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Sylvia Plath's "Daddy"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath

Introduction and Text of "Daddy"

The speaker in Sylvia Plath’s "Daddy" must be distinguished from the poet. In this poem, Plath has created a character who dramatizes the character’s feelings; it does not serve as biographical information about Sylvia Plath and her feelings toward her father as the following inaccurate claim asserts:

Although Otto died in 1940 when his daughter was eight, he exerted a lifelong hold on her, inspiring her bitter tirade against him in her famous 1962 poem Daddy.

About her poem, Plath has remarked:

The poem is 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 part-Jewish. In the daughter the two strains marry and paralyse each other—she has to act out the awful little allegory before she is free of it.

Sylvia Plath sculpted her material with the hand of a master. The poem delves into the deep waters of the out-of-control anger that drowns the speaker's psyche in a whirlpool of volatile emotion. The "bitter tirade" belongs to the character Plath created to dramatize it.

This poem has become a blank canvas on which misguided critics have painted a fantasy of the poet as a victim of American societal mores. The actual drama of the poem features a speaker throwing an adolescent temper tantrum in order to bully a man, her father, who died before she could kill him.

What it does not do is shed light on Plath’s status as a victim of American patriarchy. The poet’s calm, objective description of the poem reveals the actual function of the drama.

Unique Rime Scheme

The poem features sixteen five-line stanzas with only one rime that appears somewhat scatter-shot throughout the piece, for example, the first line goes, "You do not do, you do not do," and lines two and five rime with line one.

In the second stanza, there is only one riming line. In stanza three, lines two, four, and five contain the rime with "do." The poem proceeds this way throughout all sixteen stanzas.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Daddy

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.
Ach, du.

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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.

Sylvia Plath reading "Daddy"

Commentary

Sylvia Plath's widely anthologized poem, which has been inaccurately appropriated as feminist testimony, offers a simple drama of a poor disillusioned girl who hates her father because he died too soon. Out of her fear and loathing, she goes on a rampage of hate against a man who can no longer defend himself.

First Stanza: Taunting Her Target

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 begins by taunting the target of her displeasure, telling him he just no longer means anything to her. The memory of him longer suffices. She asserts that she feels as though she has been living the past thirty years inside his "black shoe," which becomes a symbolic icon for the man himself.

The disgruntled speaker shows her dissatisfaction by asserting that she was poor and white and could hardly breathe, and she even feared to sneeze.

Second Stanza: Uncontrolled Hatred

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 the second stanza, the speaker is out of control with hatred and disgust at the character she refers to as "Daddy." She flings herself into a fit of rage that this character, "black shoe," would have the gall to die before she had a chance to kill him.

But now, she is getting her revenge with a vengeance. Again, she reverts to name-calling, as she exclaims her impressions of heaviness and the awful image of "a bag full of God" suggesting an overwhelming burden for a young girl to bear.

Then from the enormity of a God-image to a mere gray-toed statue, the stature of the once beloved father has fallen to immeasurably deep grief that causes her immense pain.

Third Stanza: Prayed for His Return

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.

In this stanza, the speaker continues with description that denigrates the addressee, until she asserts that she used to pray that he would return to her.

It is at this point that the reader becomes aware that the speaker apparently does not harbor total hatred for her deceased Daddy, and at least earlier in her life, she actually wished he were still in her life.

Fourth - Eighth Stanzas A Nazi Delirium

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.

In these stanzas, the speaker once again loses herself in delirium, metaphorically likening the Daddy to a Nazi and herself to a Jew in death camps such as Dachau and Auschwitz.

She rails against Daddy, stating that she could never communicate with him; somehow her tongue seemed to stick and refuse to move out the words. She insanely felt that she was "a Jew." Juxtaposed against a father whom she has labeled a "Nazi," her being a Jew heralds an ominous fatal ending.

It is unclear whether the speaker means that she could not clearly communicate with him before he died or that she is simply angry that he died, and thus she could not talk to him because he died.

Confused adolescent daughters/sons often believe they are smothered by parental rules, but this daughter's father, as readers will understand, has committed only the sin of dying, which was, of course, out of his control.

It becomes apparent that this Nazi association exists only in the mind of the tormented speaker. It does not credibly dramatize any lived experience, because the speaker has not experienced the drama of living under the Nazi regime, which she is attempting to portray.

Such utter fantasized concoction demonstrates a psychological imbalance in the speaker's mind; of course, she cannot be a teenager or in her adolescent years: she must be at least thirty years old, by her own admission in the opening lines, "I have lived like a foot / For thirty years."

Ninth - Sixteenth Stanzas: Final Lapse into Madness

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.

These stanzas are peppered with lines such as, "I may be a bit of a Jew, I have always been scared of you, / Every woman adores a Fascist, Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You / Not God but a swastika." All of these lines function in service of rendering the Daddy as a despicable character.

By the last stanza, the speaker has become totally mad, as she spits out disgraceful, disrespectful accusations against her hated target. She childishly claims that the people in their town did not ever like her father and that they are gleeful that he has died.

She takes particular adolescent joy in asserting there is a "stake" in his "fat black heart"; thus alluding to vampirism. She then caps her crazed diatribe by claiming she is through.

It remains unclear about what she is "through." Likely she means not only her current diatribe but also her concerning herself with the continued hatred she nurtures for the father who died before she could kill him. Likely, she feels she has completed that murder with her little drama.

Sources

"Disclaimer"

I, Linda Sue Grimes, am a literary specialist; since 1972 after completing the M.A. degree in German and English at Ball State University, I have researched, studied, and written about the works of classic poets, novelists, dramatists, and essayists.

I completed the Ph.D. degree in British, American, and World literature with a cognate in rhetoric/composition at Ball State University in 1987. I have published four collections of original poems and a collection of commentaries on poems. The Explicator, one of academe’s most trusted literary publications, included in their pages three of my articles.

As a contractual assistant professor of English, I served in the Writing Program at Ball State University, teaching English composition, honors humanities, and poetry writing from 1987 to 1999.

I, therefore, suggest that I am a "qualified professional" capable of offering "formal and individualized advice" on literary subjects.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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