as a torment, as a kind of demise. After being resurrected, her skin is similar to the people murdered in the Holocaust; it is like the skin of a dead woman constrained back onto her living self which conveys the notion that living for Lady Lazarus is like death. By juxtaposing herself to these horrific events the speaker makes the reader regard her as a victim.
Sylvia Plath created two main settings in Lady Lazarus: a carnival and concentration camps. Plath refers to the carnival when she states:
The peanut crunching crowd
Shoves in to see
Them unwrap me hand and foot —
The big strip tease. (Plath 26-29)
The speaker thinks of herself as a spectacle that people are always ready to watch. People view her as an attraction that they cannot get enough of. She feels humiliated as they undress her and see her body “… my hands / My knees. / … skin and bone” (Plath 31-33). This stanza expresses violence as the speaker loses control of her body. It is shown as fun for the crowd as they are crunching peanuts but is extremely disturbing for Lady Lazarus: she is naked for all to see. This might be referring to the multiple suicides and resurrections of Lady Lazarus which have left her feeling like a spectacle as she just wants to die. Concentration camps are referred to throughout the poem but there were specific examples given that made the setting stand out:
Ash, ash —
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there —
A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling. (Plath 73-78)
In these two stanzas, Plath talks about the cremation of the Jewish victims in concentration camps and the horrifying way their remains were used. The Nazis used the ashes and corpses of the victims to make soap, jewelry, and gold teeth. Lady Lazarus is imagining being cremated alive as her third suicide attempt. She imagines the Nazis looking at the dead bodies and ash, visualizing the items they will create with the remains. But Lady Lazarus is resurrected again: “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air” (Plath 82-84). Lady Lazarus has been revived but unlike Lazarus, she does not need Jesus; she can do it on her own. She comes back to life like a phoenix: rising from her ashes. The last verse explains the speaker’s hatred toward the men in her life just like Plath. The influence that the men in her life have had on her has been hinted at throughout the poem. These verses show all that the Jews had endured during the Holocaust and convey Lady Lazarus’s feeling toward the life that she is forced to live at the hands of people.
In the poem Lady Lazarus, Sylvia Plath uses several literary devices that show the tormented life that the speaker has led. She uses dark imagery throughout the poem to create horrific images in the readers mind to convey the suffering of the speaker at the hands of the people who have saved her repeatedly after her suicide attempts. The Holocaust was alluded to multiple times to compare the lives of the victims and Lady Lazarus and emphasize the pain of living. Lastly, setting was used to create the mood that Lady Lazarus can never be happy. She is a spectacle because of her failed suicide attempts but she hopes to be successful this third time. Sylvia Plath very successfully conveyed the speaker’s pain and attitude toward death with her effective use of literary devices.
The Symbolism of Death and Rebirth in Sylvia Plath’s Poem Lady Lazarus
The purpose of my essay is to analize the symbolism of death and rebirth, the two major themes that can be found in most of Sylvia Plath’s poems. To present my statement I decided to choose an intriguing poem of this female author, Lady Lazarus. All the assertions that I will make in my essay are going to be sustains by critical sources. In the first part of my essay I will write about the meaning of the title and about the way it is related to the two themes. The second part will contain the biography references in the poem and the last part will present a short summary of the poem and the relation between the Holocaust and Sylvia Plath’s painful life that contributed to her desire to die and resurrect.
Through the title “Lady Lazarus“, Sylvia Plath brings a powerful biblical allusion to the possibility of resurrection. The author doesn’t mention the story of Lazarus in the poem, ending instead with a metaphor of the phoenix, the bird that cyclically regenerates from its own ash. We have at the same time the legend of Lazarus that died and was resurrected by Jesus Christ. We can state that there is a symmetry between the beginning and the ending, meant to empower the idea of the death as not being the final stage of the human being’s existence, but a sort of purgatory before a better, new one. In the original story, Lazarus is a man, here we have a change of genders as Plath decides it to be “Lady“, but this time the female’s power is very well presented by coming back to life “- on her own – without the help of a male/ God figure. Hot only has she brought herself back to life, but she has done it three times (a number that has some significance in the Bible, also)” (Bloom 75)
The woman’s power to bring herself back from death is mentioned in the poem through the line “I have done it again“. “Again“ makes the reader question himself about the repetitive death and rebirth of Lady Lazarus. Also mentioned is the time this happens “One year in every ten”. The first one from the three that happened is mentioned as an accident, the second one is made to express a suicide attempt as an art, it was “meant” to happen, but something interfered “Dying/ Is an art, like everything else/I do it exceptionally well.”
