Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Sylvia Plath's Poem "Daddy"


Most absolutely one of my all time favorite poems. She is absolutely amazing here.
I cannot help but mention, however, that the word ‘you’ in the line ‘I have always been scared of you’ should be italicized - as should ‘knew’ in the second to last line. These words were underlined in the typed manuscript of Ariel and Other Poems that Sylvia left on her desk (a facilimile copy of which is available in the restored edition of Ariel - published last year). There are many (myself included) that feel the highlighting of these words is... critical.

The first eight stanzas are about her father, and the last eight are about her husband. And I agree with GG on the concept of choosing a husband who exhibited the same characteristics she disliked in her father. The last line is awesome, too, although I think there’s another meaning behind that too: she killed herself shortly afterward, which makes the statement not so much of a feminine power statement but almost an I-give-up kind of thing. I’m not saying she surrendered here, but she was through dealing with all these recurring themes of her life, with the bad men she lived with. So she was done with them, as she was about to kill herself. Just some more food for thought!


Integral to an appreciation of confessional poetry is an understanding of the persona, or character, that the poet presents in the poem. While a knowledge of Plath’s history may lend itself to the belief that the poem is autobiographical, you have to realise that the emotions conveyed in “Daddy” are also relevant in a much broader context. Trying to relate all references of father and husband to Otto Plath and Ted Hughes is ultimately a futile exercise. “Daddy” contains clever elusions to power and domination, and the inner subconscious lust for destruction, which are as much human characteristics as they are masculine, seen by the fact they are represented by Nazism as well as male characters.

So many of Plath’s poems, like ‘The Applicant’ and ‘Tulips’, contain a message of criticism of society, a feature of modernism, to the extent of rejection of society, in Tulips, and here in Daddy “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.” Not only does the speaker reject her father, but the ideology that he represents. Throughout the poem there are a multitude of contradictions, another feature of Plath’s work. For example, the general theme of intent to be distant FROM the father is explicitly contradicted in the 12th Stanza, where she says: At twenty I tried to die / And get back to you. This comes directly after her labeling him a devil who bit [her] pretty red heart in two. One would have thought that the line should read At twenty I tried to die / And get back at you, the ultimate Medea-like revenge which would have been suited to many of Plath’s speakers. However, it may also be read that the speaker of Daddy is only human, and that she too, possesses these human characteristics of power-lust and inner hatred which she so despises. For this reason she is drawn back to Daddy, and she makes a model of [him].

Another mystifying contradiction is the speaker’s self-image. Through the first nine or so stanzas, the speaker portrays herself as the victim made explicit through numerous references to Jews and the Holocaust. She also mentions Gypsies, another ostracized group, and talks about her fear of Daddy. However she then goes on to talk about her love of the rack and the screw, a certain sense of distorted enjoyment, though it could also be read as being cynical.

One of the most noticeable and evocative features of Plath’s poetry is her use of colour. Her images of black shoe, grey toe, black man, black telephone, and most notably, Daddy’s fat black heart, all serve the purpose of dark, morbid and moulded things. Some are moulded by society “the generic black telephone and the black shoe, which she has lived in like a foot “the shoe has moulded her. Others are used in direct contrast with the other colours of the play “most notably red, of blood, of her heart. Of particular interest is the contrast of Daddy’s fat black heart with the speaker’s own pretty red heart. This contrast supports the speaker’s earlier idea of distancing herself from her father, which ultimately proves futile, as she too is human. Another image put to good use is that of the pure snows of the Tyrol and the clear beer of Vienna, which have been tainted by man’s (and society’s) underlying problems.

So you see, by trying to relate every event, character and idea in a poem to real life references, one can often undermine the value of confessional poetry, whose main feature is the ability to combine real recounts with conceptual or ideological themes


Reading Plath’s poetry is always a gut-wrenching experience, but it’s rewarding, too, in its own way. ‘Graphically macabre, hallucinatory in their imagery, but full of ironic wit, technical brilliance, and tremendous emotional power’, ‘poetry of this order is a murderous art’……..

As a poem it’s astonishingly vivid and powerful: the single, insistent rhyme, the almost hysterical repetitions of phrase, the multiple layers of meaning and metaphor, and above all, the passion driving each and every word - all of these combine to make it an emotional tour-de-force………..

It seems to build up strong hatred aimed at someone. I had similar thoughts about this poem. The Dachau was one of the first gas chambers, if not the first one, opened under Hitler. Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. The Dachau Concentration Camp officially opened on Wednesday, March 22, 1933, six weeks later……..

Sylvia Plath has a tendency to blame others for the life she has received. In the Bell Jar, she emphasizes the longing to be near her father that she feels, while in this poem, after finding herself married to a man supposedly embodying her father’s characteristics, she blames him, as if he could be to blame, even though he had long been dead………..

What is interesting about ‘Daddy’ is that Plath is resentful and bitter towards her father whereas in ‘The Bell Jar’ there is more of a sense that she missed out and in one part wants to start tending his grave to make up for the “years of neglect” to it. She also seems to block her father out; when asked about studying German she describes her “mind shutting like a clam” at the “very sight of those black barbed wire letter” (in reference to a German book). In ‘Daddy’ Plath seems to have gained more agreesive and disturbing feelings towards her father. As other comments have said the poem also appears to be about Ted Hughes - “every women adores a facist”, perhaps Plaths bitterness towards her father only really surfaced after realising that she had married someone like him (Ted Hughes). Therefore, ‘The Bell Jar’ seems to give a more innocent and confused veiw of her father whilst ‘Daddy’ expresses extreme resentment possibly because Plath believes he drove her to marry someone exactly like him………

Actually, if you had any knowledge or love for the art of poetry you would realize that Sylvia Plath was in fact depressed and suicidal..…….

