Analysis of Poem "Daddy" by Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath and a Summary of Daddy
Sylvia Plath's poem "Daddy" remains one of the most controversial modern poems ever written. It is a dark, surreal, and at times painful allegory that uses metaphor and other devices to carry the idea of a female victim finally freeing herself from her father. In Plath's own words:
"Here is a poem spoken by a girl with an Electra complex. Her father died while she thought he was God. Her case is complicated by the fact that her father was also a Nazi and her mother very possibly Jewish. In the daughter the two strains marry and paralyze each other—she has to act out the awful little allegory once over before she is free of it."
"Daddy" was written on October 12th 1962, a month after Plath had separated from her husband and moved—with their two small children—from their home in Devon to a flat in London. Four months later Plath was dead, but she wrote some of her best poems during that turbulent period.
In this article you'll find
- the whole poem
- stanza-by-stanza and line-by-line analyses of the poem
- analysis of poetic devices
- a video in which Sylvia Plath reads "Daddy"
- important discussion questions
- and other relevant information suitable for both the student and the interested reader.
Daddy by Sylvia Plath
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time——
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal
And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend
Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.
It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene
An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.
The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.
I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You——
Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who
Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.
But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look
And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I’m finally through.
The black telephone’s off at the root,
The voices just can’t worm through.
If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two——
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.
There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.
Analysis of "Daddy"
"Daddy" is an attempt to combine the personal with the mythical. It's unsettling, a weird nursery rhyme of the divided self, a controlled blast aimed at a father and a husband (since the two conflate in the 14th stanza).
The poem expresses Plath's terror and pain lyrically and hauntingly. It combines light echoes of a Mother Goose nursery rhyme with much darker resonances of World War II.
The father is seen as a black shoe, a bag full of God, a cold marble statue, a Nazi, a swastika, a fascist, a sadistic brute, and a vampire. The girl (narrator, speaker) is trapped in her idolization of this man.
She is a victim trapped in that black tomblike shoe, in the sack that holds the father's bones, and—in a sense—in the train as it chugs along to Auschwitz. "Daddy" is full of disturbing imagery, and that's why some have called "Daddy" "the Guernica of modern poetry."
Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis of Plath's "Daddy"
Stanza 1: A first line repeated, a declaration of intent, the first sounds of oo—this is the train setting off on its final death march. The black shoe is a metaphor for the father. Inside, trapped for 30 years, is the narrator, about to escape.
Stanza 2: But she can only free herself by killing her "daddy," who does resemble the poet's actual father, Otto, who died when she was 8. His toe turned black from gangrene. He eventually had to have his leg amputated due to complications of diabetes. When young Plath heard this news, she said, "I'll never speak to God again." Here, the bizarre, surreal imagery builds up—his toe is as big as a seal, the grotesque image of her father has fallen like a statue.
Stanza 3: The personal weaves in and out of the allegory. The statue's head is in the Atlantic, on the coast at Nauset Beach, Cape Cod, where the Plath family used to holiday. The father icon stretches all the way across the USA. The imagery is temporarily beautiful: bean green over blue water. The speaker says she used to pray to get her father back, restored to health.
Stanza 4: We move on to Poland and the second world war. There's a mix of the factual and fictional. Otto Plath was born in Grabow, Poland, a common name, but spoke German in a typical autocratic fashion. This town has been razed in many wars adding strength to the idea that Germany (the father) has demolished life.
Stanza 5: Again, the narrator addresses the father as you, a direct address which brings the reader closer to the action. I never could talk to you seems to come right from the daughter's heart. Plath is hinting at a lack of communication, of instability and paralysis. Note the use of the line endings two, you, and you—the train building up momentum.
Stanza 6: The use of barb wire snare ratchets up the tension. The narrator is in pain for the first time. The German ich (I) is repeated four times as if her sense of self-worth is in question (or is she recalling the father shouting I,I,I,I?). And is she unable to speak because of the shock or just difficulty with the language? The father is seen as an all-powerful icon; he even represents all Germans.
Stanza 7: As the steam engine chugs on, the narrator reveals that this is no ordinary train she is on. It is a death train taking her off to a concentration camp, one of the Nazi death factories where millions of Jews were cruelly gassed and cremated during World War II. The narrator now identifies fully with the Jews.
Stanza 8: Moving on, into Austria, the country where Plath's mother was born, the narrator reinforces her identity—she is a bit of a Jew because she carries a Taroc (Tarot) pack of cards and has gypsy blood in her. Perhaps she is a fortune teller able to predict the fate of people? Plath was keenly interested in the Tarot card symbols. Some believe that certain poems in her book Ariel use similar occult symbology.