As for every piece of art, the author has to work to satisfy himself. This may be the reason there is a third suicide attempt as the second one didn’t give the final desired image. Everything ends with the assurance of a new comeback, as the one of the phoenix bird.
In the poem I also found some German words such us “Herr Doktor” which can be related to Sylvia Plath’s origins. Her father was from Germary and he died when she was eight years old. The death that we encounter here is presented as a final stage, probably because only a woman has the power to bring herself back to life and the man is not capable of such miracle.
The poem is related to the author’s biographical background. After undergoing electroconvulsive therapy for depression Sylvia Plath has her first medically documented attempt to commit suicide, she took an overdose from her mother’s sleeping pills. The second one appeared first to be a car accident, later revealed as a suicide attempt. If we consider the first accident to be also a suicide attempt and the lost two suicide attempts, we can say that it is well related to the ones in the poem where the speaker mentions that the first one was an accident, but after that, the last two ones were “meant” to happen.
In the Plath’s poem, the rebirth of Lady Lazarus is campared to her survival after continuous suicide attempts. She considers that the only way she can have a better life, one without pain, is through death, where she’ will have to give up on her physical existence that will lead to her being reborn in the kind of life she desires. “The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?/ The sour breath/ Will vanish in a day … Soon, soon the flash/The grave cave ate_will be/ At home on me“ (II – 13-16).
After being buried, her physical beauty will not remain. To change after the resurrection, a new start is needed. “the false self” must die so that the “true self can live”. (Bloom 86) In the end of the poem, Lady Lazarus rises from her own ash, becamin the creator of her new life, as an author has the power to create his own poetry. “The entire symbolic procedure of death and rebirth in Lady Lazarus has been deliberately chosen by the speaker. She enacts her deathrepeatedly in order to cleanse herself of the ‘million filaments’ of guiltand anguish that torment her. After she has returned to the womblikestate of being trapped in her cave, like the biblical Lazarus, or of beingrocked ‘shut as a seashell,’ she expects to emerge reborn in a newform.” (academia.edu 419)
The speaker in the poem compares the pain that he’s going through with the Holocaust which was a genocide during World War II in which Nazi Germany, aided by local collaborators, systematically murdered some six million European Jews. Many critics argued about the inappropriate comparison between such a tragic event and a personal life not going really well. Personally, I don’s believe that Sylvia Plath intended to be disrespectful towards the unfortunate event, but only to give a measurable degree of tragism to her feelings.
In conclusion, Lady Lazarus is a poem where death and rebirth are two modalities to change human’s life. The power to resurrect herself was given in the poem to a woman. This desire of dying so a new life is going to be a better one was also coming from the author’s personal issues. Sylvia Plath’s desire for rebirth, after death which had three attempts, was transplanted in her poem through a female character that fulfilled this characteristic. She had the power to come back to life by herself without receiving help from someone else as Lazarus received from Christ.
- Bloom, Harold. Sylvia Plath – Comprehensive Research and Study Guide, USA, Chelsea House Publishers, 2001
- Bassnett, Susan. Sylvia Plath – An Introduction to the Poetry, New York, PALGRAVE MACMILLAN, 2005
- https://www.academia.edu/27134025/The_Resurrected_Soul_A_Study_of_Sylvia_Plaths_Lady_Lazarus, authors: Marwan Alkubaisy and Harith Ismaiel Turki, accesed: 10 th of May 2019
Main Ideas of Lady Lazarus Poem
“Lady Lazarus”, written by Sylvia Plath in 1962, was a poem gathered posthumously through her collection Ariel published in 1965. The poem is about death or, more specifically, suicide. It is written to an unnamed “you” from the perspective of a suicidal woman who shares a significant amount of similarities with the poet. Sylvia Plath was born in 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts to Aurelia Schober and Otto Plath, the latter of whom died when Sylvia was eight. Despite deep depression and a consequential suicide attempt in 1953, Plath managed to graduate summa cum laude from Smith College in 1955. Soon after, Plath married English poet Ted Hughes whose later infidelity and ensuing divorce sent Plath into a crippling depression. All of these experiences palpably influenced Plath’s poetry. In Lady Lazarus, Sylvia Plath explores the resurrection of living through a suicide attempt through the tale of Lazarus, which reveals that no one can control anything in their life — not even death.
