The Artifice of Honesty
Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”
The name of Sylvia Plath is intrinsically tied to the literary movement of Confessional Poetry. Her poem “Lady Lazarus” is often regarded as the prime example of this genre, as it is “an apparent forecast of Plath’s suicide” (Middlebrook 644) only one year later. But the idea of a ‘confessional’ poetry that directly refers to the poet’s personal experience has lead PlathCriticism astray for many years. Critics “have discussed Plath’s life and work as if they were exactly the same thing,” (Brain 11) and have drawn bizarre conclusions by assuming “that Plath’s writing can be used as a reliable source for diagnosing her mental condition.” (Brain 12). It is obvious that this kind of immediate understanding of Confessional Poetry leads nowhere. As Tracy Brain puts it, in her essay about the dangers of reading Sylvia Plath’s work as an unfiltered outpour of personal experience (“Dangerous Concessions: Sylvia Plath”):
How can we ever hope to distinguish the »extreme« »diction and address« that is prompted by lived events from a vividly imagined drama that is the result of an expertly assumed style? (13).
The answer is: We cannot. Still, one should not altogether ignore the context of the Confessional movement when interpreting Sylvia Plath.
But how can Confessional Poetry be dealt with, without getting caught in the traps and pitfalls of a biographic reading?
This essay will first try to detect the underlying principles of the socalled ‘Confessional Poetry’ and position it within literary history. By revealing some of the influences and conventions of Confessional Poetry it aims to uncover the deceiving strategies of this type of poetry. The subsequent interpretation of Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” will then try to concentrate on the cultural and social context the poem was produce in and examine in which ways Plath used these different contexts as well as the deceiving strategies of Confessional Poetry in general, to create the unique character of the poem.
In his essay “Impersonal Personalism: The Making Of A Confessional Poetic” Steven K. Hoffman tries to situate Confessional Poetry within literary history. He sees the movement firmly rooted in the tradition of Romanticism.
Contemporary confessional poetry is a phenomenon that synthesizes the inclination to personalism and conciousness building of the nineteenth century with the elaborate masking techniques and objectifications of the twentieth. (688)
Just like many romantic writers the Confessional poets placed the “I” in the centre of the text. The texts were once again the poet’s selfexpression and gave room to deal with personal experiences. But in contrast to the great romantic works of Walt Whitman or Ralph Waldo Emerson most of the Confessional poets lacked “the bardic impulse of their forbears.” (Hoffman 690) This can be explained by the rather ‘unpoetic’ topics the Confessionals were concerned with. While the Romantics wrote about the sublimity of nature, their 20th century successors often dealt with family conflicts, madness or sex.
Confessional poetry was, of course, also strongly influenced by modernist writers and the advent of New Criticism. In his essay “Confessional Poetry & the Artifice of Honesty” David Yezzi states that “more than any other school, confessional poetry directly and vociferously opposed the »impersonality« argued for by T.S. Eliot.” Yezzi sees a clear development from the Romantic principles of selfrepresentation and personalism to the modernist ideas of universality and eventually back to the poet’s very intimate selfportrayal in Confessional writing:
The extremism of Emersonian expansiveness was to a great extent tempered in the first half of this century by Eliot’s notion of the escape from personality and emotion. By mid century, however, the poetry associated with the New Criticism began to give way to a wide swing back in the other direction. What poets such as Lowell championed was a poetry based more directly on personal experience.
Rather than seeing Confessionalism as the countermovement to Eliot’s modernist credo Steven K. Hoffman argues that the Confessional writing directly banks on modernist themes and ways of representation. According to him, the modernist tendency “to treat the unpoetic material present […] in modern urban life without the Wordsworthian compulsion to spiritualize the mundane” (690) – a tendency that can, above all, be found in the works of T.S. Eliot – was carried on by the Confessional poets. By no longer highlighting the ‘extraordinary perspective’ of the romantic bardpoet, but rather showing the life and experience of ‘average’ men, “the modern persona [had] become a representative rather than an ideal man” (691). The description of one man’s experience in modernist literature therefore points beyond individual concerns and embraces the problems of society as a whole. This ‘courage for the trivial’ and its representative function can also be found in Confessional writing. Christina Britzolakis quotes M.L. Rosenthal, one of the earliest Confessionalcritics, in her book Sylvia Plath and the Theatre of Mourning:
The private life of the poet himself, especially under stress of psychological crisis, becomes a major theme. Often it is felt at the same time as a symbolic embodiment of national and cultural crisis. (1467)
Just like the suffering protagonist of modernist literature, the confessing speaker of
Confessional Poetry should therefore be understood as a mouthpiece for society as a whole.
