Sylvia Plath: Our Lady Lazarus’ Influential Poetry

Sylvia Plath’s honesty and vulnerability surrounding her mental health have earned her a place in our new series, “Poetry’s Pioneering Women.”

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Sylvia Plath made an enormous impact on poetry and literature as a whole. By using poetry as a way to communicate her emotions, she opened the door for more women to do the same. To celebrate Women’s History Month, we have taken a look at Plath’s life, struggles with mental health, and brief analysis of one of her most famous poems, ‘Lady Lazarus‘.

And I A Smiling Woman

In 1932, Sylvia Plath was born to a German immigrant professor and his student. When her father passed away in 1940, her family packed up and moved to Massachusetts where her mother was a professor. Plath was able to focus on her studies and had received much recognition for the poetry she had published at the time.

However, things started to take a turn when she began her undergraduate studies. Plath began to descend into severe depression and attempted to take her own life by overdosing on sleeping pills. After electro-shock therapy and recovery, she wrote about her experiences, death, and depression. Plath eventually returned to school and began a tumultuous marriage with poet Ted Hughes.

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Plath’s Published Work

Before she tragically ended her life at the age of 30, Plath had produced 2 published works. The Bell Jar was a fiction novel based on her experiences in recovery after her initial suicide attempt. Plath also published her collection The Colossus and Other Poems.

Any other piece that has been published outside of these two works was done posthumously. Hughes published Ariel, Plath’s book of poetry that she was writing at the end of her life. In 1975, Plath’s mother published Letters Home. They were letters that dated between 1950-1963, revealing the truth around Plath’s relationship with her mother, Hughes, and others.

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Out of the Ash

Any other piece that has been published outside of these two works was done posthumously. Hughes published Ariel, Plath’s book of poetry that she was writing at the end of her life. In 1975, Plath’s mother published Letters Home. They were letters that dated between 1950-1963, revealing the truth around Plath’s relationship with her mother, Hughes, and others.

Aside from death, she also showed a vulnerable yet unashamed look at what women were experiencing. Plath was honest about her struggles with mental health and her suicidal tendencies through her poetry and characters in her novel. In a time when women were pressured to be silent about their mental health and stability, Plath’s relatability was able to shift society’s eyes up to what would be the Modern Woman.

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Analysis of ‘Lady Lazarus’

When Plath wrote Lady Lazarus, which would be published in Ariel posthumously, she had a creative burst of energy. She finished writing it just months before she succeeded to take her own life.

Lady Lazarus

by Sylvia Plath

And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot——
The big strip tease.

poem via Poetry Foundation

In this excerpt, readers already have a grasp of Plath’s honesty and her dissatisfaction with being alive. To portray this, she uses the allusion of the biblical Lazarus, a man that Jesus raised from the dead. In the first stanza, the alliteration using I’s and Y’s create a forced smile when read aloud, alluding that she is expected to be happy.

In the second stanza, Plath alludes to her three prior suicide attempts. The “peanut-crunching crowd’ refers to people that see Plath and her mental health struggles as a spectacle. Plath goes into further detail by saying that they “unwrap [her] hand and foot—/The big strip tease.” People are not genuinely concerned or care for her wellbeing, but rather see her as a form of entertainment.

Sylvia Plath lived a tragic life and was not able to receive the help and treatment she deserved. We continue to let her legacy and poetry live on and tell her story.

Find out about more inspiring poets in our Poetry’s Pioneering Women Series!

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