This is a work of a genious and her aggresions toward her father is clearly retaliations of oppression as a child. Now she has married the man that displays these same traits and she is truly angry, for the natural palimpsets (figuratively) truly displace her love for the hobby that she slightly implied. Any poetic lover would realize these implications and would not comment so rudely……….

There are some expression about Foot and Shoe. In the first stanza, there is a phrase black shoe and it means Sylvia’s father and the color black means the death. Of course her father had died when she made this poem. In addition, my image of black is stern, fear, vice. So for thirty years she lived with fear for her father……….

There is an interpretation about black shoe. It says that the adjective “black” suggests the idea of death, and since the shoe is fitting tightly around the foot, one might think of a corpse in a coffin. The speaker thus feels at the same time protected and smothered by her father. According to it, Sylvia felt as if she was protected by her father, but I don’t think so because she wrote like this

So I never could tell where you

Put your foot, your root,

I never could talk to you.

From this part, we can image she was alone and he stand very far from her, he was not same language and race as Sylvia. We can also image that she wanted to communicate with him from the next part.

But they pulled me out of the sack,

And they stuck me together with glue.

Me and sack can replace with foot and shoe and she wanted to be in the sack or shoe but she must have been out. So I thought her real feelings was to be with her father and in this poem she wanted to say that she wanted to know more about her father when he had lived……..

This poem is described about the relationship between Plath and her father. According to her biography, he died when she was 8. And he was a German immigrant and black man. In this poem, we can read her love and hate for him. Especially “I used to pray to recover you.” is described about her love. As you know, he died when she was little, so she couldn’t remember him fully. Therefore she had interest about him needlessly. In addition, there are some German words that are his language. That shows familiarity for him. And why did she use “German tongue” instead of “German language”? I think this expresses another aspect of her love. It is something sexual. On the other hand, “Daddy, I have had to kill you.” is described about hate. I think because he died so early, she hates. In this poem, she used black a lot. Black has bad images and represents hate at this time.

She mentions about not only her father, but also her husband. It was the time she divorce that this poem was published. She expresses her husband for to a vampire. And she wrote that he “drank my blood for a year, /Seven years, if you want to know.” A year means the time he was seeing another woman having an affair, and seven years means the time their marriage.

Plath’s Passion for Colours

There are a lot of colors in this poem. I think she expresses her feelings by using various colors.

For example, this poem is written in ambivalence of love and disgust. I think Plath expresses them by using colors.

And a head in the freakish Atlantic

Where it pours bean green over blue

And your Aryan eye, bright blue

In these lines, Plath expresses love for her father by using blue and green. I think “a head in the freakish Atlantic” represents her father.

Any more, black shoe

Ghastly statue with one gray toe

So black no sky could squeak through.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,

A man in black with a Meinkampf look

The black telephone’s off at the root,

In these lines, Plath expresses disgust against her father and her husband by using black and grey. I can feel she hates them by the image of black.

For thirty years, poor and white

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna

She expresses herself by the image of white. I think she wants to say that she is colorless and weak, so she is killed like Jews. In addition, I think, Plath contrasts this white image about Plath with black image about her father and her husband.

In conclusion, I think Plath extends her world in poem by using various images of colors.

Hatred and Suicide

‘Daddy’ is Plath’s most vivid poem and it truly represents the tormented soul that she was. The other comments that state that the poem is first about her father and then about her husband are true. Her references to her father being a Nazi, or ‘panzer man’ are maybe literal, but more likely represent him as an evil man. He was evil in her eyes because he died, and in doing so created a daughter that felt forced to seek out a husband just like him in order to fill her void of not having a father. She refers to herself as a Jew because it is the most vivid representation of hatred imagineable-the hatred a Jew would feel towards a Nazi.

I have studied this poem greatly because the words stick in my head. Plath killed herself shortly after she wrote this poem. In fact, she unsuccessfully tried to kill herself before she wrote it, and resented the fact that she did not succeed. She blamed her depression on her father for so long that she even blamed her father for the fact that she was saved from death-”And they stuck me together with glue” After her attempt failed, she decided she was going to do it again, but this time succeed in dying. She was not only going to kill herself because she hated her father for dying, but also because she hated him for forcing her to marry a man like him in order to feel a connection to her dead father. Her husband hurt her just as her father did-”ripped her pretty red heart in two.” She refers to her husband, Ted Hughes, as a vampire who sucked her blood for seven years. Now she decides that she’s done with life and she is going to die. She is telling her dead father about her plan-”Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I’m through”

“Daddy” is a truly haunting poem because it basically explains Sylvia Plath’s descent into depression and then suicide.


(a) Background

Written in October 1962, Daddy was one of several poems (including “Lady Lazarus”) that Sylvia Plath recorded for BBC on October 30,1962. It was posthumously collected in Ariel.

Daddy is the Daddy of them all—it is by far Sylvia Plath’s most famous and popular poem. It is Daddy that first made and has subsequently sustained, as much as any other of Plath’s poems, her literary reputation. George Steiner, literary and culture critic of eminence, has compared Plath’s poem to Pablo Picasso’s graphic painting “Guernica”, in which distorted and mutilated bodies in a gray-black canvas, are barely contained within the painter’s space in what is a protest against the barbaric aerial bombing, in 1937, of the Spanish/Basque village of Guernica, by General Franco’s fascists.

The extreme left and extreme right edge of this landmark painting shows two women—one at each edge—throwing up their face and hands while in a contorted body position but also in a frozen, silent gesture—a “voiceless” shriek, forming, in the work’s totality, “a chorus of two shrieking women.” Incidentally, Sylvia Plath herself was a keen student of paintings; in fact, she was commissioned, by a New York art magazine, Art News, to write poem-commentaries (somewhat after the manner of W.H. Auden’s, ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’ in which he had mused on two paintings—including The Fall of Icarus—by Peter Brueghel, hanging in Brussels museum). By March 1958, Plath had written some eight poem-commentaries, about which she wrote to her mother:

These are easily the best poems I’ve written and open up a new material and a new voice. I’ve discovered my deepest source of inspiration, which is art: the art of primitives like [the French] Henri Rousseau. [Paul] Gauguin, [the German] Paul Klee, and [the Italian] De Chirico.