According to Steven K. Hoffman, the Confessional movement
is very much a product of its own age, troubled war years – both »hot« and »cold« extending from the late 1930’s […] through the Vietnam era […], a period typified by a deficiency in shared values and manifest threats to the very concept of individuality. (688)
Diane Wood Middlebrook supports this idea in her essay “What Was Confessional Poetry?” She argues that the movement was primarily shaped by the social developments of mid 20th century America. Robert Lowell, W. D. Snodgrass, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, the central figures of the movement, lived under very similar social conditions which eventually formed the foundation for the entire genre.
Their confessional poetry investigates the pressure on the family as an institution regulating middleclass private life, primarily through the agency of the mother. Its principal themes are divorce, sexual infidelity, childhood neglect, and the mental disorders that follow from deep emotional wounds received in early life. (Middlebrook 636)
Confessional poetry is thus not just the expression of one single person’s experience, but stands – as already mentioned – for the problems of American society as a whole. Ostensibly, Confessional poetry might not have been a political movement, as its protagonists merely seemed to circle around their own problems, but the topics they thereby dealt with were of universal significance. The poems “sought to expose the poverty of the ideology of the family that dominated postwar culture and to draw poetic truth from the actual pain given and taken in the context of family life.” (Middlebrook 648)
Another aspect that strongly influenced the creation of Confessional poetry is, what Christina Britzolakis calls “the culture of True Confessions.” (Sylvia Plath and the Theatre of Mourning 147) What is meant by this term is a tendency in the American popular culture of the 1950s that places ‘confessions’ in the focus of public attention. Confessions were ever present in the public mind. They surfaced in journalistic scandals and a widespread interest in Freudian psychoanalysis, as well as in the notorious ‘witchhunts’ of the McCarthy era, when confessions even gained “a powerful political resonance” (150). The public preoccupation with confessions might not only have influenced the poetic production of the Confessional poets, but also provided a large audience for their poetry.
The Artifice of Honesty
The preceding chapters have already made it clear that the term ‘Confessional Poetry’ is rather misleading. Like any other literary product the writings of the Confessionals were never the immediate representation of the poet’s experiences and thoughts.
To assume that the poetic voice is the »naked ego« of the poet himself rather than a carefully constructed aesthetic entity […] is surely to underestimate the considerable artistic talent represented by the confessionals and the degree to which pure invention dominates their work. (Hoffman 694)
Confessional poetry – like any other literary movement – was strongly shaped and governed by different social and historical influences. Contrary to the image the label ‘Confessional’ might evoke, this poetry was not created in the whispering intimacy of a church confessional, where a believer offers his deepest feelings regardless of anything but his own words. The Confessional poets were truly aware of the society they lived in and published to. The intimacy of Confessional poetry is therefore purely artificial. It is a masquerade, a staged performance, feigning sincerity and designed to draw attention. It is a skilfully woven texture that mingles fact with fiction.
In his essay “Confessional Poetry & the Artifice of Honesty” David Yezzi puts it this
What sets [Confessional poems] apart from other poems that incorporate details from life, is their sense of wornonthesleeve selfrevelation and their artful simulation of sincerity. By relying on facts, on »real« situations and relationships, for a poem’s emotional authenticity, the poet makes an artifice of honesty. Confessional poems, in other words, lie like truth.
One of the most impressive examples of this type of poetry that wilfully exploits biographical facts for lyric purposes is Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus.”
The elaborate, multilayered construction of the poem leaves room for numerous different approaches. The following interpretation will however be limited to following the manifold traces of artful composition in the poem that add to the poem’s appearance of “honesty” and “immediacy.”
- Quote paper
- Anne Runkel (Author), 2008, Sylvia Plath’s „Lady Lazarus“. Cultural and social context, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/126751