The poem begins on an obscure note reading, as the first stanza, “I have done it again. / One year in every ten / I manage it — ” (l. 1-3). The mysterious “it” she is referring to is not truly uncovered to the reader until later in the poem but as it continues it becomes obvious that the speaker is discussing her attempted suicide. With that knowledge, the reader can come to understand that the speaker has encountered death a lot in her life. She has come to the brink of death and faced it more than once. Even still, she is here to tell the story. She has looked in the eyes of death and come back again. Because of this, the speaker feels resurrected much similar to Lazarus who was brought back to life by Jesus in the book of John. A few stanzas after this, she recalls the times when death was at her doorstep. She writes, “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” (l. 35-42). “The second time” is when she attempted to commit suicide and was saved. Brought back to life by others, it is here again that she feels resurrected. However, this is not all positive for Lady Lazarus. She may think she can control at least the most primitive parts of her life, like living or dying, but in reality she is helpless. As a bystander of her own life, she is powerless in her own body.
Midway through the poem, the speaker starts telling less about stories and more about how they make her feel. Alluding back to the circus image, the speaker talks about dying as a talent or an art. She says, “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” (l. 43-48). In her mind, Lady Lazarus is connoisseur of death. As she says, she thinks of it as her calling. She escapes death, is saved from it, only to yearn to be close to it again. To feel control, to feel a sense of authority in her own life, she makes her dying feel real. She makes it feel so purposeful that no one could deny that she is the deciding factor in her life despite the fact that she is not.
Arguably the most poignant lines in the poem are the last three. “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / and I eat men like air” (l. 82-84). If the entire poem had to be summed up in a few lines, this would be it. Lady Lazarus rises again with the same resoluteness and determination. In keeping with the rest of the poem, she is determined to be in control — to fall when she wants to fall and rise when she wants to rise — even if it is useless. She will fight until the last breath to have that authority over her life and that theme is is most apparent here. It’s a scary thought that no one has complete control over their life. So, instead of accepting it even though she knows it to be true, she fights against it. She does not let futility stop her rage, her passion, and her determination to prove that at the end of the day, she is in control, even if she has to prove it in the most severe way. In Lady Lazarus, Sylvia Plath delves into the notion that through resurrection and rebirth comes a knowledge that no one is truly in control (and that it might be okay).
My Understanding of Lady Lazarus Poem
Sharon Cameron My reading of the poem is hypothetical by default, for its syntax alone, not to mention the elliptical progressions and the rapid transformation of pronouns, insists upon respect for its difficulty. What we can ascertain is that the speaker is comparing the life of the heavenly bride to that of the earthly one. The woman exalted in the first half of the poem is royal by virtue of what she does not have. Without the sign or ring legitimating marriage and without the swoon of sexuality, this woman, seemingly self-elected, is dangerously close to Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” who will also insist upon “Acute Degree” and who will carry the claim of suffering one step further into hyperbole than Calvary. This miraclea woman without the swoon, divine by virtue of its absencemakes us hunger for a more generous world where salvation is not had at the expense of life. It is the other world we think we are getting when we read of “the swoon / God sends us Women / When youholdGarnet to Garnet /Goldto Gold.” But the transition is strangely enough no transition; deprivation is here not absent, it is simply of another order. “When youholdGarnet to Garnet /Goldto Gold” (in the secular context of the earthly wedding ceremony), what you get is death (“BornBridalledShrouded / In a Day”).
The shift in pronouns is a shift to the colloquial “you,” almost as if in talking implicitly about sexuality the speaker had to cast attribution as far from herself as possible. But in the very process of distinguishing herself from the wealth of the earthly alternative, she temporarily allies herself with it, with the swoon “God sends us Women.” In the fusion and confusion of these lines, both options funnel to death, the contraction of the self into its own ashes. For the birth of the wife becomes the death of the woman. Upon such sacrifices, the gods themselves throw incense. The problem is that both alternatives require sacrifice.
Between the nothing that is the self and the nothing to which the self gets reduced when it capitulates to another, we see our options clearly. While it is true that the jewels in the poem suggest the blessing of the earthly wife, the lines, coming as they do in the middle of the poem ( as a manifestation of its transition from divine to earthly), are a half-implied metaphor for the necessary complement of divine and earthly wife, for each by herself is inadequate. Thus although the lines tell us that garnet is held to garnet and gold to gold ( each alternative able to assess only itself), the proximity of the lines requires us to see the colors (and the choices they represent) held against each other, as if the speaker’s vision of impossibility momentarily enabled its transcendence. “Stroking the Melody” is perhaps a metaphor for the very impossibilities delimited by the poem. For the need to get a hold on sound, to imbue it with physical dimensions, reminds us that we have a metaphoric world to console us for the impoverishment of the physical world. Like Lear’s desire to “sweeten the imagination” or to wipe the hand “of mortality,” Dickinson’s phrase suggests that simultaneous perception of loss and compensation that grips the mind at such moments of imaginative invention, as, in the process of calling wishes into being, the speaker inevitably acknowledges their status as wishes, not subject to fulfillment in reality.