She might have added the name of the Russian-French painter, Marc Chagall, to that list; Chagall, like Paul Klee, is “literary and fantastic, satiric and ironic in an unembittered way. And both painters are personal, introspective and imaginative artists occupied with interior images where attitudes and states of mind rephrased by memory retreat from the dull facts of the visual world.” In de Chirico, too, time itself is a constitutive element— “not” a visual but a visionary time of memory...”

In Daddy, too, time may be said to be, “not a visual but a visionary time of memory...”. It is a Faulknerian concern with “frozen time”, of memory cathected to the past and its burden; the shadow of the past looming large on the “present” and foreclosing the future. “The present is not; it becomes. Everything was!

In Daddy, the tone is “primitive”, “naive”, and also close to the nursery-rhyme. Both the personal and collective—this later, penetrated by the poet’s “Germanic” inheritance and the burdens thereof—memories are invoked in the poem in order to enact and perform a psychodrama. As Plath herself said, Daddy is “spoken by a girl with an Electra Complex”.

Moreover the “splashes” and “dabs” of colour in her poems, “an explosion” (“Tulips”) of red predominating, with golden, blue, blue-green, (acquamarine or turqouise), black and white also present, make her a “painterly” poet.

(b) The Poem

George Steiner says of Daddy:

In Daddy she [Plath] wrote one of the very few poems I know in any language to come near the last horror. It achieves the classic act of generalization, translating a private, obviously intolerable hurt into a code of plain statement, of instantaneously public images [primarily of the Holocaust] which concern us all. It is the “Guernica” of modern poetry. And it is both histrionic and, in some ways “arty”, as is Picasso’s outcry.

In a scrupulous, carefully-weighted judgment, Steiner goes on to wonder whether “these final poems [“Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy”] [are] entirely legitimate?” He cautiously adds: “In what sense does anyone, himself uninvolved and long after the event, commit a subtle larceny when he invokes the echoes and trappings of the Holocaust and appropriates an enormity of ready emotion to his own private design”?

Is Sylvia Plath, especially in Daddy and “Lady Lazarus”, really guilty of “ripping off the Holocaust, of misappropriation—expropriation—of someone else’s abject history of collective and undeserved suffering, in order “to enlarge upon the personal plight, give meaning to the personal outcry, by fancying the girl as a victim of a Nazi Father? In what way does a girl, overcome by “Electra Complex”, break out of “a kind of shut box and mirror-looking narcissistic experience”, for her to proceed to relate to “such things as Hiroshima and Dachau, and so on”? Plath’s own response, in anticipation of Steiner’s and Howe’s criticism, is to imagine the girl with an “Electra Complex”:

Her case is complicated by the fact that her father was also a Nazi and her mother possibly part Jewish. In the daughter the two strains marry and paralyse each other—she has to act out the awful allegory once over before she is free of it.

There is nothing to prevent an intelligent and articulate girl to see her family history in the larger context of contemporary history, culture and society.

For, if, as T.S. Eliot suggests, “a thought...(is) an experience; it modifies a poet’s sensibility”, then it follows that

When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming now wholes.

While Steiner may be right in pointing out that Sylvia Plath was herself “uninvolved”, and Daddy was written “long after the event”, he cannot simultaneously argue that Plath’s poem translates a private hurt into “instantaneously public images which concern us all.” There are enough books on the Holocaust—including actual eye-witness accounts—for Plath to have responded to and empathised, or identified, with the victims of the Holocaust. In any event, the girl’s situation in the poem, as imagined and rendered by Plath, is its own justification for Plath to invoke memories of the Holocaust. In the process, Plath imposes order on her own experience, which might otherwise have remained unarticulated, “chaotic, irregular (or) fragmentary”. Similarly, Howe may be guilty of reading Plath’s poems in terms of preconceived ideas—such as, for instance, that Daddy and “Lady Lazarus” are “hot”, personal, subjective, “confessional” poems which only render the poet’s “gut-feeling”, without being necessarily informed by any intellectual or intelligent awareness of her world. However, what is sauce for T.S. Eliot should be ditto for Plath, unless, of course, Howe is a male chauvinist who should want to separate the goose from the gander.

Perhaps Howe was upset by a “new” quality, in Daddy and “Lady Lazarus”, their “commune-al”, performative aspect that related these poems, in the post-1968 scene of student revolt (predominantly against the Vietnam War), with pop-concerts as public performances, such as Woodstock.

For perhaps the most striking feature of Daddy is its communicated sense of a new freedom won, a freedom to present a serious poem as a performative—and therefore, “collective” or at least popular— event to be spoken out loudly. There are “jazz” and “expressionist” precedents for Daddy in poems such as Vachel Lindsay’s “Congo”, which is to be publicly recited, and contains celebrations of the popular American culture in its revolutionary sound-effects. (“Lady Lazarus” too celebrates the Negro Sermons, Cakewalk, ragtime and the black-face routines as used in the fairground atmosphere.)

Daddy, then, is a performative, rather than a “private” poem. Its thumping opening lines are almost reminiscent of Bebop Jazz, which has subtle and complex rhythms and challenging harmonic sequences:

You do not do, you do not do,

Any more, black shoe...

