Sylvia Plath and the Transformation of Elegy As Performed within “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”
In an attempt to understand the poet before her writing, critics such as Robert Lowell and Kathleen Lant have often relegated Sylvia Plath’s poetry to the role of solely “confessional.” However, even when Plath’s poetry gives the illusion of confession and, thus, simplicity, we can still observe the poet’s mastering of form and craft of artifice. Helen Vendler suggests that Plath’s writing only shows true craftsmanship when the personal “I” is thrown out of the poem and is replaced, instead, with the lyrical “I,” the artificial and manipulated persona (57). However, I argue that it is Plath’s ability to balance the personal with the artificial that allows her poetry to be so striking. We see her use of the personal in the raw emotions throughout her poems. However, the artificial, too, is seen, especially when we consider the contrived, prescribed qualities of her work that echo back to traditional forms. Though her poem “Lady Lazarus” has received criticism for its confessional nature and its supposed lack of restraint, I argue that Plath’s poem exhibits restraint in its use of the traditional form of the elegy. Furthermore, though we see her appropriation and transformation of the elegiac form in poems like “Daddy” and even “Little Fugue,” Plath is more importantly able to dismantle the perceived binary between feminine, modern elegies and traditional, patriarchal elegies within “Lady Lazarus.” She accomplishes this act of dismantling through her presentation of an autonomous female persona within a poem that utilizes the patriarchal, traditional form of the elegy. Furthermore, by acknowledging the poem’s grounding in poetic tradition, we are able to expose the poet’s ability to bridge the gap between tradition and modernity.
In order to understand how Plath is utilizing the form of the elegy, we must first examine how the traditional, pastoral elegy has been defined in literary criticism. Although this paper primarily discusses “Lady Lazarus” as an elegy, since there is little to no prior criticism that define the poem as such, I will first examine and deconstruct the ways in which “Daddy” has been considered a modern, female version of an elegy. Finally, I will close my discussion of the elegy form by considering ways in which “Lady Lazarus” is able to work out of the traditional, patriarchal elegy, while still arguing for women’s autonomy.
According to the classic anthology The Making of a Poem, the traditional elegy “is a lament” in which “the grief the poet expresses…is a cultural grief” (167-168). George Norlin suggests that though the elegy “is mainly an expression of despair, it contains also an element of reassurance, of consolation” (309). Norlin offers readers an example from the fifth eclogue of Virgil where two shepherds sing songs. The first expresses sorrow, and the second offers consolation (310). Furthermore, he argues, “the majority of modern elegies describe the blessed-ness of the dead in terms of classical religion and mythology…or mix Pagan imagery with Christian theology” (310). Similarly, Celeste Schenck suggests that the most important convention of the traditional elegy is the “deification of the dead in a process that lifts him out of nature, out of the poem, and out of the successor’s way” (15). In essence both critics suggest that the elegy should elevate the deceased in the images associated with them. However, whereas Norlin suggests that the elegy often contains consolation in the thought that the “dead is not really dead but lives on in another world,” Schenck further considers that the traditional elegy mode usually allows the speaker to mourn the passing of one person, but also celebrate the initiation of a successor; thus, the traditional elegy form is seen grounded in patriarchal and hierarchal structures of society (309).
Norlin further suggests the importance of setting, as most elegies describe “rustic scenes” in which nature shares “in the universal sorrow” at the passing of the subject (297). The emphasis, then, is on poetry as lyrical and expansive, and as able to create a setting. He also mentions the importance of a refrain within the poem (297). Though he does not suggest a reason for the use of a refrain within the elegy, we can speculate that the refrain adds a sense of cohesion and unity to the work, restoring a sense of order that is lost at the passing of the subject. By this definition of purpose, it seems reasonable to consider a thematic refrain, or even a visual motif, as a modern day equivalent to the more traditional refrain. Finally, a last formal quality of the elegy that Norlin considers is the presence of a reproach (302). The inclusion of this element further suggests the sorrow of the speaker, as the reproach is characterized by the speaker verbally assaulting those around them in a further expression of their grief. In all of these characteristics, the form of the elegy is supposed to provide comfort for both those that read the poem and also the person who has written the poem, while maintaining a level of aesthetic value.
With these characteristics in mind, it is a wonder that “Daddy” has been interpreted as an elegy. Though the poem attempts to offer Plath comfort in her attempted exorcism of the harmful men in her life, the poem’s final assertion that the speaker is “through” with her father is less than convincing; the poem, then, fails on two counts in its attempt at consolation. First, the poem does not give closure to the speaker in her attempted purging of the men in her life and, secondly, the poem fails to offer comfort for the reader of the poem, as the speaker’s uncertain closure leaves readers ambivalent as to the future of the speaker.
