by Sylvia Plath
Lines 1-15 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it—
- The poem begins on a strange note. A speaker—Lady Lazarus—tells us that she's "done it again." But what has she done? What is this mysterious "it"? Why does she do this "it" every ten years?
- We won't actually find out the answer to these questions for a little while, so just hold your horses.
- In the meantime, let's think about the speaker. Lady Lazarus is a fictional creation by the poet Sylvia Plath. We have to admit: Lady Lazarus has a whole lot in common with Plath herself (which you'll see as you keep reading). But Plath clearly takes pains to separate her real self from her poetry, so we're going to always refer to the speaker as Lady Lazarus.
- Plath is getting all Biblical on us in this poem. Lazarus is a character from the New Testament who dies, and who Jesus brings back to life in the Gospel of John.
- So why is our speaker named Lady Lazarus? Has she perhaps been resurrected (or brought back from the dead)? Let's read on to get some answers. (And for more on Lady L, check out what we have to say in the "Speaker" section of this learning guide).
- And let's think about the poem's form for just a second. It's written in short, three-line stanzas (also known as tercets) with super-short lines.
- The poem is quick, clipped, brusque. There's not a lot of lingering over words. Lady Lazarus isn't into long drawn out lines or sentences. She moves quickly through language.
- One last thing: you may have noticed that we have a rhyme going on in this first stanza (with the words "ten" and "again"). As you read on, you'll see that the poem has a lot of rhymes, but that they don't follow a specific pattern. If you're interested in form, head over to the "Form and Meter" section for the real skinny.
A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot
My face a featureless, fine
- Now Lady Lazarus starts to describe herself, and it's, well, horrifying.
- The first of these lines show us that, whatever she's managing to do, it makes her a walking miracle, which takes us back to the title; Lazarus was miraculously raised from the dead by Jesus. So, if we can make that connection, it's coming back from the dead that our speaker is managing every ten years, and that's what she's managed to do again.
- Note that, between lines four and five, we see an example of enjambment—a thought being split between two lines. The split, in this case, divides the lines between the image of skin and the disturbing image of the Nazi lampshade.
- Yep, that's right. Lady Lazarus compares herself to a "Nazi lampshade," to a "paperweight" and to "Jew linen."
- What's up with all of the Holocaust references? Well, the poem was written in 1962, so World War II and the Holocaust weren't that far in the past. The atrocities of the Nazis still reverberated intensely in the world's imagination.
- So let's break these comparisons down. Lady Lazarus is comparing herself to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The Nazis used the dead bodies of the slaughtered Jews in the production of objects, including (according to the rumors) lampshades and paperweights. (Are you feeling disgusted? We're not surprised; this is some pretty sick stuff we're dealing with.)
- Lady Lazarus is making a whole bunch of metaphors and similes here. She is a living version—a "walking miracle"—of a lampshade made out of the bodies of murdered human beings. Sick.
- The things for which her body is being used are so mundane that it's insulting—lampshades, paperweights. Her body is dead, torn apart to furnish someone else's living room or office.
- Are you thinking to yourself: whoa, Lady L, that is a seriously intense metaphor? Have you been through a Holocaust? Do you really want to compare yourself to the Jewish victims of the Nazis? If you are thinking those thoughts, well, you're not alone. Some people think that Plath goes too far in her Holocaust metaphors. Some people disagree and think that they are the best way for her to express her pain.
Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?—
The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.
- Lady Lazarus knows she's freaking us out in this poem, and addresses us—her audience—directly. She tells us to "peel off the napkin," to (figuratively) reveal her face. She calls us her "enemy." Thanks, Lady L, for making us feel welcome in your poem.
- And for you Bible scholars out there, line 11 may be using a biblical allusion to Micah 7:8, in a moment in which the Jews address an enemy and then say: "Though I have fallen / I will rise." It's one of the many moments in the poem in which Lady Lazarus imagines that she has an intense connection with the Jewish people, although we're not quite sure who her enemy is—the Nazis? Death? Us? (Yikes.)
- This address to the audience is called an apostrophe. Lady Lazarus speaks to several different audiences throughout the poem, but in this moment, she seems to be talking directly to us (shiver).
- She then asks if she terrifies us, and our answer is: yes, obviously. Lady Lazarus knows how to wield power. We're quaking in our boots over here.
- And, Lady L keeps at it. She describes what she looks like, and even this simple act takes on a grotesque tone. She figures herself as a kind of living corpse, with "eye pits" instead of eyeballs, and "sour breath" that will disappear once she's actually dead—in a day.
- This is some pretty intense imagery, if we do say so ourselves. Apparently, it's the zombie apocalypse, and Plath's here to tell us all about it.