If only one could “sweeten the imagination” or “Strok[e] the Melody.” So utterance grows out of desperation and registers violence at its fact. Yet options exist because we must take them. We cannot, as Sartre pointed out, not choose. This recognition is the moment the poem records. For the speaker, from the vantage of Calvary, looks enviously at the earthly alternative and finds that it is nothing. Previously she thought she could imitate ill name, if nothing else, the title of the earthly wife. Now it is apparent that the imitation is purposeless. She could not have it if she wanted it, and if she had it, she sees now that she would not want it. Her title, then, like the earthly wife’s, is empty, the “Melody” sought after but finally strained once it is acknowledged that any possession is by itself inadequate. The problem of otherness perceived as death; the problem of otherness for lack of which there is death: the alternatives in these poems are stark ones. Yet the poems themselves are not stark, are, in fact, loaded with energy that is, as I have been suggesting, close to explosive. And it is the energy that needs accounting for, fed as it is by the fuel of sexuality on the one hand, and death on the other, by that combustible that ignites into rage. In the poems presence seems manifested as rage and, in particular, as rage at all that is temporal, all that has a history whose requirement is sacrifice and choice.
From Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Copyright © 1979 by The Johns Hopkins UP. Sandra Gilbert Surely this poem’s central image is almost the apotheosis of anguish converted into energy, what Dickinson elsewhere called the “ecstasy of death.” Transforming the puzzles of life into the paradoxes of art, the poet/speaker is on a kind of “gay, ghastly, Holiday,” reminding us that she is the same woman who once told Thomas Wentworth Higginson that “I had a terror . . . I could tell to noneand so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Groundbecause I am afraid.” It is significant, however, that the “gay, ghastly, Holiday” into which Dickinson so often converts her “great pain” is not a weekend in “Domingo” or a passage to India. On the contrary, though she characterizes herself as an Empress of Calvary, this poet is always scrupulously careful to explain that she “never saw a moor . . . never saw the sea” (1052). Her muse-like “King who does not speak” maintains his inspiring silence in a parlor, after all, and even the Master who owns the “Loaded Gun” of her art sleeps on an “Eider-Duck’s / Deep Pillow” that sounds as homely as any bedding nineteenth-century New England had to offer. Dickinson loved exotic place-namesadmiring, for instance, the “mail from Tunis” that the hummingbird brought to the bushes on her father’s ground (1463)but nevertheless the news of those distances came to her at home, in her parlor, her kitchen, her garden. from “‘The Wayward Nun beneath the Hill’: Emily Dickinson and the Mysteries of Womanhood” in Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickison. Ed. Suzanne Juhasz. Copyright © 1983 by Indiana UP. Paula Bennett Read against the earlier poems, it is clear that Dickinson meant “Title divine” to be about her mature identity as woman, an identity she assumed sometime in late 1861 or early 1862 and was apparently eager to share with Samuel Bowles.
While she acknowledges that she has assumed this identity at real cost, it is also, as she underscores in the 1866 version of the poem sent to Sue, a “Tri Victory.” For in becoming a “Wife–without the Sign” that is, a wife without an actual husband and therefore, also without the “swoon” or loss of self that real marriage involved–Dickinson had at last found the way out of the personal and social dilemma that had plagued her from adolescence on. In “marrying”-without-marrying the Master, she could, albeit by a sophistical twist, free herself permanently both from her social obligation to marry and from the childhood she had sought so long to escape. By becoming a bride, as it were, in perpetua, she remained woman on the point of transformation, a woman who had renounced both the life that had been, childhood, and the life that in her society was meant to be, marriage. And thus she achieved a new ontological status: woman-without-being-wife. It is this definition of self as woman on the point of transformation or bride in perpetua which, I believe, became the basis for Dickinson’s new poetic voice after 1861. It was a voice that obtained its power from the fact that the person behind it had experienced in her poetry, if not in her life, all the stages of a woman’s life, from childhood through ecstasy and marriage to, finally, martyrdom and death. This person could, therefore, speak with all the authority that Dickinson’s poetry had hitherto lacked. By using her poetry to become a bride in perpetua or “Wife–without the Sign,” Dickinson was able to make her role as poet and her role as woman one. It was a piece of linguistic legerdemain to be sure, but for Dickinson it worked. If she could not be a woman in real life without marrying, then she could marry and be a real woman in her art. Symbol-maker that she was, for Dickinson this “Victory” was more than adequate. It gave her both the security and the freedom she required to explore the powers lodged within herself. She was a poet and a woman at last.