The “u”, or “oo”, sound, first “stated”, or introduced, here in “you” “do” and “shoe”, becomes, in the poem’s harmonic sequencing and progression, “riff, phonic motif or vamp. More and more rhymes, or end-words, in Daddy form a sort of rhythmic repetition or “riffs” (refrains). Thus, “you” “do” and “shoe” of the poem’s opening lines are echoed, or repeated, as sound-effects, throughout the poem in words like “Achoo” (an interesting modulation), “blue”, the German word du (by repeating and recalling the English address, “you”), “two”, and the key word, “Jew” (repeated, in a melodic reiteration, four times in two stanzas (stanzas no. 7 and 8), “true” “glue” “through” and, somewhat in an improvisatory, Jazzy, vein, “gobbledegoo”.

This melodic repetition of the poem’s key “motifs” is impressive enough in that it gives Daddy a highly articualte and ordered musical pattern. However, there is an even more complex echoing or “vamp-ing”, through repetition-in-variation, of the same sound in other key refrains in the poem; words like “you” and “shoe” relate, in the repetition of “u”, or “oo”, sound, also with different kinds of syncopation; i.e., words like “foot” “root” “brute” “look”, for instance. Curiously, all these second set of words—”foot” “root”, “brute”, “who”, “look”, and “screw” form a discrete cluster and although they do necessarily interact with other sound refrains like you, two, shoe, and Achoo, in no manner do they relate to a more positive congeries of words in the poem—words like “Jew”, “blue”, “true”, “through” and, perhaps, “glue”. Even phonetically, therefore, the poem Daddy is polarised along two different sound-axes, scales of values.

In any event, its musical organisation and performative—Steiner calls it histrionic—quality makes Daddy a tour deforce, a superb example of the control and skill deployed by the poet in the service of art. In Daddy, the artist who “suffered” is not the same as the one who “created” the poem; this poem transcends its immediate and intimate experience and transforms/transfigures it into something else: “these are pearls that were his eyes”, to recall Ariel’s song from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Daddy transforms “schizo” into “scherzo”.

However, the craft and technique of a poem like Daddy cannot be separated from its content. In fact it is the matter, the content of the poem, that shapes and organises the manner, technique, in Daddy. Thus, the “schizophrenia”, or at least ambivalence, in the speaker’s attitude towards her father enables the poet to organise Daddy along two separate phonic scales: a positive and a negative value.

In its opening lines, “you do not do, you do not do”, the poem invokes those cultural or social injunctions or prescriptions against which the conduct or behaviour of the persons in the poem is measured, at both the individual and the social levels. (One immediate connection between these opening lines and the rest of the poem is anticipative as well as ironic: the girl, now grown up, in stanza 16, says “And I said, ‘I do, I do’ “, probably at the socio-cultural event of her marriage service, which affirmation then brings into her life, “A man in black with Meinkempf look/And a love of the rack and the screw”.) These opening words in the poem would thus appear to have been spoken by a very young girl repeating a catechism or set instructions, based, in part, on Deuteronomy or the Ten Commandments (“Thou shalt not...”). Those injunctions and instructions no longer seem to hold in the light of subsequent experience (“...you do not do,/Any more,...). For thirty years the girl has abided by the Mosaic Law, bootlesly it would appear, for she is, perhaps as a result of the inhibitions, culturally and socially imposed upon, still “poor and white”. (“Poor white trash” in the Southern, “Bible Belt”, states of America have, at least since the 17th century, formed frequently freakish, grotesque or crazed hardcore support for religious fundamentalism, as shown, for instance, in the novels and stories of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty and also Carson McCullers.)

For long “penned in” and “kept honest”, on the straight and narrow, by the received and conventional wisdom of the Mosaic Law, which is also the Law of the Father (patriarchy), the girl now announces, in the first line of stanza 2; “Daddy I have had to kill you” (Daddy, the diminutive form of “dad” is, of course, a childish alternative to “father”.) Now thirty, the girl finds that the “shoe” (an apt Freudian symbol, especially in dreams, of feminity) will no longer fit, that “you” (that is, the “shoe”) “do not do/Any more”. She will no longer emulate the old woman who lived in the shoe of Dr. Forster, or be someone like “Young Miss Muffet/Who lived in a Tuffet”, and was terrified by the spider (as the nursery-rhyme goes).

Those comforting, but also prescriptive and limiting, certainties of childhood (contained by the symbolic world-order established by the Fairy Tale, the bed-time story of the kind Aurelia Plath narrated, or the nursery-rhyme), imaged in the poem as a stuffy, dark and smelly but still cosy “shoe”, will no longer do. Curiously, Sylvia Plath is here perhaps thinking back to the last days of her father, whose one leg had to be amputated to check and prevent the spread of gangrene in his body during his last illness, due to embolism. This autobiographical detail from Plath’s life here provides her with an imaginative opportunity to find an apt symbol (of the “shoe”) for her childhood and early-youth inhibitions. Inhibited and introspective, the child Sylvia Plath would have “barely dare(d) to breathe or Achoo”. (In retrospect, however, the poet might have seen the funny side of things and so presented the dilemma of the speaker-girl, who recalls her early years of self-effacement in the choppy and comic rhythm of “light verse”.) A word like “Achoo” (onomaetopic for “sneezing”), introduced here, sets up a phonic context for the poet to introduce later melodic variations, mostly in German, like “ach” (meaning “ah!”), ich (repeated four times in stanza 6, as if to parody the repetition, also four times, in stanzas 7 and 8, of the word “Jew”), which, in turn, are echoed in place-names of some Nazi concentration camps like Auschwitz and Dachau, as well as the English word “Chuffing” (Stanza 7). Small wonder that the speaker in Daddy is uncomfortable with her father’s tongue (German):

I never could talk


I could hardly speak.