Stanza 9: Although Plath's father was never a Nazi in real life, her narrator again focuses on the second world war and the image of the Nazi soldier. Part nonsense nursery rhyme, part dark lyrical attack, the girl describes the ideal Aryan male. One of the aims of the Nazis was to breed out unwanted genetic strains to produce the perfect German, an Aryan. This one happens to speak gobbledygoo, a play on the word gobbledygook, meaning excessive use of technical terms. The Luftwaffe is the German air force. Panzer is the name for the German tank corps.
Stanza 10: Yet another metaphor—father as swastika, the ancient Indian symbol used by the Nazis. In this instance, the swastika is so big it blacks out the entire sky. This could be a reference to the air raids over England during the war, when the Luftwaffe bombed many cities and turned the sky black. Lines 48-50 are controversial but probably allude to the fact that powerful despotic males, brutes in boots, often demand the attraction of female victims.
Stanza 11: Perhaps the most personal of stanzas. This image breaks through into the poem and the reader is taken into a kind of classroom (her father Otto was a teacher) where daddy stands. The devil is supposed to have a cleft foot but here, he has a cleft chin. The narrator isn't fooled.
Stanza 12: She knows that this is the man who tore her apart, reached inside, and left her split, a divided self. Sylvia's father died when she was 8, filling her up with rage against God. And at 20, Plath attempted suicide for the first time. Was she wanting to re-unite with her father?
Stanza 13: A crucial stanza, where the girl 'creates' male number two, based on the father. The narrator is pulled out of the sack and 'they' stick her back together with glue. Bones out of a sack—Sylvia Plath was 'glued' back together by doctors after her failed suicide attempt but was never the same again. In the poem, this suicide attempt is a catalyst for action. The girl creates a model (a voodoo-like doll?), a version of her father. This replica strongly resembles Plath's husband, Ted Hughes. He has a Meinkampf look (Mein Kampf is the title of Adolf Hitler's book, which means my struggle) and is not averse to torture.
Stanza 14: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were married, hence the line with I do, I do. The speaker addresses daddy again, for the last time. There'll be no more communication, no voices from the past. Note the emphasis on "black" again. This telephone belongs to the father.
Stanza 15: The penultimate five lines. The speaker has achieved her double killing, both father and husband have been dispatched. The latter is referred to as a vampire who has been drinking her blood for seven years. It's as if the narrator is reassuring her father that all is well now. He can lie back in readiness. For what?
Stanza 16: The father's fat black heart is pierced by a wooden stake, just like a vampire, and the villagers are thoroughly happy about it. A bit of a bizarre image to end on. But, just who are the villagers? Are they the inhabitants of a village in the allegory, or are they a collective of Sylvia Plath's imagination? Either way, the father's demise has them dancing and stamping on him in an almost jovial way. To put the lid on things, the girl declares daddy a bastard. The exorcism is over, the conflict resolved.
Line-by-Line Analysis of Plath's "Daddy"
What It Means
Lines 1-5: You do not do, you do not do Any more, black shoe In which I have lived like a foot For thirty years, poor and white, Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
The speaker says after 30 years, she will no longer live trapped inside the memory of her father. Her comparison of him to a shoe evokes the old nursery rhyme about an old woman who lives in a shoe, and the singsong repetition and the word "achoo" sounds similarly childish. The "you" to whom the poem is addressed is the absent father.
Lines 6-10: Daddy, I have had to kill you. You died before I had time—— Marble-heavy, a bag full of God, Ghastly statue with one gray toe Big as a Frisco seal
In line 6, the speaker shocks us with the assertion she has already murdered her father—figuratively. A "bag full of God" could mean he's in a body bag or that his body is just a bag. We get an image of how big he is in her eyes via the heavy, cold corpse so large that it spans the US, his toes in the San Francisco Bay...
Lines 11-15: And a head in the freakish Atlantic Where it pours bean green over blue In the waters off beautiful Nauset. I used to pray to recover you. Ach, du.
...and his head in the Atlantic. She used to pray to "recover" him and she could mean that she wished she could have him back or heal him. This German expression is a sigh of (angry? impatient?) familiarity: "Oh, you." Plath's father was a German immigrant.
Lines 16-20: In the German tongue, in the Polish town Scraped flat by the roller Of wars, wars, wars. But the name of the town is common. My Polack friend
The repetition of "wars" gives us the sense that there have been many and of landscapes being repetitively flattened by war.
Lines 21-25: Says there are a dozen or two. So I never could tell where you Put your foot, your root, I never could talk to you. The tongue stuck in my jaw.
This part could mean that the speaker doesn't know precisely where her father came from ("put your foot, your root"), and that she had no rapport with him.