A number of different factors made becoming a “Wife–without the Sign” or bride in perpetua a perfect means to Dickinson’s new status as woman poet or queen. To begin with, in the nineteenth century a woman’s bridal was the mid-point between the two great, unalterable mysteries in her life: birth and death. Upon these three occasions, at birth (symbolized by baptism), at death, and when she got married, a woman wore white and approached most closely the “blameless mystery” of God. Insofar as a bride took a new name or “Title,” she was moreover both dead and reborn during the ceremony, dying to her old life and baptized into her new one. As the midpoint in a woman’s life, the marriage ceremony was also, equally important, her apex or “Acute Degree,” the moment conferred upon her by God when she experienced her greatest rapture or joy in living. And it was the moment in which she was translated from one state of being into another, receiving not only a new name, but a new status, power, and identity.
From My Life a Loaded Gun: Dickinson, Plath, Rich, and Female Creativity. Copyright © 1986 by Paula Bennett. Reprinted with the permission of the author. Wendy Martin Ironically reversing the image of herself as the helpless waif, Dickinson presents herself as “Royal,” an “Empress of Calvary.” Having sustained and learned from her suffering, she has mastered it. This is a love poem, but it is also an announcement of her power–her capacity to experience intense emotions and to survive their annihilating potential. Although her love has been unrequited, she has not been defeated by her suffering. She is not ruled by a master–she reigns over herself. As we have seen, the compensatory image of the queen in command of her energy appears repeatedly in Dickinson’s poetry as an antidote to the destructive impact of romantic imagery on women. This poem also takes an ironic view of conventional marriage, revealing Dickinson’s scorn for the loss of self women experience when they wed; there is a pun on “bridalled” and bridled, as the wife’s expectations about her new life–“Born”–are contrasted with the reality of her now constricted world–“Shrouded.” For Emily Dickinson, the wife’s expectations of security in marriage are as illusory as the converted sinner’s hopes of heaven.
From An American Triptych: Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich. Copyright © 1984 by The University of North Carolina Press. Gary Lee Stonum The poem is sometimes read, in the context of the separated-lovers plot, as referring to a secret and platonic betrothal that has left the speaker spiritually wedded but without any public sign of her estate and without the sexual swoon of earthly nuptials. The title being divine, it will be recognized only in heaven, when the lovers meet again. Whether we adduce such context or not, the speaker’s committed but uncertainly determined state allows her to question wifehood without quite being fully bridaled and shrouded but also without merely anticipating it as prospect. The stakes are triumph and status, as the imagery of titles, degrees, crowns, and victories makes clear, but no clear answer is forthcoming to the question in the last line. The poems in the marriage group lend themselves especially well to a strategic deferral, for a moment of deliberation is built into the plot. Whatever empowerment she (or more rarely he) envisions in the marital state, she must commit herself to that state irrevocably. Moreover, thanks mainly to feminism, we have recently had little difficulty appreciating Dickinsons reluctance to commit herself to the Master’s care. Indeed, contemporary prejudices make it difficult to understand the lure of embridalment, about which Dickinson is equally emphatic. Perhaps more fully than we, she accepts in these poems the most baleful premise of the romantic sublime, namely that empowerment requires emulating another’s majesty.