Furthermore, though the poem offers multiple images of place, the classic, Romantic view of nature is nowhere to be found. In fact, the poem translates the vastness of the ocean into “the freakish Atlantic” (line 11) and the speaker even argues that “[t]he snows of the Tyrol, [and] the clear beer of Vienna/ Are not very pure or true” (emphasis added, 40-41). From these lines, the poem creates an unnatural atmosphere, or a tarnished nature that is especially apparent when we consider the imagery of the Holocaust that is used within the poem. The most striking example of this type of description is found in the image of “a swastika/ So black no sky could squeak through” (46-47). Here, too, the natural world takes on a grotesque quality. Though I will concede that the thematic use of images associated with the Holocaust might serve as a modern-day, cohesive refrain, I still believe that considering the poem as a traditional elegy seems outlandish. The poem’s most obvious difference from the traditional elegy is its failure to express sorrow at the passing of the subject.
In fact, instead of the usual strong lament, “Daddy” presents a persona’s aggression towards a father-figure, which results in labeling the dead as a Nazi, a vampire, and even a “bastard” (80). These traits do not coincide with the deification that Norlin suggests occurs within the traditional elegy. However, Jahan Ramazani articulates within his essay that though “the foremost obstacle to reading Plath’s poems as elegies is probably their harsh ambivalence,” it is this same difference in expected emotion that makes the claiming of the poem as elegy so necessary (1443). The critic argues that this reclamation allows the genre of elegy to expand and include a wider array of voices. The elegy form, then, in Ramazani’s definition, does not have to express sorrow at the passing of a friend, but should express strong emotion, including sorrow, and even anger. In this way, we see that the form of the elegy does not necessarily impart a restriction on the types of feelings that “Daddy” can express and, conversely, Plath’s creation’s inclusion within the genre of elegy allows the definition of the form to expand (1143).
Unfortunately, as argued by Jahan Ramazani, even though “each of Plath’s elegies punishes the mourner less and the father more than its predecessor…the outward anger of her final elegy [“Daddy”] obliquely modulates into an image of self-destruction” (1152). Ramazani, then, ultimately argues that Plath’s use of the elegy form, especially in “Daddy,” is harmful for the poet, as the form encourages an outpouring of grief and anger that results in the blaming of the self and, worse, in the potential annihilation of the self. As Ramazani suggests, “Daddy” results in the ambivalent last line, “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through,” which could be interpreted as “a proud declaration of [the persona’s]…independence” but could also suggest that the persona “is herself through, finished, [and] at the end of her poem and of her life” (1152). If we consider Schenck’s definition of the traditional elegy, we understand that though the poet is responsible for describing and lamenting the death of the subject, the poet is also responsible for, more importantly, offering a successor to take the place of the deceased, which is traditionally the poet herself. In contrast, “Daddy” seems to annihilate both the subject of the poem and the persona of the poem, who would be, traditionally, the potential successor.
So, though accepting “Daddy” as an elegy is important critically for expanding the definition of what emotions can be expressed within the form, it is even more important to include “Lady Lazarus” as such. For, in contrast, “Lady Lazarus” witnesses both the death of its female persona and the rebirth of a better version of that persona who is able to finally sever a connection with the oppressive male figure from “Daddy.” “Lady Lazarus” is an elegy that offers a consolation to the reader and the speaker, as it offers a successor that “Daddy” fails to name. Furthermore, unlike “Daddy,” which diverges from the traditional elegy in both the type of emotions expressed and also in its formal qualities as outlined by both Norlin and Schenck, “Lady Lazarus” is strikingly traditional upon close inspection.
If we agree with Celeste Schenck who suggests that the traditional elegy is “from its inception…a resolutely patriarchal genre…[which] is modelled on archaic initiation rituals of a younger man by an elder” (13), then we cannot help but see a parallel with this description and the movements found within “Lady Lazarus.” The poem does in fact successfully offer readers a successor for the deceased self—the rising phoenix. The poem describes the death of one self so that a new self can rise “[o]ut of the ash” (82). Furthermore, “Lady Lazarus” seems to finally vanquish the male figures that haunt the persona within “Daddy,” as the poem is able to sever ties with the male figure in the speaker’s final assertion: “Beware,/ Beware. //… I eat men like air” (81-84).
