Hear Sylvia Plath Read ‘Lady Lazarus’ on the 50th Anniversary of Her Death

In the ear­ly morn­ing hours of Mon­day, Feb­ru­ary 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath brought food and drink into the bed­room of her two sleep­ing young chil­dren. She opened a win­dow in their room and attached a note with her doc­tor’s name and phone num­ber to a baby car­riage in the hall­way. She then went into the kitchen and sealed it off with tape and wet tow­els. She turned on the gas and put her head into the oven.

It was a sad end­ing for a woman who had strug­gled for much of her life with men­tal ill­ness. She was 30 years old. But with the crit­i­cal and pop­u­lar suc­cess of Ariel, the posthu­mous­ly pub­lished col­lec­tion of poems writ­ten dur­ing the last months of her life, Plath’s sui­cide became one of the most mythol­o­gized events in the his­to­ry of 20th cen­tu­ry let­ters. The grim event of 50 years ago is inex­tri­ca­bly bound up with Plath’s lega­cy as a poet.

In recog­ni­tion of that fact, we mark the anniver­sary with a record­ing Plath made at the BBC stu­dios in Decem­ber, 1962, of one of her most cel­e­brat­ed poems–one she had only recent­ly writ­ten, called “Lady Lazarus.” The ver­sion Plath reads con­tains two lines that were cut from the pub­lished poem. (You can open the text in a new win­dow to read while you lis­ten.) “Lady Lazarus” is a dis­turb­ing poem, with imagery from the Holo­caust graft­ed onto personal–one might say narcissistic–revelations of sui­ci­dal obses­sion. The sin­is­ter, malev­o­lent tone is espe­cial­ly chill­ing when you hear it in Plath’s own voice:

Herr God, Herr Lucifer

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

For more on Plath’s life and her com­pli­cat­ed and con­tentious lit­er­ary lega­cy, and to hear anoth­er of her read­ings, see our Octo­ber 27, 2012 post, “For Sylvia Plath’s 80th Birth­day, Hear Her Read ‘A Birth­day Present.’ ”

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