From The Dickinson Sublime (University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.) Copyright © 1990 by the Board of regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Roseanne Hoefel Her indictment of those who do not make note of the disparities and inequities in treatment of women and men is evident in her disdainful tone. Dickinson feels the need to integrate and internalize an assertive self, one which will not subscribe to the thankless duties allotted women in conventional roles. More importantly, by conquering Calvary, she, like the emperor Christ, is the empress who has won “Tri-Victory” over death and, perhaps — as implied by the reference to “My Husband” as something other women say — over male barriers and institutions. Only such a feat would gain the persona equal status with Christ, who also transcended the laws and dictates of his persecutors and oppressors. Like him, she was “Born — Bridalled — Shrouded — ,” all stages of being wrapped in cloth, perhaps white, at birth, through life (e.g., in marriage), and at death. She has rewritten a portion of the Apostolic creed: that Christ was born, died, and was buried, and on the third day, he rose again. Or perhaps, as indicated in the next line: “In a Day,” she — like Christ, through his crucifixion and resurrection — experienced in one moment these variant stages of a similar state of rebirth. Her rebirth is made possible by creating a philosophy that enables her to validate her own experience and being. Once again, Dickinson subverts patriarchal definitions and collapses the duality upon which they are based, for through the development of these poems, Calvary is linked with victory, rather than with defeat or (only) anguish. from “Emily Dickinson: Fleshing Out a New Word” Emily Dickinson Journal Vol. I.1 (1992). Online Source: Kim Hosman
Though Dickinson uses certain religious words and tropes repeatedly, the meaning she attaches to them may vary from one poem to another. In “That I did always love,” Calvary is the emblem for her thoughts on salvation, love, and the risk of tragic loss should a man persist in doubting the constancy of a woman who loves him and is worthy of his trust. In “Title divine,” Dickinson again uses the image of Calvary, but she refocuses our associations with the word and shifts the emphasis to issues not of doubt and faith, but of recognition and fate. Consequently, the tone is less personal and more judgmental — even angry. To understand better Dickinson’s role as translator, it is useful to recall some of the conventional meanings of the Christian images that appear in this poem: first, “Title divine.” In his sermon “The Mortal Immortalized,” Charles Wadsworth describes the terms “the Resurrection and the Life” (John 11:25), which Christ bestows on himself just before raising Lazarus from the dead, as being Christ’s “Divine titles” (234). The power to give life, therefore, is implied in Dickinson’s “Title divine.” Then there is the figure of Calvary, the place where Christ was crucified along with two thieves. The image is of a hill with three crosses on it, symbolizing both the scene of the sacrifice and the trinity. Finally, the “Crown” and the “Sign” clearly recall the crown of thorns and the mocking sign placed over the cross that read “King of the Jews.” “Born — Bridalled — Shrouded — ,” and “Tri Victory” echo Father, Son, Holy Ghost, and trinity respectively. “Is this — the way?” recalls Christ’s words “I am the way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). The images that Dickinson chooses are some of the most poignant and frequently cited in Protestant discourse. They are descriptive of the ultimate sacrifice, the climactic event of the New Testament scriptures. The Son of God submits to humiliation and death, offering redemption even to those who, failing to recognize divinity, mock and torture him. Here are words and figures with weight behind them, with connotations Dickinson finds particularly apt for describing her subject: women and the sacrifices they make — whether as wives, poets, or Christians.
In “Title divine” Dickinson presents the figure of the “Wife” crucified. Women stroke “the Melody” of the word “husband” and consider themselves “Royal.” But at Calvary, to be royal is to be humiliated, the symbols of royalty having been transformed into symbols of ridicule by Christ’s executioners. Dickinson’s ambivalence toward marriage is evident in her letters. One frequently-quoted passage in particular, from a letter addressed to Susan Gilbert, describes feelings similar to those expressed in “Title Divine.” Dickinson, then about twenty-two years old, wrote: How dull our lives must seem to the bride, and the plighted maiden whose days are fed with gold. . . but to the wife, Susie, sometimes the wife forgotten, our lives perhaps seem dearer than all others in the world; you have seen f lowers at morning, satisfied with the dew, and those same sweet f lowers at noon with their heads bowed in anguish before the mighty sun; think you these thirsty blossoms will now need naught but — dew? No, they will cry for sunlight, and pine for the burning noon, tho’ it scorches them, scathes them; they have got through with peace — they know that the man of noon, is mightier than the morning and their life is henceforth to him. . . . It does so rend me, Susie, the thought of it when it comes, that I tremble lest at sometime I, too, am yielded up. (Letter 93) The extreme discrepancy that Dickinson perceived between male and female power is evident in these lines. The male “sun” is ubiquitous. He has freedom to move through the sky and dominion over all living things, including the “scathed” female “blossoms” that have neither mobility nor power.
