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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

Introduction and Excerpt From "Daddy"

Sylvia Plath's poem, "Daddy," features sixteen five-line stanzas. It has 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. Because the poem is quite long, I offer only an excerpt from its text.

(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.")

Excerpt From “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 . . .

To read the entire poem, please visit, “Daddy,” at the Poetry Foundation.

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 childish rampage of hate against a man, who can no longer defend himself.

First Stanza: Taunting Her Target

The speaker begins by taunting the target of her displeasure: "You do not do, you do not do / Any more, black shoe / In which I have lived like a foot / For thirty years." In the second line, the speaker is name-calling her father "black shoe," and as she continues, she claims she had lived in that shoe for thirty years. 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

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 finally getting her revenge. Again, she reverts to name-calling, as she exclaims, "Marble-heavy, a bag full of God, / Ghastly statue with one gray toe."

Third Stanza: Prayed for His Return

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 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: "I never could talk to you. / The tongue stuck in my jaw." Her tongue stuck in a barb wire snare. She spits out her bitter comparison: "I began to talk like a Jew. / I think I may well be a Jew."

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 had 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 an 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

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 an despicable dictator.

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 exactly 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.

Sylvia Plath's Remarks About "Daddy"

The poem creates a drama in which a woman can be viewed throwing an adolescent temper tantrum in order to bully a man, her father, who died before she could kill him. About her poem, Sylvia 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. (From Sylvia Plath by Linda Wagner-Martin, page 196)

Sylvia Plath sculpted her material with the hand of a master. Her poem, "Daddy," delves into the deep waters of the out-of-control anger that drowns the speaker's psyche in a whirlpool of volatile emotion.

Readers can grasp the idea that Plath was creating a character in this poem—not testifying to the badness of men—especially since the poet has actually described the process in detail. Yet that has not stopped the radically blinkered and blinded feminists from ascribing the poem's genesis to their favorite target, the patriarchy.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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