Fire and Rebirth

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Ladies and Gentlemen, Sylvia Plath is now my favorite poet. The end. She writes in the same style I do: witty and almost on the surface. Her poetry is very, very powerful. Because I have a strong interest in the Holocaust, the last two poems ("Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy") really caught my interest. In the introduction, it says that "Daddy" is a "fictional apostrophe," meaning it's an exaggerated poem about someone else. By far, though, "Lady Lazarus" was my favorite.

In the Bible, Lazarus was a good friend of Jesus who passed away. Jesus rose Lazarus from the dead, however, and all was well. The speaker in Plath's poem is a "Lady Lazarus." She 'rises' again and again, once every decade. Of the entire poem, this part confused me most of all. I know that she says "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." (Stanzas 19-25). I believe that these stanzas are the most important. "Nine times to die" could signify that she has ninety years to live, and each decade she loses a crucial part of herself: time.

"The first time it happened I was ten/ it was an accident" (Stanza 35). I believe that the "accident" she's referring to is actually gaining the knowledge of the passage of time. Also, the "it" she's referring to is death and rebirth all at once... Her innocence died, but she is reborn into adulthood.

"The second time I meant to last it out/ and not come back at all." In stanzas 36-38, the speaker is actually referring to suicide. The rest of the poem, however, talks about the speaker being put on display and being prodded. Perhaps the speaker is implying the pain she went through after her failed attempt at suicide. "For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge" (stanza 57). Who is this charge directed towards? Is this a charge that the speaker herself has to pay?

In the end of the poem, stanzas 81-85 detail someone rising "Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air." I believe that this is symbolic of the speaker being a phoenix of some sort.

**If anyone has ANY idea of what the last stanza means, feel free to let me know. I have no idea.


Brooke Kuehn said:

I agree that Plath is referring to a phoenix in the last stanza with her red hair like the red feathers of a phoenix and her power to resurrect herself. She seems to grow much more powerful by the end of the poem, claiming to have defeated her enemies (perhaps this means her husband). Her growing stronger is almost like her own resurrection. She discusses her depression and suicide attempts throughout the poem, only to be enlightened by her strength and to rise up out of the ashes. In lines 79-81 she seems to be warning both good and evil forces because she too sees herself as powerful and undefeatable.

Josie Rush said:

I would definitely agree with the phoenix metaphor, Jess and Brooke. The "And I eat men like air" line is a bit more obscure. I do have a guess. Plath refers to Herr Doktor and Herr Enemy in lines 65 and 66. In my opinion, these are the men. Also, she mentions coming back to the same "brute, amused shout" of "it's a miracle" each time she is brought back. It's clear she feels that her life (or the saving of her life) is important to them (notice lines 67-69, "I am your opus..."etc). She, however, just keeps dying. She's mastered it, it's her art. Their art, is arguably, life. However, their attempts to instill this in her are as weightless as air. She consumes life so quickly that it is nothing to her. Dying is what she does exceptionally well. What makes the men in Plath's poem? Life-hers, more exactly. What makes Plath? Death. She eats men like air.

JessicaOrlowski Author Profile Page said:

Brooke! Thank you for clarifying. I couldn't quite figure out exactly what she meant when she was referring to both God and Lucifer in the same stanza. How, when she feels invincible, did she kill herself in the same year? This woman is an enigma to me.

JessicaOrlowski Author Profile Page said:

I just had a sort of revelation... back during WWII, the "doktor" was the enemy because of the physical experiments he conducted. Could this mean that the doktor is anyone who probes her body? Also, I then took this to mean that, since doktor and enemy are synonymous, God and Lucifer could also be synonymous. As for how you put the last line, I definitely find your interpretation interesting (and valid).

Kayla Lesko said:

I actually had to read the poems again because I was blown away (in a good way).

I also got the impression that the last few lines meant rising out of the ashes. As for "And I eat men like air," I'm in the dark.

Josie Rush said:

I understood her to be referring to the doctors that saved her when she says "Herr God, Herr Lucifer." The doctor is doing a godlike thing in saving her, what is more godlike than instilling life in the lifeless. However, dying is her art, and by taking that away from her, forcing her to live, the doctors are condemning her to hell. That's my take, anyway.

Carissa Altier said:

I have never read Sylvia Plath, but I'm certainly interested to read more of her work now. She writes some pretty powerful stuff. Brooke and Josie, your interpretations of the last stanza were very insightful. I think both are possible interpretations. However, my own interpretations are leaning more in Josie's direction. I say this because in her autobiography the editor tells the reader that she was depressed and attempted sucicide several times before she successfully killed herself at 30. I think she may have been a bit narcissistic because she doesn't want to just die alone, she wants a theatrical death. She wants her loved ones to suffer. I don't think she feels that she is undefeatable, but I do think that she craves power, and she feels that dying is her "man," which she eats/dominates.

Jessica Orlowski said:


It is quite possible that there is a hint of narcissism and showmanship here. The fact that she refers to her resurrection from death as "The big strip tease" and "They had to call and call/ And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls" (stanza 28/ stanzas 41-42)almost reminds me of flapper girls back in the 20's. Pardon me, but stripping and pearls align with the life of luxury. I believe that there was some sort of enjoyment in death for Plath.

Jessica Orlowski said:

Actually, Carissa, I just looked up an interview with Sylvia Plath on youtube. I was going to write my paper about how her death attempts are for showmanship and are narcissistic. Sylvia herself disputed that claim... She said in an October, 1962 interview that her poems "came immediately out of the sensuous and emotional experiences of my own life. There shouldn't be flat emotion behind poems." Also, when speaking of "Daddy," she said that the poem wasn't about narcissistic experience- there should be something driving poetry.