The image of a male lover as a potentially overpowering, indifferent, and life-depleting “sun” and the woman as a frail f lower persists for years in Dickinson’s letters and poems. In the “Master” letters, the poet refers to herself as “Daisy.” In addition, there are poems such as “The Daisy follows soft the Sun” (Poem 106), in which she depicts that extreme dominant-submissive relation. Because Dickinson so often felt that there was little spiritual nourishment available to women as Christians or as wives, and because the tone of several lines in the poems is heavily ironic, it is possible to read the wives in “Title divine” as being fools for stroking the melody, for not realizing they are being mocked.4 At the same time, the resonances of sacred words surround all the human figures in the poem with an aura of virtue and spiritual glory. The melody stroked by the women saying “My Husband” is pitched in that “Key of Calvary” which, for Dickinson, is loud with both beauty and fraud. The image of the bloody sacrifice that results in eternal life for the believer is peculiarly appropriate to the circumstances of the wives of Dickinson’s time. The images could suggest the blood that is shed in childbirth. A woman who consented to marriage in the mid-nineteenth century consented to risk, since the mortality rate for women in childbirth was high. A woman taking the risk of “bearing a man’s child” gave that man a kind of immortality, an immortality in which she was not believed to share. During Dickinson’s time it was generally believed that a woman’s body was little more than the soil in which a man’s seed was planted (Homans 153-157).
And, of course, the child would have the man’s name, imparting to him another sort of immortality. So, the wife’s “Title divine,” her power to be “the Resurrection and the Life,” made it her destiny to sacrifice her life (whether literally or figuratively) to gain immortality for her husband, just as Christ’s “divine titles” made it his destiny to be sacrificed to save mankind. In works like “That I did always love,” and “Title divine” Dickinson attacks the attitudes underlying social power structures and does so by employing the very tropes conventionally used to maintain them. No matter what posture she assumes with respect to authority, however, she is not often able to feel entirely free of the constraints that authority places upon her, and a tinge of despair is also evident in much of her work.5 To explore the reasons for Dickinson’s ironic view of victory and for her subsequent despair in “Title divine,” we need to turn our attention away from the wives who are “Stroking the Melody” and to look instead at the “Title divine” of the woman-poet about whom the word “wife” is used figuratively. Dickinson tells us that the “Title divine — is mine.” Hers is clearly not a worldly title; it is something intangible, transcendent. But even if the “Title divine” is more glorious, both aesthetically and morally, than any the material world has to offer, it is no great consolation for Dickinson. To wait for the next life is perhaps never to find heaven at all. Dickinson has also told us that “Heaven is so far of the Mind” (Poem 370) that no such place can be assumed to exist beyond the mind. The “Title divine” may therefore be a fraud. She has attained a moral and intellectual victory, an internal victory of some kind, but no material sense of fulfillment.
However, we do get the feeling that Dickinson values the moral victory, even if true happiness (which we learn from other poems and from her letters is something she craves) is unattainable. We have still not explored all of what the “Title divine” is for Dickinson. In “Title divine,” as in many of Dickinson’s most intriguing poems, metaphor is stacked upon metaphor. The tropes of Christ’s sacrifice and divinity are also descriptive of Dickinson’s sense of identity as a woman and poet. To be a poet, she may be understood to have sacrificed her life in Amherst society and the possibility of being a wife and mother. As the church and the human soul are considered the “brides” of Christ, Dickinson is the bride of poetry. She is “the Word made f lesh,” a Christ figure whose father in heaven is poetry rather than Deity. Her “Title divine,” then, is that of poet. Through poetry she is “the Resurrection and the Life.” She has the power to give life to language. In a letter to T. W. Higginson, Dickinson asks “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” (Letter 260). She is one, like Christ (but “without the Sign”), whose greatness is not recognized, who would (should she reveal herself) be vulnerable to mockery and ostracism in a society unable and perhaps unwilling to understand her. We can also read the “Title divine” as being a title to love and “The Wife — without the Sign!” as being a figure for and statement of enduring devotion.
The “Title divine” is the true love the poet feels, even though she does not have the “Sign,” a ring or marriage license to show as material proof of her commitment. Suzanne Juhasz has elaborated on this point: When do you “hold — Garnet to Garnet — / Gold to Gold — “? Because this sounds like a description of wedding rings, of, consequently, a double-ring ceremony, the phrase probably modifies the swoon that God sends to women, so that swoon can be read as symbolic, or symptomatic, of the ordinary woman’s response to a man, a husband, to marriage. Thus, being a wife without the sign would be being a wife without the ring — and without the swoon. No church wedding: no crown. Another sort of marriage. (The Undiscovered Continent 112) But whether we read Dickinson as poet, lover, or both, she endures the pain of making sacrifices to what or to whom she loves in secret. The missing “Sign” is a double metaphor. It is the mocking, public sign that labels the cross and becomes a metaphor for the position of a wife in society or for the woman-poet. It also suggests a wedding ring — the public “Sign” for marriage. If we consider these figures to represent Dickinson as a poet, the “Wife — without the Sign” becomes the woman-poet who has received no public recognition. Since women writers were frequently subject to ridicule, being “without the sign” has its appeal. We see the poet being sacrificed silently in the name of some greater cause that operates beyond the ken of average mortals. But, once again, because she persistently aligns herself with Christ, the pains and humiliations experienced in being the “Empress of Calvary” are nevertheless indicative of power, virtue, and superiority.