In a marvellous Surreal image (recalling Salvador Dali, Robert Desnos, Yves Tanguy and Rene Magueritte) Plath creatively juxtaposes—in chance, hasard, or aleatory association—a “dismembered” tongue, caught—”stuck” (like “glue”, later evoked in stanza 13)—in a “barb-wire snare”. This “nightmarish” image (the Surealists drew heavily for inspiration on Freudian oneirology, dream-work) suggests a multiple context. It recalls, at once, a childish doodle (something the “primitive” painters and also Paul Klee and Marc Chagall specialized in), the Surrealist Rene Magueritte’s painting of a shoe with live human toes startlingly poking out, “sticking” out, at the toe (this painting probably provides one specific inspiration for Daddy), and the errie Medieval paintings of the Dutch fantasist Hieronymus Bosch. (1450-1516) Again, it was the “tongue-tied” European Jews—mostly from Eastern Europe—who collectively went to their silent death during the Holocaust in the 1940s. Daddy is “arty” (as George Steiner suggests) in all these—and, perhaps, many more—senses.

It is also, as George Steiner again suggests, “histrionic”. There is some comic, objective-ized self-dramatisation in lines like:

...black shoe



And again in:

Daddy, I have had to kill you.

which quickly modulates, in mock-despair, to:

You died before I had time—

This assertion of mock frustration again quickly modulates into the pathos of:

In the waters off beautiful Nauset.

I used to pray to recover you.

The bootless prayer of a young, shy, withdrawn girl relates back to the religious context of, perhaps, a repressed childhood (“I have lived like a foot” for thirty years in a “black shoe”) hinted at in the poem’s beginning. The Atlantic waters, “off beautiful Nauset”, perhaps recalls Sylvia Plath’s early childhood at Point Shirley, Massachusetts, where she spent a lot of time on her maternal grand-parents’s property, the beach that was so badly damaged on September 21, 1938, when a freak storm on the Atlantic hit the Schober property. (However, the musical Indian name “Nauset” might refer to Narragansett, an inlet of Atlantic in Eastern Rhode Island.)

The tone soon changes into the factual, now mixed with family lore and hearsay, as the speaker recalls her own family history. Her father, Otto Plath, had migrated with his Lutheran parents from Grabow in Poland when he was 15 years old. Intriguingly, the father’s death (imagined as if by drowning in the Atlantic and also possibly fantasized as suicide in Plath’s poem “Suicide off the Egg Rock”) precedes, in the daughter’s memory and recall, his early life in Poland, in what is a curious shuffling of chronology. (There is also a pun on the word “tongue” here, “tongue” meaning both language and “the usually movable organ in the mouth of human beings”) The father, Otto, is still seen as a Colossus whose “Ghastly statue with one gray toe/Big as a Frisco seal”, recalls the gigantic figure of “The Colossus” as well as, somewhat hyperbolically, a comically big toe (as befitting Otto Plath’s mythic status in that family’s history). Perhaps, one of Otto Plath’s toes had swollen, become elephantine, due to spreading gangrene, which had necessitated the amputation of one of his legs, the resultant loss of limb leaving an uninhabited shoe or boot in which the young girl had remained hidden, in Plath’s fantasy here. (Similarly, in “The Colossus”, the speaker is seen as hiding, at night, “in the cornucopia of your [the father’s] left ear, out of the wind/counting the red stars and those of plum colour”; also, the “sun rises under the pillar of your [the father’s] tongue in “The Colossus”, again figured there as sculptured, a massive, monolithic, foreign “tongue”). Again, the important point here is for Plath to have mythologised her father’s gangrened toe as “one grey toe/Big as a Frisco [San Francisco] seal”, and thus distanced it sufficiently, at least in the poem, to have seen the tumid toe (an obvious phallic image) objectively, through hyperbole, resulting in comedy. [In “The Colossus”, again, the various, “conflicting” voices emanating from the Fallen Idol are comically, hyperbolically as well as colloquially, dramatised in mock-despair: “It’s worse than a barnyard”.)

It is possible, then, that the daughter, when she hyperbolically, and in a self-dramatising way, boasts “Daddy I have had to kill you”, the “killing” only occurs through her “tongue”, language, poem, now that she is liberated: freed from the suffocating and claustrophobic “shoe”, the religious-cultural-academic and social training associated with patriarchy, the Law of the Father. The father’s tongue might have silenced her (“the tongue stuck in my jaw/It stuck in a barb-wire snare”) perhaps turned her into a “victim”, like the Jews exterminated during the Holocaust:

An engine,...


…well be a Jew.

The identification here with the Jew is imaginary, and within the poem, not merely a subjective “enlarge(ment) upon the personal plight”, to “give meaning to the personal outcry”.

In part, of course, the family history, reimagined in Daddy, sees this “tongue” as “mother-tongue”, the language of her mother’s Austrian ancestors. Somewhere in the “closet” is a Gypsy ancestress—the Gypsies, like the Jews, were shipped off to concentration camps by the Nazis and duly gassed to death in droves. Like the Jews, the Gypsies too had “weird luck”, and although they were into telling the future by reading Tarot cards, the Gypsies could not foresee their own mostly collective end in the Holocaust.

The child Sylvia Plath was definitely in awe of her father, a man of commanding presence (and therefore easy to identify with the militarism of the Nazis), someone whom his wife, Aurelia (21 years younger than him), adored and slaved for. Aurelia Schober Plath had sacrificed her own teaching job to work as Otto’s research assistant while he was first completing his dissertation for Ph.D and then rewriting it as Bumble Bees and their Ways (1934). After Sylvia Plath was born on October 27, 1932 (Otto and Aurelia were married ten months earlier, in January 1932) Otto had announced: “All I want in life from now on is a son bora two and a half years to the day”. Mrs. Plath duly obliged and a son, Warren, was born on April 27, 1935. Professor Plath’s colleagues toasted him as “The Man who gets what he wants, when he wants it”.