Lines 26-30: It stuck in a barb wire snare. Ich, ich, ich, ich, I could hardly speak. I thought every German was you. And the language obscene
Trying to talk to her father was dangerous and painful, like sticking your tongue in a trap. "Ich" is the German word for "I," and here she is reduced to stammering in fear and confusion. Is she scared or nervous or...?
Lines 31-35: An engine, an engine Chuffing me off like a Jew. A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen. I began to talk like a Jew. I think I may well be a Jew.
Trying to speak German makes her feel like she's trapped on a train, headed towards a death camp: We see the speaker's mental and emotional conversion here and how she associates her fear and terror of her father with the struggle of the Jewish people against the Nazis.
Lines 36-40: The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna Are not very pure or true. With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack I may be a bit of a Jew.
In these lines we join the speaker on that train winding through Europe. The white snow and the clear beer contrast starkly to the dark deeds being inflicted by Nazis in the name of racial purity. The speaker is consciously, deliberately choosing sides.
Lines 41-45: I have always been scared of you, With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo. And your neat mustache And your Aryan eye, bright blue. Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You——
"Luftwaffe" is the German air force; "gobbledygoo" is another childlike word that conveys her disdain for the German. She calls herself a Jew and her father a Nazi killer. A Panzer-man is one who drives a tank.
Lines 46-50: Not God but a swastika So black no sky could squeak through. Every woman adores a Fascist, The boot in the face, the brute Brute heart of a brute like you.
His Nazism blocks the sun, it's so huge. Why do women love Fascists? Is it bitter sarcasm or truth? Perhaps she's saying that in relationships, women are dominated by men. In order to love a man you must be masochistic.
Lines 51-55: You stand at the blackboard, daddy, In the picture I have of you, A cleft in your chin instead of your foot But no less a devil for that, no not Any less the black man who
Now, she's calling her father a devil. The speaker describes a photo of her father. BTW, Plath's father was a biology professor (see photo below).
Lines 56-60: Bit my pretty red heart in two. I was ten when they buried you. At twenty I tried to die And get back, back, back to you. I thought even the bones would do.
He broke her heart. He died when she was 10 and she tried to commit suicide at 20 to get "back, back, back" (like earlier, when she tried to "recover" him). The repetition here emphasizes her futile desperation.
Lines 61-65: But they pulled me out of the sack, And they stuck me together with glue. And then I knew what to do. I made a model of you, A man in black with a Meinkampf look
She's so desperate to be with him that even his bones will do. She figuratively tries to join him in his grave (by killing herself), but they (doctors?) save her. So she changes her tactic and makes an effigy of him.
Lines 66-70: And a love of the rack and the screw. And I said I do, I do. So daddy, I’m finally through. The black telephone’s off at the root, The voices just can’t worm through.
She makes a man in her father's image, a sadist, and marries him ("I do, I do"). So now, she no longer needs her father. She cuts off communication with him, the dead, here.
Lines 71-75: If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two—— The vampire who said he was you And drank my blood for a year, Seven years, if you want to know. Daddy, you can lie back now.
Although she didn't literally kill anyone, the speaker feels as though she has killed both her father and her husband (a parasite who "drank my blood" for 7 years). Perhaps she means simply that they are dead to her now. BTW, Plath was married to Ted Hughes for about 7 years.
Lines 76-80: There’s a stake in your fat black heart And the villagers never liked you. They are dancing and stamping on you. They always knew it was you. Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.
She tells her dead father to lie back in his grave. She says she's done with him forever. Maybe she has exorcized or mentally killed him properly this time.
Plath's Electra Complex
In psychoanalysis, an Electra complex is the female version of Freud's Oedipus complex. Jung posited that a daughter perceives her mother as a rival for the psychosexual energy of her father, and wants to possess the father. This unresolved desire sometimes manifests as negative fixation on the father or father figure.
What did Plath mean that "Daddy" was 'spoken by a girl with an Electra complex'?
In "Daddy," the speaker is father-fixated. She's a "daddy's girl" and uses the childlike, endearing term "daddy" seven times to describe the man whose memory tortures her. During the course of the poem, the speaker's goal shifts from an attempt to recover, reunite with, and marry her dead father to an attempt to kill his memory and terminate his dominance over her.
Daddy and the Holocaust
As the poem progresses, the narrator identifies herself with the plight of the Jews during the Nazi regime in Germany. There are many direct references to the holocaust in the poem.
Why does the poet use such a metaphor? Does it takes things one step too far? Is it acceptable to use such an event to drive home a personal message of pain and torment? Is it okay to appropriate someone else's pain?
Using the nightmarish scenario of the holocaust as a metaphor for the daughter's relationship with her German father does tap into historical depth and meaning. The poem is ironically depersonalized and taken beyond mere confession into archetypal father-daughter pathos.