Dickinson’s use of other Christian images in “Title divine” reinforces her several metaphorical premises. The image of “the Crown” carries a particularly heavy load of meaning. The contrast between Christ’s mortal crown of thorns and his heavenly crown is often the subject of Protestant hymns. Below are two examples: See from his head, his hands, his feet, Sorrow and love f low mingled down: Did e’er such love and sorrow meet; Or thorns compose so rich a crown? The images in this hymn give us an explicit description of what the crown of thorns signified to Puritans. It represented not only sacrifice but love and sorrow too, primary characteristics for both wife and poet in “Title divine.” Christ’s crown of thorns is at last exchanged for a glorious crown of divinity when he ascends into heaven: All hail the power of Jesus’ name,
Let angels prostrate fall; Bring forth the royal diadem, and crown him Lord of all. Like Christ, both wife and woman-poet must wear a crown of thorns, must bear humiliation and a lack of recognition for their virtues, at least in their mortal lives. But both are possessed of divine power (albeit unacknowledged) and are heirs to the “royal diadem.” The symbol of the crown of thorns deifies the act of sacrifice and sanctifies pain and humiliation. Christ, the most loving and perfect human being who ever existed, was forced to wear the crown of thorns by a society that perceived him (as it would perceive a great female poet) as a threat to its power structures. The crown, then, is also a symbol of guilt, a guilt by which the Puritans felt burdened. Superimposing the image of the crown of thorns onto the image of the wife, Dickinson imbues woman’s fate (as wife or poet) with great value and dignity. At the same time, she points an accusing finger at a society that crowns her with thorns. The lines “Born — Bridalled — Shrouded / In a Day — / Tri Victory” are bitterly ironic. By inserting the image of a woman being “Bridalled” (as one would bridle a horse) between the facts of birth and death and by calling this “Victory,” Dickinson makes a tightly compressed poetic statement. The rebellious tone of these lines is enhanced by her employment of the word bridal as a verb. As Barton St. Armand observes, Dickinson “rightfully `bridles,’ or scornfully rebels, against her fate” (146).
Images of rebellion against Satan and against death and of Christ’s final victory abound in Protestant sermons, and especially in hymns. For example: Hail! Mighty Jesus; how divine Is thy victorious sword! The stoutest rebel must resign, At thy commanding word. There is a double significance in the word “victorious” just as in the image of the crown. Christ’s crucifixion is a victory for mankind because it offers a chance for immortality. But for Christ himself, the real victory will come on Judgment Day, when he will lead the forces of good to eradicate evil forever, when he will consign all good souls to heaven and all evil ones to hell. The pain of crucifixion is enough, however, to shake the faith even of the Son of God. The heavenly victory seems remote to him when he cries out to God from the cross, “why hast thou forsaken me?” The wife’s ultimate victory in “Title divine” (whether she is interpreted as being woman or woman-poet), like Christ’s victory, seems remote because no immediate reward is in sight and because the pain endured in obtaining that victory is so great. The final line of the “Title divine,” “Is this — the way?” asks “is this the way to stroke `the melody’? Did the tone of my voice express the proper degree of smug contentment when I said `My Husband’?” Interpreted in this manner, the line sounds sarcastic and supports the idea that the wives with “the Sign” are being mocked by the poet. But it is also possible to interpret the line as echoing Christ’s words, “I am the way, the Truth, and the life,” in which case we hear the poet asking, “is this the way to salvation? Is the sacrifice of marriage really the way for a woman to find fulfillment in life?” A third possibility exists as well.
Underneath the irony and uncertainty, the speaker may be practicing her articulation of the word “Husband” with a certain smugness of her own — as the secret bride of poetry. All three readings of this line are supported by the text. Dickinson’s restatement of religious figures frees them from any single interpretation; their connotations multiply and contradict one another, remaining fluid within poems and between poems. from “Emily Dickinson’s Poetics of Translation.” Emily Dickinson Journal Vol. III.1 (1996). Online Source: