Sylvia Plath is the icon of feminists and the idol of confessional poetry lovers. Daddy by Sylvia Plath is one of her most brilliant and also one of the most controversial poems. One cannot understand the world of Anglo-American confessional poetry unless one understands Sylvia Plath. And one cannot understand Sylvia Plath the confessional poet unless one understands Daddy. Daddy is the golden key that opens the marvelous, but also a disturbing world of Anglo-American confessional poetry. Daddy was written in the last phase of Sylvia Plath’s life when she was living in a small London flat in poverty with her two small children separated from her husband Ted Hughes, and when her life was inexorably moving towards its tragic conclusion.
The present poem Daddy has an emphasis on title, this is because the title of the poem does not add anything new to the traumatic structure of the poem. On the other hand, the title emphasizes or stresses one particular aspect of the thematic fabric of the poem. Sylvia Plath frequently preferred shorter title rather than longer ones and this predilection is exemplified by the present poem. It is highly significant that Sylvia Plath titles the poem Daddy and not the Father or not even Papa she could very well have titled the poem Father or Papa, but by titling the poem Daddy the poet at one stroke collapses the distance between speaker and subject, between the poet and her father. The title proclaims to the world the very bondage that the speaker in the poem has with her father. This is the significance of the title of the poem and it has to be remembered that Sylvia Plath herself admitted that the poem is spoken by a girl with an Electra complex.
Stanza-1 with Explanation
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.
Explanation: There is no doubt that Sylvia Plath has provided her poem Daddy with a striking opening to begin with children, especially daughters idolize their fathers, but as they grow older, they realized that their fathers have feet of clay. In general, fathers are unable to appreciate the achievements of their children, however, well the children do the father always says that it is not up to the mark. The standard reply of the father to the daughter who informs him of some achievement is, it is not enough you do not do. Here the situation is reversed the daughter tells the father you do not do, you do not do anymore, now I have realized who you are, and I repeat to you, the words that you used to hurt me. So I tell you, you do not do. What follows is the shoe metaphor.
If you look at the shoe it is a metaphor, if you look at the foot it is a simile. The poet calls her father a black shoe. She is like the foot, which is inside the shoe. She lived inside the shoe for 30 years. The shoe protects the foot, but the shoe also cuts off the foot from the elements as a result the foot becomes white, unhealthily white. This is the contradiction, on the one hand the father protects the daughter, on the other hand the father cuts off the daughter from the rest of the world. It is the case not of protection, but of over protection. The love of the father is found suffocated by the daughter. The daughter is hardly able to breathe or even sneeze under the protection of her father. The color black has to be noted. The word black is repeated several times in the poem. Black shoe to begin with, a man in black, black man, black telephone, the color black adds a somber atmosphere to the poem. The color black creates an atmosphere, which is very appropriate to the thematic structure of the poem. It may be pointed out that Sylvia Plath could have been inspired to develop the shoe metaphor from a very popular nursery rhyme beginning with the line there was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do. She gave them some broth without any bread; And whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.
It is quite probable that Sylvia Plath learned this Nursery Rhyme as a child and that this nursery rhyme is the ultimate inspiration for the shoe metaphor at the opening of Daddy.
Stanza-2 with Explanation
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
Explanation: The second stanza begins with a shocking declaration that the speaker had to kill her father, but, her father died before she could actually kill him. The lines that follow contain contradictory images; marble heavy – marble is used for statues and monuments. God in a bag, God is somebody who is worshipped or something which is worshipped, but here God is in a bag. A statue which is ghastly and there’s only one toe. Frisco seal is a seal from San Francisco. Seal is a sea mammal which feeds on fish. What is the poet trying to convey? The contradictory images accurately capture the contradiction ridden relationship which the speaker has with her father. She loves her father and also hates him. She admires her father and also detests him. She wants to kill her father and also bring back from death. It cannot be said that the lines submit themselves to word-by-word analysis and evaluation, but the general import of the stanza is quite clear.
Stanza-3 with Explanation
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.
Explanation: The contradictory images are contained in the third stanza. Head could mean headland or land jutting out into the sea, or the head could be the head of the statue. The poet could have in mind the headland jutting into the Atlantic or the poet could have in mind the head of the statue spoken of in the second stanza. If the latter explanation is accepted, it could mean that the statue is so big that it covers the whole of America, from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Nauset is a coastal town. Earlier the poet had said that she had wanted to kill her father, now she declares that she tried to bring her father back from death. The stanza concludes with a short line made of two German words Ach, du. Ach, du means oh you. This short line is very significant. It prepares the ground for the German imagery and the German allusions that are to follow in the rest of the poem.
Stanza-4 with Explanation
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
Explanation: The speaker now tries to trace the ancestral roots of her father. Sylvia Plath’s father, professor Otto Plath was of German origin. In the poem, the speaker says that she tried to identify the town from which her father had come. Professor Otto Plath was from the German town of Grabow, on the border between Poland and Germany. This town was repeatedly raised almost to the ground by the Wars of the late nineteenth and the first half of the 20th century, that is why the poet says that the town was scraped flat by Wars. She repeats the word war, the trick of repetition is a favorite trick of Sylvia Plath. Repetition creates emphasis and also a special effect.
Stanza-5 with Explanation
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.
Explanation: The speaker says that her investigations left her confused. Her Polack friend i.e., her polish friend informs her that there is no one town with the name Grabow. There are quite a few towns with the name Grabow, as a result the poet could not accurately locate the town from which her father had come. The point is that the poet is trying to convey is that there is confusion in the ancestral background of her father. Further the poet is unable to communicate effectively with her father who is of German origin.
Stanza-6 with Explanation
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
Explanation: When the poet tries to communicate with her father, she finds that her tongue has been caught in a barbed wire trap. She is unable to exchange ideas, to interact verbally with her father. She tries to speak all that she can say is ich, ich, ich, ich, in German means I. She’s not able to say anything beyond that. It may be pointed out that the motto of the Prince of Wales if did I serve. The speaker could hardly speak. She identified her father with every German and every German with her father. She felt that the German language was obscene. In this stanza the poet very carefully distances herself from her father and her father’s German roots. She is unable to speak the German language. She identifies every German with her father and even things that the German language is obscene.
Stanza-7 with Explanation
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.
Explanation: This stanza brings in the imagery of the Holocaust. In Hitler’s Germany, Jews were transported to concentration camps and exterminated there. The poet speaks of Dachau, Auschwitz, and Belsen the three most important concentration camps. She speaks of the railway trains carrying the Jews to these concentration camps. It is almost as if she finds herself in one of these trains being transported along with the Jews to the concentration camps. The speaker admits that she began to talk like a Jew. In fact, she may very well be a Jew herself. It is interesting to note that the poet gives a German identity to her father and adopts the Jewish identity herself. It would appear that the poet wants to suggest that the relationship between her father and herself was something like the relationship between the Germans and Hitler’s Germany and the Jews, between the Nazis and the Jews. In this stanza the poet distances herself further from her father and makes it clear that the relationship between her father and herself was a painful and contradiction ridden one.
Stanza-8 with Explanation
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.
Explanation: The train carrying the Jews to the concentration camp and also the poet, who has identified herself with the Jews seems to pass through Austria. Tyrol is a state in Austria which is famous for its mountain ranges. The snows of Tyrol and the beer of Vienna are not very pure or true. It appears that the poet has gypsy blood in her. It appears that she, with her weird luck, is something of a gypsy. Taroc pack is the pack of cards with which gypsy fortune tellers foresee the future. There is confusion in the bloodline of the poet, and the poet thinks that she may be a bit of a Jew. The contrast here is between the purity of the bloodline which was so much prized by the Germans in Hitler’s Germany, which is so much prized for the Nazis who claimed pure Aryan descent and the impure bloodline of the poet. The Nazis claimed that they were pure Aryans. On the other hand, the poet has an impure bloodline, she’s a Jew with gypsy blood in her. Thus, she further distances herself from the Nazis, from the Germans in Hitler’s Germany, and thus from her own father.
Stanza-9 with Explanation
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 —
Explanation: The poet admits that she was always a bit afraid of her father. There was the presence of fear in the relationship between the speaker and her father. Luftwaffe is the German air force, the air force of Nazi Germany. Gobbledygoo is unintelligible jargon much of what Hitler and the Nazi leaders spoke was indeed gobbledygoo. Gobbledygoo is a language which has nothing to convey, but, which is meant to confuse the listener. The neat mustache might be the famous mustache of Hitler himself. The Aryans had blue eyes and the Germans who claimed pure Aryan descent priced blue eyes very much. The Panzer Division was the tank division of Hitler’s Germany. This stanza paints a picture of power of force and this power and force is identified with the power and force of the dictatorship of the Nazis under Hitler.
Stanza-10 with Explanation
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.
Explanation: The swastika is the ancient Hindu symbol appropriated by the Nazis, not God but a swastika. When the poem opens, the poet believes that her father is God, but now her father is the swastika. The symbol of Hitler’s Germany. The swastika was so vast, so powerful, that the sky could not speak through. It was all-encompassing, it reminds one of the shoe metaphors in the opening stanza of the poem. The father is so protective that the protection becomes suffocating. In general, women are said to be attracted by men of power and strength. Every woman adores a fascist. Does the poet mean this in the literal sense that every woman adores a fascist? In a literal sense, those powerful men are found attractive to women, or is she being ironic? Is she trying to convey that the relationship between man and woman is always an unequal relationship?
The man is a sadist and the woman is a masochist. It is quite possible that, Silvia Plath, who had some feminist leanings is trying to convey the unjust imbalanced nature of the relationship between man and woman.
Stanza-11 with Explanation
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
Explanation: The thematic focus of the poem is now on an old photograph of the speaker’s father. In the photograph the speaker’s father stands at the blackboard. Professor Otto Platt was a professor of biology at Boston. He specialized in entomology; the poet looks at the picture of her father teaching in a classroom standing at a blackboard. Her father has a cleft (divided) chin as of the devil’s cleft foot. The speaker’s father has a cleft chin, but that does not in any way make her father less of a devil. It would appear that the poem here comes full circle, to begin with. The speaker had seen her father as a god now she sees her father as a devil. The fact that he has a cleft chin does not make professor Otto Plath any less of a devil.
Stanza-12 with Explanation
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.
Explanation: Not just the speaker’s father is a devil. The black man who pitched the speaker’s pretty red heart into is also a devil. This could be a reference to some earlier romance that Sylvia Plath had with a negro boy. The poet seems to work hard some kind of a generalization. All men seem to be devils. My father is a devil, my boyfriend is also a devil, then she speaks of her suicide attempt as a college student. At the age of 20 as a college student Sylvia Plath had an overdose of sleeping pills and went to bed. She almost died; she was brought back to life with great difficulty by the doctors. This is one of the most important suicide attempts of Sylvia Plath. In this poem Sylvia Plath explains this suicide attempt as an attempt to join her dead father. Her father was dead and there was no way she could join her dead father except by dying herself and her suicide attempt was just an effort to join her dead father.
Stanza-13 with Explanation
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
Explanation: The poet attempted suicide and she almost died, but they pulled her out of her sack (bed) and revived her life. She almost died, but she was brought back to life by her doctors, thus attempt to join her dead father by committing suicide failed. She found another way to join her dead father. She found a man who closely resembled her father; a man in black with a Meinkampf look- the color black repeats itself several times in the poem giving a somber atmosphere to the poem. A man in black with a Meinkampf look – Mein Kampf is the autobiography of Hitler. This stanza achieves a conflation between father and husband. There is a lot of identification between the speaker’s father and her husband. It would appear that she has chosen this particular man to be her husband merely because she finds that he closely resembles her father.
Stanza-14 with Explanation
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.
Explanation: The poet does find a man who closely resembles her father. This man has a love of the rack and the screw – the rack and the screw are medieval torture instruments. This man appears to be a sadist like her own father. This man appears to be a strong and powerful figure like her own father. The poet says I do I do I do. These words are spoken by the bride in a Christian wedding ceremony thus, the speaker locates a man who closely resembles her father and marries him. I am not sure whether the poet Ted Hughes, whom Sylvia Plath married in real life as closely resembled professor Otto Plath as this poem such as the telephone conversation comes to an abrupt end. The speaker and her father are disconnected, the voices cannot crawl to the wires, thus the telephone interaction between speaker and subject concludes abruptly.
Stanza-15 with Explanation
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.
Explanation: The poet decides to kill her father, when she kills her father, she discovers that she has killed two men. The second man is the vampire who claimed to be the speaker’s father and drank her blood for seven years. The vampire could be the memory of her father, which haunts the speaker. The vampire could be the speaker’s husband, whom the speaker married for the sole reason that he closely resembles her father. In the case of killing one man and another itself died has the significance of seven years – the time when professor Otto Plath passed away during that time Sylvia Plath had completed her seven years. It is also a fact that the marriage between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes lasted seven years. Seven years could be a reference to the period when Otto Platt was physically present in the life of his daughter or it could be a reference to the period when Ted Hughes was present in the life of Sylvia Plath as her husband.
Stanza-16 with Explanation
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.
Explanation: The narrative of the penultimate stanza is continued in the last stanza, the killing of the father. The last stanza paints a graphic picture of the ritual killing of the straw man with his carried out even today in rural Europe and rural America. Europe, maybe America may be advanced, and modern, but certain pre-Christian rituals continued to be enacted in rural Europe and rural America, such as men dressing up as tags, such as men dressing up as boars, men dressing up as hunters and of course the ritual killing of the straw man. An effigy is made and the effigy is ritually killed. In this stanza the poet visualizes her father being killed in effigy. A straw man who is identified with her father being ritually killed. The villagers never liked, you may be a reference to the fact that professor Otto Plath was rather unpopular among his colleagues at Boston. They are dancing and stamping on the effigy of the speaker’s father. Thus the poem ends with the killing of the father ritually in effigy.
The poem has a shocking last line daddy, daddy you bastard I am through. When you hate somebody very much you call him a bastard. The speaker hates her father and so she calls him bastard, but the fact also remains that when you love someone very much and you have a very bonded relationship with him you create for yourself the freedom you create for yourself the space to call him a bastard within purity. So the word bastard comprehensively and accurately captures the contradiction ridden relationship between a speaker and her father. On the one hand the father is hated by the speaker and so he is a bastard. On the other hand, there is such a bonded relationship between the speaker and her father that she can afford to call him a bastard and get away with it. Thus, there could not have been a more appropriate term to capture the complex relationship between daughter and father.
The poem is divided into 16 stanzas of five lines each. Thus, the poem consists of 80 lines. The meters used are tetrameter and pentameter, but, the approach of the poet in the matter is rather unorthodox. The poet, very successfully makes use of half-rhyme alliteration, assonance and enchantment. The shoe metaphor at the opening of the poem is brilliant. The poet makes use of the trick of repetition by repeating a particular word. The poet is able to attain the special effect she desires. The imagery is fierce, disturbing and powerful. The most important images are the images of the Holocaust. There is no doubt that Daddy is one of the most brilliant poems ever written by Silvia Plath.
In the note that Sylvia Plath appended to the poem, she claimed that the speaker in the poem is a girl with an Electra complex and added that her father died when she thought he was God. Electra complex and Oedipus complex are two very important terms in Freudian psychology. In Oedipus complex the son develops an excessive attachment to his mother and sees his father as a rival for his place in his mother’s heart. In Electra complex the daughter develops an excessive attachment to the father and sees her mother as a rival for the affections of her father. The Oedipus complex is mother fixation. Electra complex is father fixation. Sylvia Plath states in her note that the speaker in the poem suffers from a father fixation or an Electra complex. On the face of it there is no doubt that the speaker in Daddy enjoys a very bonded relationship with her father and to that extent suffers from an Electra complex, but that is not the full story.
D. H. Lawrence said “Never trust the teller, trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.” If we follow the thinking of Lawrence, it is our responsibility to save the tale of Daddy from Sylvia Plath. When we examine the matter deeply, we realized that the relationship between the speaker in Daddy and her father is a complex one. The speaker loves her father and also hates him. The speaker admires her father and also detests him. The speaker wants to bring her father back to life and also wants to kick him. Thus, it is not a simple father fixation, the daughter makes it clear that, the relationship between her father and herself was something like the relationship between the Nazis and the Jews. Besides, in a textbook case of Electra complex the daughter hates her mother and sees her mother as a rival for her place in her father’s heart. This is certainly not the case in the present poem. In fact, the speaker seems to be acutely conscious of the tensions in the relationship between her father and her mother, and at certain points in the narrative of the poem, she even goes to the extent of identifying herself with her mother rather than with her father. Thus, the statement of Sylvia Plath that, the speaker in Daddy is a girl with an Electra complex cannot be accepted at face value though, there is a fundamental truth in the statement.
Sylvia Plath was the brilliant confessional poet and Daddy is one of the best exemplifications of Sylvia Plath’s confessional poetry. To confess means to admit, to see something, one would not usually say. To state something which under normal circumstances one would not state. To reveal something which one would rather desire to keep hidden. The confessional poet takes the reader in the confidence. The confessional point has no inhibitions, the confessional poet bears her soul to the reader. In general women make better confessional poets than men. One is here reminded of the Catholic ritual of confession, where the Catholic goes to a priest admits his sins and consents to do the penance that he is asked to do by the priest. The relationship between the confessional poet and the reader is somewhat like the relationship between the Catholic sinner and the priest. There is no doubt that Daddy is an excellent specimen of Sylvia Plath’s confessional poetry. In the first place, the poet decides to reveal to her reader the secrets of a very close and bonded relationship, the relationship between a girl and her father is a very personal one and most girls would not like to discuss it with other people. Here is a poet who bares her soul to the reader and reveals to the reader the secrets of her relationship with her father. Secondly the poet is not embarrassed to admit that the relationship between her father and herself is a contradiction ridden one. That is another hallmark of the confessional poet. The confessional poet is not afraid of contradicting herself. She just allows her thoughts and emotions to flow and is willing to exhibit those thoughts, and emotions, whatever they may be, however complicated they may be, and however full of contradictions they may be, the confessional poet is not afraid of saying something and saying something else which contradicts the first statement.
In fact, Daddy can be seen contradictions. The speaker loves her father and hates her father, wants to kill her father and wants to bring him back to life. The speaker conquers the heart of the reader through her boldness, through her frankness and through her honesty, this is the achievement of the typical confessional poem, and this is the achievement of Sylvia Plath’s Daddy.