Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I've a call.
It's easy enough to do it in a cell.
It's easy enough to do it and stay put.
- Here, Lady Lazarus tells us what is perhaps the greatest truth of this poem: dying is an art. It may not be an art for everyone, or even for anyone other than Lady L, but she certainly turns her death into art (i.e., she turns it into this poem).
- These line breaks, which use enjambment, are genius. When we read "dying" on the first line of this stanza, we'd expect something depressing to follow.
- Instead, when we jump down to the next line, we hear that dying is an art and apparently that everything else is an art, too. This means that brushing your teeth, driving to school or work, even going to the bathroom—that's art. Imagine an entire reality T.V. show, dedicated to the art of brushing one's teeth.
- But the focus here is on death—if life is art, these lines suggests, then death must be art, too. And our speaker says she's an artistic genius at dying—she does it very well.
- Or…wait a second. If she's come close, but not quite made it to death three times, she's actually quite awful at the art of dying.
- So, dying isn't necessarily the art she does well—it's coming back from being almost dead she's a rock star at.
- Things start getting really rhythmic here. The poem doesn't have a strict meter, but in this moment, patterns emerge. We have the rhymes of "well" and "hell" and all of the slant rhymes of "real," "call," and "cell."
- The beginning of the lines repeat each other (this is called anaphora) and have similar word choice (also known as diction), which means they have the same rhythm. The rhythm is fast and biting. We almost feel like Lady Lazarus is taunting us—like she's daring at us to challenge her.
- This is a lady who knows how to be forceful when she needs to be (which is apparently right now).
- And she tells us that she does "it" (again, that mysterious "it") so that it "feels like hell" and "feels real." Or, in other words, she comes close to death—or, to be more explicit, she attempts suicide—so that she can feel something. She's drawn to death; she has "a call."
- Usually, death is something that happens to us; it's not something that we have control over or choose to do. But here, Lady Lazarus is taking control over her own death. Perhaps she's using suicide to express her control over her life. It's a strange way of thinking about death, that's for sure, but we wouldn't put it past ol' Sylvia.
- We can now be sure that we're listening to the thoughts of an extremely depressed and disturbed person. Of course, part of the wonderfulness of the poem is its grotesqueness, but in moments like these, it's hard to forget that behind these lines is probably severe mental illness.
It's the theatrical
Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
That knocks me out.
There is a charge
For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart—
It really goes.
And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood
Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
- Now we are back in the realm of the circus or carnival; Lady Lazarus tells us that she's making a theatrical comeback. She represents her resurrection—her coming back to life—as a circus act. She's quite the spectacle.
- Someone—a brute—shouts that she's a "miracle." Well, we heard that before, way back in stanza 2.
- She says that this "knocks her out." Usually this phrase is a metaphor for being surprised or amazed, but in this moment in the poem, it takes on a violent undertone, as if she's in a boxing match.
- As Lady L says, "there is a charge." That means people have to drop some dough to see the spectacle she puts on. If people want to see her scars, they have to pay. They have to pay to hear her heart beat, and they have to pay a whole lot of money to hear her speak, to touch her, or to take a bit of her blood, hair, or clothes.
- The items that she's "charging" for get increasingly more personal. The lowest "charges" are just for looking at her; the largest ones are for an actual piece of her (her blood, her hair).
- We think that Lady Lazarus is being figurative here. She's not actually at a circus, and she's not actually charging money for people to come and see her.
- But the important thing is that this is how Lady L feels. She feels like she's in a circus act, like everyone wants to gaze upon her pain for their enjoyment. She feels like everyone wants a piece of her—her hair, her clothes, her heartbeat, her blood.
- Notice that Lady Lazarus is always casting herself as a victim. First, she's a victim of the Nazis, who use her skin to make lampshades. Now, she's a circus freak who everyone wants to see to admire her pain. She may seem like a miracle to everyone else, but it sounds like our Lady just wants to be left alone. And there's once again a contrast between Lady L's powerful voice, and the powerless roles in which she casts herself.
- Is she a powerful woman? A hapless victim? Can she be both at the same time?
- And we can't forget to mention the sounds, too. We've got the rhyme of "shout" and "out," plus the slant rhyme of "scars," "charge," and "heart." Once again, there's kind of a closed-in feeling in these stanzas. The sounds repeat themselves, just as our speaker keeps repeating this spectacle—dying and coming back to life.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.
I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby
That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.
- Lady Lazarus's fixation on the Nazis returns in these lines. She addresses a Nazi figure—a doctor and enemy—and once again represents herself as a Jewish person in relation to him. ("Herr" is a German word that translates to "Mr." or "Sir.")
- During the Holocaust, Nazi doctors performed a ton of cruel and lethal experiments on Jewish people. They also placed millions of Jews in gas chambers and crematoriums, and gassed or burned them alive. This is what Plath is referring to in these lines; she's setting herself up as a victim of the Nazis. She imagines that she's burning along with the Jews.
- It also tells us who her enemy is—the doctor. Sure, she could just be figuratively speaking here, but we might assume that our speaker, who's clearly suffering from some sort of mental illness, is no fan of the doctors who keep bringing her back from the dead.
- Lady L makes a whole bunch of metaphors to get her point across again. She's an "opus" (or piece of literary or musical work). She's a valuable. She's a "pure gold baby" "that melts to a shriek." (When gold melts, it doesn't melt into a shriek, and our speaker isn't actually a pure gold baby. But that's what she feels like, and we're betting, with all the pain she's feeling, she's doing a good bit of real-life shrieking.)
- Lady L is continuing the references to the Nazi crematoriums, in which the Nazis burned the possessions of the Jews along with the human beings. She's also describing herself as something that belongs to others, once again casting herself as a victim with no control over her life.
- These lines make us think, if the speaker is so valuable to the doctor, then maybe she's not the one charging for little pieces of herself after all. Maybe, it's the doctor who is charging people, and letting them take little bits of the speaker. He's reaping all of the profits of her pain. This aligns with the view of the doctor as German—during World War II, the Germans profited from the possessions and labor of the Jewish people whom they massacred.
- And the final line here is ironic; Plath knows that Nazis were not concerned for the well-being of the Jews.
- Did you notice that intense rhyme of "burn" and "concern"? The rhyme underlines the fact that the Nazis, in fact, have absolutely no concern for the burning and gassing of millions.
- What do you make of the fact that Plath, through Lady Lazarus, is making all of these references to the Holocaust? Is she trivializing a horrific event that led to the death of millions? Or is she making a legitimate comparison in an attempt to convey to us how terrible her pain really is? It's a question that's ripe for debate.