From Birth to Death in Sylvia Plath’s Daddy
Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” takes the reader through a journey from birth to adulthood in the life of the subject. Incorporating several strategies including imagery, sound and rhyme schemes, Sylvia Plath brings the reader through a journey as the subject deals with her father in various ways throughout the lifetime. Some interpret this poem as an autobiographical poem discussing Sylvia Plath’s relationship with her own father and certainly the personal aspects of the poem are compelling. However, the poem is intrinsically fascinating for the way that it depicts a particular father-daughter relationship as a dysfunctional one.
The first stanza is very child-like and incorporates sounds to depict the woman as a baby. The first two lines “you do not do, you do not do | Any more, black shoe” is a piece of doggerel that is reminiscent of a child cooing (note the repetition of “do” as in “do do do”) and a jump rope line “one two button my shoe” very popular among toddlers and children. The stanza ends with “Achoo” which is the sound of a sneeze, but is also echoed in the end of the third stanza where she incorporates the German “Ach, du.”
The second stanza depicts the relationship that the woman has to her father as a child and it’s the relationship that children have to their parents in the young years where their parents are imposing and foreign bodies. They can pick them up and feed them and clothe them. The declarative lines “Daddy, I have had to kill you” gives way to a description of the father as “marble-heavy, a bag full of God | Ghastly statue with one gray toe | Big as a Frisco sea!” This particular description is epic. Two statue images are in the poem with the second one referring to the statue from the Book of Daniel.
The first stanza is the woman’s perspective as a child with the childish sounds of ‘do do do” and “achoo,” but the second stanza is the establishing relationship with the father who is an imposing figure and would be an imposing figure regardless of his relationship with the narrator. In short, he is God bolstered by images of statues and seas.
The third stanza ends with the “ach, du” which introduces the incorporation of Nazi imagery into the poem. The fourth stanza hits that imagery pretty heavily since it talks about Polish towns and German tongue. The poet is depicting her father as the Aryan master with herself as a Polish victim of the Holocaust.
The Holocaust imagery is not meant merely to shock but to also invoke a dysfunctional father-daughter relationship. This becomes even more apparent in the fifth stanza where she talks about how she could never tell where he put his foot/root. The doubling of the “oo” sound reminds the audience of a sigh. The last two lines of the stanza sound like a standard complaint between emerging adults and their parents. “I could never talk to you. The tongue stuck in my jaw,” are lines that work together in order to simply state the premise of this section of the poem.
The Nazi allusions return in the sixth stanza where the subject speaks of a barb wire snare and expresses her lack of communication with her father in the second and third lines: “ich, ich, ich, ich | I could hardly speak.” The repetition of “ich” has a double meaning. On one level, it’s the author asserting herself by saying “I” four times; however, the sound that the word makes in repetition is the choked up sound of someone struggling to speak but unable to get the words out. It also sounds a little like vomit. So when the stanza ends with the narrator talking about how the German language is obscene and how she thought that every German was her father, she is engaging in a discourse where her father is the tyrant that overwhelms her. He has lost his stature as a lake or statue and has become a bully that uses the German language to get his way.
The next three stanzas give the Nazi imagery in extremis. If her father is a Nazi, then she is a Jew. Dachau, Auschwitz and Belsen are invoked in one line. The snows of Tyrol are invoked as well as the clear beer of Vienna. In the ninth stanza, Plath writes “I have always been scared of you,” placing the Holocaust into the realm of the personal relationship. At this point, the poem’s strategy starts to become clear. The personal is political and vice versa. As Sylvia Plath expresses a dissatisfaction with the father figure, the metaphors and imagery become extreme and based in Holocaust imagery with her father as a Nazi and her as a Jew. This is especially important to notes since even with her father as a Nazi she could have stated that she was a young Aryan girl or an American. She is the victim of her father.
The most compelling line for this poem is “Every woman adores a fascist” in the 10th stanza. The next two lines repeat that “oo” sound but surrounded by “B” and “t” sounds. The lines state “The boot in the face, the brute | Brute heart of a brute like you.” The oo sound of “achoo” which is open-ended and childish is now limited to the words “brute” and “boot” with their hard glottal stops. The “B” followed by the “oo” sound seems warm, but then it’s shut down by that end letter.
In the 12th stanza, Sylvia Plath skips 10 years between the death of her father at 10 and her first suicide attempt at 20. In the 13th stanza, she talks about being put back together and how once recovered, she “made a model out of you, | A man in black with a Meinkampf look.” And this circles back on the previous topics as Sylvia Plath plays out the classic Freudian scenario of always trying to end up playing out the original relationships and dating one’s parents in different forms. As the narrator is free of the father, the narrator is with another “fascist” man who imitates her father.
The 14th stanza is a recompilation of the pieces that have been brimming through the poem. “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” Note how she is rhyming “through” with “through” in the doubling of the “oo” sound and the second line of “I do, I do” is both a recap of the opening lines of “do do do” and the frustration of the “ich ich ich ich” passage. She is momentarily regaining her childish origins even as she is self-identifying as a person who is merging with a man that is very much like her father.
In the last two stanzas, the husband of the poem reveals himself to be a vampire instead of a Nazi. He’s fearsome, but he’s not a massive historical force that is destroying everything. Instead of the master fascist, he is the bloodsucker who takes her life force until she stakes him through the heart. Once the symbolic vampire killing is over, she becomes the villagers who are dancing and stamping around the father figure (whether it is the literal father or the very paternal husband).
The last line “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” separates the “D” sound from the “oo” sound at the end. In between there is a B-T combination only with a short sound. The first part of the line is the “ah-ee” combination for vowels while the end of the line is the ‘oo” sound in the word “through”. In the middle is the phrase “you bastard” which combines the “oo” and the double “a-a” sound. The rhythm is staccato but it ends in a calming “oo” meaning that the woman in the poem has gone through a chaotic journey with her father’s memory and she needs to break it “a-a” and then relax in a soft word like “through” to end the poem, which also rhymes with Jew.
Thus, the poem which has Nazi imagery, allows for the author to engage in many stylistic methods in order to convey a soul at work with itself. Generally, the poetry is most in tune with the narrator when it has the “oo” sound (Jew, through, etc.) yet it conveys the fear of a distant father where communication between the narrator and the father might as well be Jew to Nazi. Finally, Plath changes the imagery from Nazi to vampire in order to convey that the husband carries much of the emotional baggage of the father, but he is not the father.
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Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” takes the reader through a journey from birth to adulthood in the life of the subject. Incorporating several strategies including imagery, sound and rhyme schemes, Sylvia Plath […]