“Daddy”, Sylvia Plath’s one of the most confessional poems, was written in her later years and is inundated by the resentment and animosity that she felt toward her father. While the title “Daddy” creates a positive image connoting with love, warmth and even security, the poetry that follows deals with great extents of suppressed anger and bitterness. This contradiction holds the attention of the reader from the very first line, “You do not do,” where the speaker blatantly states that she’s done putting up with her father’s ghost. The poem conveys tension from the very outset and the accusations are crystal clear. Plath’s personal life has been showcased exceptionally well, one of the reasons why her poems are often termed ‘confessional’.
The themes of the poem are distinct and emphasized. ‘Daddy’ highlights the gender differences that the speaker feels have tied her down all her life. The association of females with suppression and the hostility that Plath carried for that concept has been touched upon. The speaker has used the image of her father to express her feelings about being controlled and dominated.
‘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.’
These lines give off vibes of suffocation and entrapment that the speaker feels, living with her father. She compares her father to a black shoe that she’s been confined in, scared to even breathe. The poem deals the subject of morality—both the speaker and her father’s. When the father dies, Plath deems it almost necessary to give away her life too.
‘Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time—.’
These lines are a declaration of sorts, an imminent compulsion; that the speaker is forced to drive a stake through her father’s heart. Even though she has done it only figuratively, this destruction of the men in her life—her father and her husband, is what has helped her put her foot down and move on. Mortality is linked with supernatural occurrences, and this generates a wide range of situations and realms that the poet can play with, for instance, the existence of vampires, the devil and even the colossal statue of the father, stretching across the width of the United States of America. This poem explores the paradoxes of death, afterlife, and it has an uncanny progression right from the beginning.
The voice used in this piece of poetry is that of the first person. The speaker directly addresses her father, the second person. While this seems bizarre, seeing that the father that the speaker is addressing to is dead, it is also most effective only then. This is so because through the use of first and the second person, the point is carried across with sheer honesty. Though the use of third person is kept to the minimal, it is not completely excluded.
‘The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,’
This brings to our notice another person, the husband, who is brought into the picture toward the end of the poem.
Plath’s poetry has been coined as ‘confessional’. This is for quite a few reasons. They give us a look into her personal life, where the truth has been blurred along with usage of fictional settings and comparisons. Even when there is more to this poem than what it conveys at the first glance, there’s always an apprehension of reading too much into it. Interestingly enough, Sylvia Plath was suffering from a tendency called ‘Electra Complex,’ better known as father fixation. This is, as defined in Wikipedia, a child’s psychosexual competition with her mother for possession of her father. With all the events occurring throughout the poem, for instance, phrases such as ‘I used to pray to recover you,’ and ‘At twenty I tried to die and get back, back, back to you. I thought even the bones would do,’ tied with the image of the father being so huge and so God-like tells us that the speaker had put her father up at a pedestal. Also, the fact that Plath was with her husband for seven years, which has been mentioned in the poem through the lines, ‘the vampire who said he was you, and drank my blood for a year. Seven years, if you want to know,’ support the assumption of this poem being confessional. And due to this, we can say that it is autobiographical to a certain extent.
Plath uses stylistic devices like metaphor and hyperbole to illustrate the vast part of her life that was occupied by her father. “…A bag full of God” is used as a metaphor for her father, who, when she was a little girl, was the center of Plath’s world.
‘Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal
And a head in the freakish Atlantic.’
These lines are a clear exaggeration of how small she feels in front of the gigantic presence of her father. Also, irony is portrayed through the usage of the word ‘Daddy’ which is often associated with affection—one emotion that cannot be found anywhere in the poem. Repetition of the word ‘Ich’ (meaning ‘I’) takes place to show the uncertainty of her actions and the fear of her father. The repetition of the word
‘back’ shows the speaker’s distress and her desire to get ‘back’ with her father, even if death is what it takes. Though subtle, rhyming hasn’t been completely ignored. Sentences are mostly ending with the sound of ‘-oo’, with words like ‘do’, ‘shoe’, ‘Achoo’, ‘you’, which gains recognition as the poem continues. Metaphors play a big part in the poem as, in most of the poem there is a comparison being made of the father with a Nazi, then the devil, then the vampire and so on. The speaker compares herself to a Jew,
‘I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.’
Through these lines, we can say that the speaker almost victimizes herself. She says the German tongue to be ‘obscene’, and sees her father in every Nazi. By saying so, it is clear that she associates the Nazis to the greatest evil in the world. She expresses the feeling of being suppressed and overpowered by her father, much like the Jews being carried away to concentration camps in trains. Onomatopoeia, a poetic device used to describe sounds, is featured through the words ‘Achoo’—referring to a sneeze and ‘chuffing’—referring to the sound made by an engine. Imagery is another aspect of the poem that cannot be sidelined. Along with metaphors, it helps explain the various comparisons that take place in the poem. Allusion to the size (Ghastly statue…freakish Atlantic), the Holocaust (With your Luftwaffe…adores a Fascist), vampires and the devil (A cleft in your chin…but no less a Devil for that) has been made possible through vivid imagery. It is safe to say that the poetic devices used in the poem play a major role in the delivering and interpretation of it.
The tone throughout the poem shifts from utter acrimony for the father, to a few stanzas where it seems as though the speaker is mourning her loss. It makes sense that the speaker idolizes her father at one point, which makes it harder of her to cope with his sudden absence when she loses him. Toward the end, though, is it easy to make out the tone of finality that the speaker tries to express. We can perceive that those words circle back to the animosity that she holds for her father, only here, there is certainty too. The atmosphere of the poem is grave. Anger and anguish can be detected, too.
The diction and vocabulary of the poem is creative and easy to comprehend. Words relating to death recur and so do the Holocaust references. The words give the poem a rhythm and the pace depends on how cropped the sentences are. The negativity of the words leave a bitter taste behind when spoken out loud.
This poem deals with the towering presence of the father in Plath’s life and how she can’t seem to get over him even after his death. From this poem, it seems as though she has issues with her father, and not enough time to resolve them, consequences of which she faces throughout her life. She feels oppressed by her father, she is scared of him but she admires him, all at the same time.
Plath’s work is cherished for its stylistic and poetic accomplishments—the melding of comic and serious elements, its blunt voicing and its clipped sentences of themes that are questioned by the goodness in society. In this age of gender conflicts, broken families, and economic inequities, Plath’s candid language talks persuasively about the anger of being both betrayed and powerless.