Analysis of ‘Daddy’ by Sylvia Plath
Daddy was written on October 12, 1962, shortly before her death, and published posthumously in Ariel in 1965. Though most of Plath’s poetry centres around her loss of her father and her relationship with him, this poem perhaps is the most explicit. When we deal with Plath we often involve ourselves with the psychological aspects of her relationship with her father and other father figures. The title however, seems rather too romantic and childlike for any dry psychological introspections.
The theme as the title already suggests is a song about a father. Like any good piece of literature it too has numerous levels of interpretations. However, commensurate with the general theme of her poetry it too deals with her relationship with her father. However as the poem progresses it gets itself mixed with the memories or nuances of the holocaust. Neither in America nor in Britain was the holocaust directly felt. However, Plath’s father, Otto Plath was born in Grabow, Poland and perhaps had faced some of the Nazi atrocities, though he lived there till his sixteenth birthday only.
As far as the tone of the poem is concerned, it is half satiric (given the parodying of the nursery rhyme: “There was an old woman who lived in a shoe./She had so many children that she didn’t know what to do.”) and half mock-eulogising (Every woman adores a Fascist,). It often turns into scorn (Daddy, Daddy, you bastard. I’m through.) before it festers romantic and adoring as in – “and get back, back to you.” Given the post modern conditioning of the poem though the neat structure betrays the claim, the theme and tone often includes contradictory even antithetical ideas. This binding of the opposites actually lends more depth to the poem.
We have already discussed the presence of post modernist tendencies in the poem and the presence of the wide range of lexical possibilities confirms the same. Given the length of the poem we could try to divide our lexical categories into a number of groups. The most thick could be the categories of biography and history. Words like ‘thirty years’, ‘German tongue’, ‘Polish town’, ‘twenty’, ‘seven years’ are directly biographical details. However, when she mentions her age at her father’s death as being ten and not eight, we should become careful about believing everything she says.
Under the category of the biography, we could include her desire which often plays with her memory. She seems to have a constructed memory of her father where her father is a Nazi working for the German air force. She uses the word ‘Luftwaffe’ which gives the poem yet another exotic flavour. The ‘black man’ referred to in the poem is none other than her husband Ted Hughes. Now if we concern ourselves with history we might look at a version of the same where history is coloured with personal memory and emotions. Even if it could not be confirmed if Plath’s mother was Jewish, Plath here tries to associate her persecution with the persecution of an entire race and she conveniently portrays her father to be the Nazi.
This she does by referring to the names of places, things and events that associate with the Nazis like – Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen (infamous concentration camps), swastika, fascist, Mein Kampf. However, she has been accused of personalizing the history rather too much. Stretching from history to pop consciousness we find the image of the vampire. The image of the vampire has now come to be associated with the American pop consciousness rather than with gothic fiction.
The rise and fall of the emotions in association with her father calls for a psychological response. In a note to the poem, Plath herself draws our attention to the connection with the story of Electra:
[The poem] is spoken by a girl with an Electra Complex. Her father died while she thought he was god. Her case is considered 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 paralyze each other – she has to act out the awful little allegory once over before she is free of it.
This statement is important for several reasons that may apply to the other poems of Plath as well. In the first place, we may note the deliberate effort to go beyond the self by employing on the one hand Greek myth and, on the other, events from world history (the Nazi-Jewish animosity). Secondly, it is easy to discern the awareness of psychoanalytical theories and their application to personal relationships. This poem speaks of the father-daughter relationship but in another poem (“Medusa”, for instance) it is relationship with the mother that the poet is concerned with. In yet another poem, it may be the ambiguous mother-child bond that she focuses on (as in “Lesbos”).
Third, the poem takes a close look at not just the relationships, but the emotional complexities of a person, the existence of opposing forces within one’s psyche, the good and the bad, the gentle and the harsh, the Jew and the Nazi. And finally, Plath’s note puts forward a subtle suggestion that poetry, in its most powerful form, is a ritualistic gesture. It is an exorcism of the demons that haunt the poet. It is therapeutic, it has a cathartic effect. In such poems there is generally an inner, psychological conflict the persona is engaged in.
Plath adopted highly strained metaphors to describe her psychic state. Plath pushes beyond poetic convention in her choice of metaphors, assaulting the reader’s sensibilities with the lurid violence of her images. Nevertheless, the question of Plath’s direct appropriation of traumatic historical imagery remains a troubling one in poems such as “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy,” and it raises fundamental questions about the use of historically specific imagery or personae in the service of personal or “confessional” poems. The metaphor of the ‘glue’ in the thirteenth stanza brings in the image of sexuality which is not out of the place given the psychological nature of the construction of the poem.