Small wonder, then, that Sylvia Plath, when yet a child, perhaps thought that her father, Professor Plath, was God. Freud, in The Future of an Illusion, of course suggests that God has been historically, culturally extrapolated from the experience that very young children have of their father as an omnipotent (if not always omniscient or omnipresent) figure.

The daughter-speaker, who lived in a shoe and was “scared of you” (Daddy), “barely daring, to breathe or Achoo”, is, perhaps, seen here as a replica, alter-ego, of the mother. The daughter-speaker’s cathexis, directed towards the father, is here simultaneously seen now as a form of regression, self-effacement and withdrawal from life, resulting in a masochistic form of remembrance, anaclisis and catatonia. It is towards overcoming these psycho-social aspects of her life that the daughter-speaker in the poem would “kill” her memory-haunted, Electra-like, past and move on. It is psychically imperative that the daughter-speaker “kill” the father in her, for this may be the only way of being “through” (finish with), once and for all, with “the brute/Brute heart of you”, i.e., the father within. For she cannot “kill” him literally; he is already dead, “you died before I had time—” (“Time”, however, not for literally “killing” her father but, perhaps, more personally and pathetically, to actually have had him “live” longer, so that she might actually have lived with and loved him. Ironically, however, to live with—or under—the father for a longer period and “suffering”, under his “boot”, might have encouraged more masochism.)

There is another father—this time, not a biological, but a literary one—William Butler Yeats, who is “echoed”, by being “remembered”, in the “brutal” lines above, where Plath suggests, “Every woman adores a Fascist...” In “A Prayer For My Daughter”, Yeats’s persona had itemised precisely what he expected his daughter to be, and precisely what she should not be. For instance, she should not be an “opinionated” or “political” woman of the kind Maud Gonne had revealed herself to be, not only by identifying with the Irish liberation movement but also by marrying General MacBride:

Helen, being chosen, found life flat and dull

And later had much trouble from a fool

While that great Queen, that rose out of the spray.

Being fatherless could have her way

Yet chose a bandy-legged smith for man.

It’s certain that fine women eat

A crazy salad with their meat

Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.

It is, perhaps, “through” a “memory” of Yeats’s lines above, that a point of transition occurs in Daddy. Now that the father’s “masculine” and Nazi ways have been enumerated, the speaker-daughter needs just one more memory-laden stanza (stanza 11) to reemphasize the fact that she is now “through” with him. This time the father is recalled through what is a “distancing” photo’, or picture. (Photo’s are mechanical devices, reproductions of “frozen” time, always already distanced from immediate living, a fact further underlined by their normally being placed in “frames” or albums, only to be periodically pulled out and actually, really, looked at, in a moment of nostalgia or onrush of sentiment.) This “nostalgic” memory is also “distancing” in yet another way: the dead father is seen now as a “cloven-chinned”, not cloven-footed devil, a figure that melds with, segues, in stanzas 15 and 16, into the vampire, Dracula, (Dracula is the drinker of people’s blood so that he might live, being neither dead nor alive himself, but undead). Yet he is a “devil”, only in the emotional and verbal representation of him in Daddy. The photo’ that the girl resorts here to, as a memory-aid, to recall (and repossess?) the father is non-committaly factual, as was in some ways the “Mirror” in Plath’s poem of that name—”exact”, carrying no preconceptions, (something the daughter-speaker in Daddy apparently has). The photo’ perhaps, like the Mirror, presents whatever is “just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike”, and it is perhaps, again like the Mirror, “not cruel, only truthful”. It is, perhaps, the daughter in Daddy who is both cruel and “truthful” (hers is perhaps an emotional, rather than factual, “truth”). Still, the daughter-speaker does need the photo’, if for no other reason then only to establish that the man had really existed once, as man, not merely as a figure in the daughter’s private mythology or mythomania. In this context, it may be appropriate to quote Walter Benjamin: “The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity”. The first three lines in stanza 11, therefore, are factual and “non-commital”:

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,

In the picture I have of you...

It is in the next three lines of this quintuplet that we have the daughter-speaker’s reaction to her father’s photo’; her “hysteric” (emotional) reaction is perhaps misted now, by “love or dislike”:

A cleft...


…the black man who...

Once again the “heat” and “venom” present, in the poem, surging, powerful negative feelings, are never allowed by Plath to get out of hand. The artful “distancing” of the “hot” and “venomous” emotion here, by stitching together a dense texture that is rich in verbal echoes and associations from elsewhere in the poem, enables Plath to “control” her materials. For instance, negatives from the poem’s beginning: “no”, “no”, “not” in the second line above, emotionally-saturated words like “black” (“man” here, but “shoe” in the first stanza) and so on, artfully contain and express the daughter-speaker’s own cleft, ambivalent, “attitude” in the poem towards her father. A “black” man, in Western iconography, is usually associated with the devil. Further the figure of the “black” devil also anticipates the allusion, in stanzas 15 and 16, to Count Dracula, the black-clad owner of Castle Dracula, situated somewhere in the Carpathian Mountains in Bram Stoker’s Gothic novel, Dracula (1897). Dracula is, of course, the archetypal Vampyr, someone who lives by sucking the blood of others (in Dracula, the novel, his chosen victims are pretty women mostly) so that he may live. Small wonder, then, that the “black man”, in Daddy, has “cleft” the daughter-speaker’s heart: “Bit my pretty heart in two”.