Sylvia Plath has risked all by introducing the holocaust into the poem; only her astute use of rhythm, rhyme and lyric allows her to get away with it.
The Trial of Eichmann
Sylvia Plath undoubtedly knew about the Final Solution of the Nazis in World War II. The trial of Adolf Eichmann lasted from April 11, 1961 to December 15, 1961 and was shown on television, allowing the whole world to witness the horrors of the holocaust. (Plath wrote "Daddy" the following year.) As a leading instigator of death in the concentration camp gas chambers, the SS Lieutenant-Colonel became notorious as the 'desk-murderer'. He was found guilty by trial in Jerusalem, Israel, and sentenced to hang.
Which Poetic Devices Are Used in "Daddy"?
- It has 16 stanzas, each with five lines, making a total of 80 lines.
- The meter is roughly tetrameter, four beats, but also uses pentameter with a mix of stresses.
- Thirty-seven lines are end-stopped and enjambment is frequently used.
- Metaphor and simile are present, as are half-rhymes, alliteration, and assonance. The father is compared to a black shoe, a bag full of God, a giant, cold, marble statue, a Nazi, a swastika, a fascist, a sadist, and a vampire.
- The speaker uses baby talk to describe truly dark and painful feelings. She calls him "daddy," she calls a sneeze "achoo," "gobbledygoo," she gets tongue-tied and stammery ("Ich, ich, ich, ich"), and uses singsong repetitions. The juxtaposition of innocence and pain emphasizes both.
- There's also the howling, mournful "choo choo" sound of a steam train throughout: "You do not do, you do not do," "achoo," black shoe, glue, you, do, du, "I do, I do," shoe, two, screw, through, gobbledygoo, Jew, blue.... This repeated "ooo-ooo" sound gives the poem momentum, energy, and conjures up the image of a train chuffing its way to the final destination (which, in this case, is a Nazi death camp).
This poem is full of surreal imagery and allusion interspersed with scenes from the poet's childhood and a kind of dark cinematic language that borrows from nursery rhyme and song lyric. Every so often German is used, reflecting the fact that Plath's father, Otto, was from Germany and must have spoken in this language to Sylvia in her childhood.
Is "Daddy" Based on Real Events in Plath's Life?
There's little doubt that Sylvia Plath was trying to exorcise the spirits of both her father and her ex husband Ted Hughes in this poem. At first, her marriage had been euphoric, but after the birth of her two children, life became much harder. News that Hughes was having an affair with Assia Wevill, a dark-haired woman they met in London, and of Wevill's pregnancy by Hughes could have been the tipping point for the sensitive and manic poet. She took her own life on February 11th, 1963, a little more than a year after writing "Daddy."
Is "Daddy" confessional poetry?
Although we can't say that the speaker is Plath herself, "Daddy" is a quintessential example of confessional poetry, which is very emotional and autobiographical in nature. This confessional, subjective style of writing became popular in the late 50s to early 60s.
Discussion Questions for "Daddy"
- Why does Plath use the word "Daddy" instead of "father" or some other term, and what effect does this choice have on the poem's meaning?
- Could this father figure be a metaphor for something else besides the speaker's literal father?
- What does the speaker mean when she says every woman loves a fascist? Is she serious or is she just being sarcastic?
- Is the speaker's comparison of her father to Hitler hyperbolic, or is it justifiable? And what about the ambiguous thought that she "may well" be a Jew? How does the poet's comparison of her relationship to WWII affect our understanding?
- What parts are autobiographical, which parts are made up, and how much does it matter to you as a reader?
- Do you think this is really the end of the speaker's relationship with her father? Why or why not?
"Daddy" is a poem Plath had to write. It's successful because you catch glimpses of her real life bubbling up through metaphor and allegory, but she never makes it fully confessional. That's why I don't agree with those critics who say this poem is nothing but a selfish, immature outburst, a revenge poem. It most certainly isn't. You have to have courage to express such pain in this manner and you could say that courage is a sign of great maturity.
When read through as a whole, "Daddy" stops and starts, splutters and shunts, travels over rough ground, and screeches round corners. At one time you're above the whole of the USA, the next in some sort of nightmare tunnel or cinema where they're showing a life story of your own bete noire.
So, Daddy is both simple and complicated, a bloody nursery rhyme from voodoo land, a dark, lyrical train of thought exploring what is still a taboo subject.
More Analyses of Sylvia Plath's Poetry
Norton Anthology, 2005
Ariel, Harper and Row,1965, Sylvia Plath
The Poetry Handbook, OUP, 2005, John Lennard.
© 2015 Andrew Spacey