As Celeste Schenck suggests, the most important convention of the elegy is the deification of the dead in a process that lifts him out of nature, out of the poem, and out of the successor’s way” (15). In a perverse way, “Lady Lazarus” both performs an elegy for the deceased self, while simultaneously offering a successor in place of the deceased. Whereas the persona who performs the “big strip tease” (29) is said to “turn and burn” (71) until “there is nothing there” (75), we are ultimately left with a red-haired phoenix who rises “out of the ash” (82). This last persona not only lives as successor of the earlier female performer, but also asserts herself as a threat to any man who would dare threaten her being. If we agree with Lynda Bundtzen in her assertion that “Lady Lazarus” is “an allegory about the woman artist’s struggle for autonomy” (33), then we further see the poem as a successful exorcism of the haunting men from “Daddy.”
Even without performing in ways that “Daddy” fails to do, “Lady Lazarus” asserts its categorization as elegy in its own right. Not only does the poem offer consolation, but we see a modern-day version of a refrain in the poem’s use of the number three. The stanzas are arranged in tercets, giving us our first example of the refrain of three. The speaker of the poem also asserts that though she has “nine times to die, // [t]his is Number Three” (21-22). The poet’s decision to capitalize “Three” might even suggest the number’s affiliation with the holy trinity. Again, we see Plath referring back to the traditional qualities of the elegy, here seen in her allusion to Christianity. And, finally, we also see the persona’s fragmented self, organized into objects of three.
The persona first suggests her fragmented nature in the “lampshade” (5), the “paperweight” (7), and the “linen” (9). The poet is especially decadent in her use of images associated with the Holocaust. She then transforms herself into three singular body parts: “[t]he nose,” “the eye pits” and “the full set of teeth” (13). Even here, the persona’s fragmented nature refers back to the traditional blazon, where the female body is praised, though objectified, by the, traditionally, male poet. The persona is next described as her enemy’s “opus”(67), “valuable” (68), and “pure gold baby” (69). Finally, we have the persona’s final objectification of self, which is saturated, once again, in images associated with the Holocaust: she is “a cake of soap” (76), “a wedding ring” (77), and at last “a gold filling” (78). Here, too, the persona keeps to the refrain of three. The refrain is only broken in the final consolatory image of the poem, the phoenix, who is solely identifiable through her “red hair” and her emergence “out of the ash” (82). As Plath breaks from the traditional elegy in her decision to argue for female autonomy in the closing image of the female phoenix as successor of the poem, the female phoenix cannot be contained by the refrain of three. She must stand alone, a “bitch goddess,” as critics will later suggest.
The poem, too, echoes back to the majority of modern elegies in its mixing of “classical religion and mythology” (Norlin 310). Towards the middle of the poem, the persona’s actions echo that of Jesus, as she seems to kneel in an image of supplication. The lines read, “These are my hands/ My knees” (31-32). We also see the subject’s clothing, hair, and blood being sold as relics, like that of Jesus and other saints. Of course, Plath’s use of the elegiac form, here, borders on parodic, as the echoing back to Christianity is perverse. The figure who seems to be Christ-like in one instance performs a strip tease in the next. In this way, we may consider Plath as updating the elegy or, defamiliarizing the form for maximum effect. I would not go so far, though, as to suggest that Plath attempted, within “Lady Lazarus,” to create a feminine elegy, as critics have argued about “Daddy.” The strength of the poem, in fact, is that it is able to work out of the traditional form and offer an untraditional viewpoint.
Plath resurrects the form of elegy, very much like Lady Lazarus rises “[o]ut of the ash” (82). We see “Lady Lazarus” as the poet’s self-elegy where she asserts her decision to rise from the shackles of grief and blame. We observe that though Plath’s poem does not show restraint in its subject matter, as we must contend with her decision to use decadent images of World War II for effect, she does work with the traditional elegy form very closely and, thus, reigns in the overtly emotional content. Though Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” is seen as a perverse elegy that depicts the death of the self, we must not forget the rising image of the poem’s close: the supernatural phoenix that asserts and celebrates her existence.
Bundtzen, Lydia K. Plath’s Incarnations: Woman and the Creative Process. U of Michigan P, 1983.
Norlin, George. “The Conventions of the Pastoral Elegy.” The American Journal of Philology, vol. 32, no. 3, 1911, pp. 294-312.
Plath, Sylvia. “Daddy.” Ariel, Harper Perennial, 1999.
—. “Lady Lazarus.” Ariel, Harper Perennial, 1999.
Ramazani, Jahan. “Daddy, I Have Had to Kill You”: Plath, Rage, and the Modern Elegy.” PMLA, vol. 108, no. 5, 1993, pp. 1142-1156.
Schenck, Celeste. “Feminism and Deconstruction: Reconstructing the Elegy.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. vol. 5, 1986, pp. 13-27.
Strand, Mark, and Eavan Boland. “The Elegy.” The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, W.W. Norton, 2005, pp. 165-168.
Vendler, Helen. Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill. Princeton UP, 2010.