At this precise point in the poem, a “cross-over” takes place. The “black” devil here merges with, becomes one with, the “black man” who “Bit my pretty heart in two”. Ted Hughes, tall, handsome and clad in black (shades of Dracula) leather-jackets so popular in the post-James-Dean America and Western Europe, “displaces”, or “replaces”, in a way, the father, only to “merge”, simultaneously, with the latter. In this context, it might be appropriate to refer to Phyllis Chestler, who says:

As opposed to marrying our fathers, we marry men like our fathers, men who are older than us [and] have more money [and] more power [and are taller]

Although Sylvia Plath was a “tall, bright girl” herself, Ted Hughes was “taller” physically, just as his literary reputation often tended to overshadow hers. Linda Wagner-Martin’s narrative, in Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life, quite graphically brings out how “scared”, too, Sylvia Plath was of Ted Hughes after his going away with Asia Wevill and the Hughes couple’s separation in late 1962. In a letter dated September 24, 1962, to her mother Aurelia, Sylvia Plath laments the fact that Hughes was also “...spending. I now find on checking our bank statements, checks he never entered in the book in addition to the large sum listed, plus his insistence on coming home about once a week and making life v utter hell and destroying my work plus living off my novel [The Bell Jar] grant. He is not only infantile, but dangerously destructive, and I feel both the children and I need protection from him, for now and forever”.

At one time, Plath writes, “Ted just gloats...laughs at me, insults me, says my luck is over”. It was Sylvia Plath’s own “weird luck”, notwithstanding her interest in “my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack” (Daddy, stanza 8), to draw “Life’s Empty Pack”, not once but twice over. Little wonder, then, that the figure “two” occurs again and again in Daddy ! Again, the “two” faces of Death in “Death & Co.” are seen as business (“firm”) partners—images of “business” and “selling” recur in poems like, among others, “The Applicant”, “Lady Lazarus”—the poems Plath wrote after her separation from (and rows with) Ted Hughes in the Living Month of October 1962. It has been suggested by some critics that the two figures in “Death & Co.” might represent Plath’s memories of Otto Plath and Ted Hughes. In any event, the masochism evident in the lines beginning: “Every woman adores a Fascist,...” (Daddy, stanza 10) perhaps carries a burden from Plath’s own experience of her marriage breaking down. (Daddy was written on October 12, 1962, after Plath’s painful separation from Ted Hughes.)

There is another memory of Plath’s personal life which is evoked immediately afterwards:

was ten...


…bones would do.

In actual life, Sylvia Plath would have been eight, going on nine, when Otto Plath passed away, on November 2,1940, six days after the girl Sylvia would have “celebrated” (if that were possible in the gloomy atmosphere at the Plaths’s home at the time) her eighth birthday. Is the “poetic licence” here claimed by Plath in order to “distance” the daughter-speaker in the poem from her own personal experience? Perhaps not, for in the very next line, after tersely relating her father’s death to a landmark—her age of ten—the speaker refers to a suicide bid made by her when she was twenty, in 1953. As with “Lady Lazarus”, some kind of a mystic connection is made here between “decades” and “suicide attempts”. However, what is most impressive here is the complete simplicity of narration of these two death-related events, asyndetically related in the poem. The omission of conjunction here (asyndeton) contributes towards the austere simplicity of the narration and also perhaps avoids any sentimentality which might have arisen from a forced or emotional connection between the two death-related events. False rhetoric or bombast is scrupulously eschewed to achieve a tone of tragic dignity (if not grandeur). Moreover, the father and daughter are irrevocably, irreparably, and forever separated in his death:

And get back, back, back to you I thought even the bones would do.

The daughter-speaker, in 1953, cannot get back, back back (the repetition, three times here, a familiar Plath trick, conveys the girl’s sense of frustration, dire need) to the father who was buried, “back” in 1940. Significantly, it is “they” (in Plath nearly always a short-hand for “enemies”) who had buried him; in an undertone yet also grotesquely reminiscent of the marriage service, death had indeed parted, forever the father and daughter. The daughter-speaker is, in this sense, a modern Electra. However, any possibility of a sentimental conclusion here is “brutally” scotched by the opposite connotation, potentially already present in the phrase “get back”, which means, at once, “to come back; return”, “to recover, regain” and “to be revenged”. The daughter-speaker is doubly thwarted in her resolve, “Dad, I have had to kill you”: by time, and by socio-cultural imperatives of the “incest taboo”. Except in memory, she cannot get “back, back, back”, to the dead father, no matter how desperately she tries to do so. And her love-hate (ambivalence) towards the dead father (who, by dying prematurely, had perhaps left the daughter “unloved” “unhonoured” and “unprotected”) gives an electric charge to her Electra-speak. After the girl’s failed suicide bid at twenty, “they” (in “Lady Lazarus”, these are addressed as “Herr Doktor”, and “Herr Lucifer”) had tried to glue and patch up the “broken doll” girl.

But they pulled me out of the sacks,

And they stuck me together with glue.

The same story of a suicide bid, followed by a medical “mending”, is narrated in “Lady Lazarus” and The Bell Jar and, in a more cryptic manner, in “The Stones”, poem number seven in Poem for a Birthday.

Now that she has realised there is no getting “back, back, back” to the father, the girl choses (oddly recalling Yeats’s description of Helen as well as Maud Gaunne in “A Prayer for My Daughter”), in fact makes a model of the father, which is to say, “a standard or example for imitation or comparison”, or even “a representation, generally in miniature, to show the structure or serve as a copy of something”. Since death has irrevocably parted father and daughter, she “chooses”, by her incantation at the marriage-service, “I do, I do”, a man in black with Meinkampflook. “A man in black”, here in Stanza 13, recalls “the black man” of stanza 11; on the other hand, Hitler’s autobiography, the book that “made” him, Meinkampf ‘(in German, meaning “My Struggles”) is invoked here to relate “a man in black” with the Nazi-looking father of stanzas 9 and 10. This man, only a “representation, in miniature, and a copy” of the dead father (and by implication, of Hitler), the “genuine article”, has a Nazi, Dracula or Sheik-like “love of the rack and the screw”. The intriguing Gothic imagery here, as much recalling Marquis de Sade as Anne Radcliffe, “Monk” Lewis, Bram Stoker and even Lord Byron, is both abstrusely literary and just a plain description of fact. Yet “Daddy” is also about the struggles for autonomy and independence by the daughter-speaker. The poem is, in this respect, her own Mein Kampf, struggle for survival.

