Analysis of Poem "Daddy" by Sylvia Plath
Introduction to Poem 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 which uses metaphor and other devices to carry the idea of a girl victim finally freeing herself from her father.
In Sylvia 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.'
It was written on October 12th 1962, the month after she had moved to London from Devon with her two small children. A year later Sylvia Plath was dead, having written some of her best poems during this turbulent period.
In this article you'll find a stanza by stanza analysis of the poem, a video with Sylvia Plath reading her poem, the whole poem, and other relevant information suitable for both student and interested reader.
In psychoanalysis this is the female counterpart of the Oedipus complex. The daughter perceives the mother as a rival for the psychosexual energy of the father and tries to possess the father. This unresolved desire sometimes manifests as negative fixation on the father or father figure.
Sylvia Plath desperately wanted to make her poems relevant for people. She said so herself. Overall, I think she succeeded. Her poems are read and appreciated and even loved by many world wide. Her work is not mere free verse confessional; many of her better poems are technically adept, complex and beautifully dark.
Daddy is an attempt to combine the personal with the mythical. It has a cutting edge that slices into your mind and heart. It's unsettling, a weird nursery rhyme of the divided self, not an uncontrolled fit of temper aimed at her father and husband.
The father is seen as a black shoe, a giant statue, a swastika and a vampire. The girl (narrator, speaker) is a victim, ending up in some strange places - in a black shoe, in a sack, and in a sense, in the train as it chugs along.
It manages to express Sylvia Plath's own inner pain by skilfully dressing up in lyrical form and offering the reader a kind of black myth that combines the lighter echoes of Mother Goose with much darker resonances of World War 2.
Daddy is full of disturbing imagery. That's why some have called Daddy the Guernica of modern poetry.
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.
The Trial of Eichmann
Sylvia Plath undoubtedly knew about the Final Solution of the Nazis in world war 2. The trial of Adolf Eichmann was shown on television in 1961, allowing the whole world to witness for the first time the horrors of the holocaust. 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.
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 direct references to the holocaust which comes like a bolt out of the blue.
You have to ask yourself: Is it acceptable to use such an event to drive home the message of pain and torment?
Why does the poet use such a metaphor? Is it one step too far? Not only is the nightmarish scenario of the holocaust a counterpoint to that of the father, who is German, but it provides historical depth. The poem is depersonalized, ironically, and taken beyond mere confession.
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.
A poem of 16 stanzas, each five lines, making a total of 80 lines. The metre is roughly tetrameter, four beats, but contains 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.
This poem is full of surreal imagery 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 her father Otto, was from Germany and must have spoken in this language to Sylvia throughout her childhood.
There's also the sound of the steam train throughout - choo choo - oo oo, glue, you, do, du, shoe, two, screw, through, gobbledygoo, Jew, blue, Achoo. This repeated refrain gives the poem energy and conjures up the image of the train chuffing its way to the final destination.
Stanza by Stanza
Stanza 1: A first line repeated,a declaration of intent, the first sounds of oo - this is the train setting off on it's final journey through Electra's many mindscapes and tunnels. 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, juxtaposed with the actual real life death of the father, Otto, when Sylvia Plath was eight years old. He had to have his leg amputated due to complications of diabetes. His toe turned black from gangrene.The bizarre,surreal imagery builds up - the toe as big as a seal from San Francisco, the grotesque statue fallen.
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 family used to holiday. The father icon stretches all the way across the USA, west to east, where beauty temporarily exists in the form of bean green over blue water. Prayer was used in an attempt to get the 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 approach which brings the reader closer to the action. I never could talk to you seems to come right from the daughter's heart. Sylvia 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 ratches 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 she unable to speak because of the shock, the obscene stress within the language? The father is seen as an all powerful icon; he even represents all Germans.
Stanza 7: The steam engine chugs on, the narrator revealing 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 two. The narrator now identifies fully with the Jews, even becoming a Jew.
Stanza 8: Moving on, into Austria, the country where Sylvia 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? Sylvia Plath was keenly interested in the Tarot card symbols for a time. Some believe that certain poems in her book Ariel are based on similar occult symbology.
Stanza 9: Sylvia Plath's father was never a Nazi in real life but the 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, so producing the perfect German) who 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 have female victims attracted to them.
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 eight, filling her up with rage - against God. And when she reached twenty years of age she attempted suicide, wanting to re-unite with her father?
Sylvia Plath reads Daddy
Stanza 13: A crucial stanza, where the girl 'creates' male number two, based on the father. The narrator is pulled out of the sack, '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 is the catalyst for action. The girl creates a model (a voodoo like doll?), a version of her father. This turns out to be none other than husband Ted Hughes in real life. He has a Meinkampf look (Mein Kampf is the title of Adolf Hitler's book MY Struggle) and is not averse to torture. (stanza 14)
Stanza 14: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were married - hence the line with I do, I do in it. The girl 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 girl has achieved her double killing, both father and husband have been dispatched. The latter is referred to as a vampire (Ted Hughes) who has been drinking her blood for eight years. It's as if the narrator, the girl, 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 vengeful way. To put the lid on things, the girl declares daddy a bastard. The exorcism is over, the conflict resolved.
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. Her marriage to the English poet had been at first a euphoric experience but following the birth of her two children life became much harder. The straw that broke the camel's back came when Sylvia Plath discovered that Hughes was having an affair with Assia Wevill, a dark haired attractive woman who they met in London. News of her pregnancy could have been the tipping point for the sensitive and manic poet. She took her own life on February 11th 1963.
Daddy is a poem Sylvia Plath had to write. It's a successful poem as a work of dark art 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 it stops and starts, splutters and shunts, travels over rough ground, 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.
Norton Anthology, 2005
Ariel, Harper and Row,1965, Sylvia Plath
The Poetry Handbook, OUP, 2005, John Lennard.
© 2015 Andrew Spacey