I also think it may be interesting to know that just about every 3 or 4 sentences, she brings up something about Emotional and Psychological death (Anne Sexton's poetry). She refers to English poetry as "a bit of a straight jacket," and she speaks of asylums quite a bit. Is this obsession morphing into something deeper?

Josie Rush said:

Jessica, could you maybe post the link to that interview? I'd love to watch it.
You know, I have a problem with writers' interviews that claim a poem is meant to be this way, not this way. I think that once a writer writes something and sends it out to the public, it belongs to the readers (you know, copy right laws withstanding). So, for a poet to say "When I wrote this, I had this in mind..." is OK, but that doesn't mean it's the "right" interpretation.
And I personally think all writing has a bit of narcissism in it. Aren't we all declaring "This is what I think, and yeah, it's important enough you need to read it." By writing we're saying our thoughts are significant enough to maybe be preserved in time "forever."

JessicaOrlowski Author Profile Page said:

I suppose you're right about that. I also think that we may never know the true meaning of anything because writers tend to be unreliable to protect themselves (alright, so I ended up using Roberts after all...)

There are 6 parts:

Part 1:
Part 2:
Part 3:
Part 4:
Part 5:
Part 6:

Honestly, this interview (though long) helped me immensely in formulating my thesis. It was so helpful to know the background information about Plath because that tied everything together.

Josie Rush said:

Thanks for the links, Jess. I agree, it's always interesting to know some background of the writer. I find biographical analysis really interesting, though a lot of ppl say it's a waste of time, and I get that (what matters is what the reader gets from the work), but auhtor intention is fascinating, too. I would be really interested to read your paper. I know bits and pieces about Plath, but not enough to write a paper. Good idea.

Josie Rush said:

oh, and good point about writers protecting themselves. i wouldn't go out and say, "narcissism really drove this poem for me" nor would i admit that something i wrote was about a family member i had it out with (i'd want to protect that person, too).
So, what do you think about the power an author has over a work once it's distributed?

JessicaOrlowski Author Profile Page said:

You're welcome. I found it really interesting to know what happened to Plath that drove her to insanity (or if she even was insane). I was originally going to write something about the Narcissism of Plath through her poetry, but that couldn't be supported. So, I formulated another thesis that I'm pretty pumped about.

As for your question about "the power an author has over a work once it's distributed," I believe that "power" cannot be confused with "intent." The author will always have a "power" over a work because those are his or her words and will always be his or her words. However, the author may publish a work with an original intent, but once the work is placed out into the world, they have really no say over the interpretation of the reader.

The most interesting part of this blog, to me, was your idea that her first death was her loss of innocence. I was a bit confused as to what this section could mean, but this makes a lot more sense - thank you!

Also, the line about her having 9 times to die seems very important to me. She doesn't give an infinite number; it's very specific. Yes, she could have written it just because the cat has nine lives and she was saying she can die and be reborn just the same. However, I think she was letting the reader know that an end exists. She's not going to keep dying and coming back. She will eventually be dead for good, so this section is sort of a warning for her eventual death.

Josie Rush said:

Jess, you basically took the words out of my mouth. Once a work is "finished" and distributed to the public, the author intent loses much influence. That's why I have the tendency to question the worth of biographical analysis beyond the point that it's interesting. Don't get me wrong, I love learning about authors' and poets' lives and finding out why they may have written what they wrote...But in the end, I don't think it necessarily matters. If Plath wrote Lady Lazarus right after she attempted suicide (just making this up...random example) is that really as important as a reader who reads this and sees the poem as a symbol of spiritual deaths or a loss of innocence? Definitely not.
Karyssa- Interesting question. The significance of the number 9... I don't have the text right in front of me, so I can't even guess right now, but it's something to think about.

JessicaOrlowski Author Profile Page said:

Karyssa- that's the big thing I wanted to emphasize (and I TRIED to do so in my close reading of this particular poem...). I wanted to show that her death is directly foreshadowed, and was spurred by her lack of innocence. If you lookat the poem, you'll see that all throughout she speaks of a future that involves death. She says in lines 1-3 that "I have done it again./ One year in every ten/ I manage it-" then says in line 21 that "This is number 3." As we all should well know, there is no possible way for a poet to write a poem post-humously. So, this should tell us, as readers, that Plath's "number three" hadn't happened yet, and she was planning it.

I also agree with your "nine lives" comment... She is not infinite. She will only live on through her works.

JessicaOrlowski Author Profile Page said:

Number 9... I don't know if that even has significance beyond the common phrase "a cat has nine lives." However, I do see a connection between the "cat" and the imagery of the poem. Cats were integral symbols during the days of mummies and pharaohs. When I imagined this poem, I imagined our "Lady Lazarus" to be wrapped up like a mummy. Could this be why she brings up a "cat?"

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JessicaOrlowski on Fire and Rebirth: Number 9... I don't know if th
JessicaOrlowski on Fire and Rebirth: Karyssa- that's the big thing
Josie Rush on Fire and Rebirth: Jess, you basically took the w
Karyssa Blair on Fire and Rebirth: The most interesting part of t
JessicaOrlowski on Fire and Rebirth: You're welcome. I found it rea
Josie Rush on Fire and Rebirth: oh, and good point about write
Josie Rush on Fire and Rebirth: Thanks for the links, Jess. I
JessicaOrlowski on Fire and Rebirth: I suppose you're right about t
Josie Rush on Fire and Rebirth: Jessica, could you maybe post
Jessica Orlowski on Fire and Rebirth: Actually, Carissa, I just look