Falsely secure, the girl feels she is now finally “through” (in the American, not the English sense) with the father. “The black telephone” (a favoured image seen elsewhere, for instance, in “The Munich Mannequins”) is now “left off the hook”, and the “voices” just can’t worm through (“through” in the English sense of “linked” or “connecting”). The subtle pun on the word “worm”, here, perhaps refers to the father’s worm-infested body (now dead, the old man cannot answer the “phone”) in the grave, as well as to the idiomatic sense or “worming through” (getting through), a detail recalling, from stanza 10, the hyperbolic detail that is also an insult by a apostrophizing:

...O You—

... …squeak through.

There follows another “histrionic”, or hyperbolic, note that is also, in the context of the poem, timed perfectly:

If I’ve killed one man,......

…want to know.

That subjunctive conjunction, “If”, is intriguing: is the speaker saying that if she has killed one man, she has in fact killed two (both the father and his “miniature” copy or epigone)? Or is she actually saying “if (that is, “assuming”, “granting” or “supposing that”, “in that case”) she has killed one, she has killed two, when in fact, she might have killed none, because this may be only a supposition. It is, however, assumed that both the father and his substitute have “drunk” the daughter-speaker’s blood and “battened” on it. Now that the Vampire (the “black man”) has a seven-year itch for another (Assia Wevill, Hughes’s girl friend), the Father may lie back now, he has a “worthy” successor in the philanderer.

The fake illusion of security (of feeling “loved”, “honoured” and “protected”) is now gone; the girl, with “her weird luck”, has once again drawn a spiked card. In fact, her “weird luck” (a superstition) may be explained “scientifically”, as “repetition compulsion”, the seeking of death in repeating the same life-event over and again. In marrying, by choice, a father-figure, the girl might have, in a superficial sense, “got back” to her beloved father, but in another sense, it is a regressive choice, a relapse or back-sliding to earlier behaviour patterns. A “Return of the Repressed” (“killed”) occurs, the “dead father” “getting back” at the daughter-speaker through his substitute, the “black-man”. Actually, the dead father, cannot “get back now”; he is only “present” in the husband. It is therefore imperative for the girl to kill two if she has to kill one.

An atavistic ritual whose details mostly recall Bram Stoker’s Gothic novel, Dracula, now follows. It is “weird”, or “totemic”, depending on one’s view point: the “deed” is now done (off-stage as it were, as in the Greek tragedy). There is a “stake” (more likely, a witch’s sticking pins) driven through the father and also his epigone’s “fat” (“fat” because it has battened on “innocent” blood of people like the daughter-speaker here), black (“devillish” or “vampirish”) heart. Just as the villagers in Transylvania, in Stoker’s Dracula, had never really liked the Count Vampire, the villagers (both in Otto Plath’s Massachusetts and Ted Hughes’s Devon or Yorkshire), the speaker-daughter takes it, had never liked, either the father or his substitute, now that he is “truly” dead (and not merely the Living Dead, still battening on others). The villagers, like Polynesians, Ojibwa or Red Indians, dance round him: they were never fooled by him, blessed as they probably are, with either long experience or native intelligence in these matters. Or is it, on the contrary, an atavistic act of ritualised and collective violence against the strange and the unknown (xenophobia) that makes the villagers dance and stamp on the transfixed erstwhile vampire? Does this mean that the “internalised” or psychological violence of modern culture is displaced, in the end, to the tribal, external violence of more primitive, savage or barbaric cultures?

In any event, the daughter-speaker, in the end, is “through” (“finished with” or “at the end of all relations or dealings with”) with “Daddy, Daddy, you bastard...” The father is a “bastard” in the modern, slang, sense of being a “vicious, despicable or disliked person”, disliked, not only by the daughter-speaker, but also by the anonymous “villagers”. He was perhaps disliked because he was a blood-sucker, vampire, who, so to speak, fed on others and reduced them to being zombies or the Living Dead.

In the last stanza of Daddy, Sylvia Plath transforms the psychological and subjective into myth, legend, folk-tale and popular narrative. The psychologically damaging and crippling—like the daughter-speaker’s Electra fixation here on the father—is transposed to the plane of a popular story— e.g., Dracula—structured on atavistic fears and also tactics of survival, i.e., driving a stake into the heart of a vampire and “freeing” it (and simultaneously themselves) from the curse of being the Living Dead, and then dancing and stamping on it. At least the villagers have always known that the black man is a “devil”, “seducer”, like Dracula.

In the end, the daughter-speaker is not only “at the end’ of all relations or dealings with” an overbearing, and overpowering, figure of the father, but she has also “reached the end of her discourse. It is, however, still a moot point whether the “evil spirit” has been fully exorcised yet, i.e., whether the daughter-speaker is really “through” yet. Has the daughter-speaker, in the end, become the “author” of her own destiny, taken over at least discursive control, after “exorcising” the father and his substitute? Or has she only managed to reconfirm Freud’s view that “the hysteric suffers from reminiscence”?

The daughter-speaker in “Daddy” also suffers from amnesia or, perhaps, schizophrenia. As the excluded, or occluded, “middle” of the Oedipal triangle, the speaker’s mother should have been present in the poem; she is still there, but in absence, not presence. The daughter-speaker, in excluding the pre-Oedipal from her story, reduces it to an oft-repeated story of paternal seduction, only a pas de deaux, ifnotfolie a deux, between the daughter and her (dead) father.

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