Elaine Feinstein discusses the possibilities and limits of reading Sylvia Plath’s 'Daddy' biographically.
The electricity of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’ continues to astonish half a century after its composition, partly because of the intensity of her fury, partly through the soaring triumph in her own poetic power. Forms of desertion are her subject: first her father dying when she was a child, then the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. The poem imagines revenge. Even now, I am overwhelmed by the assurance of her voice.
Much of the craftsmanship lies in the choice of structure. Her stanzas are irregular, but they have a beat which, together with those crooning rhymes for ‘you’ – for which the reader must create the shape of a baby’s sucking lips – give the strangest images a kind of inevitability like a nursery rhyme or events in a fairy tale. There are internal rhymes too; the loveliest gives a moving beauty to the Atlantic ‘where it pours bean green over blue’. The speed of her words seems to increase through the poem as her sentences run over the edges of those stanzas, almost as if in writing it she has regained spontaneity.
It is the imagery which convinces us of a real-life drama. In the very first verse, Plath imagines herself as a foot constrained in a shoe through a lifelong fear of moving by so much as a sneeze. The metaphor is deliberately awkward, but it brilliantly evokes the stasis of depression, from which the writing of the poem is itself an escape.
The figure addressed initially as ‘you’ is that of Plath’s father, Otto, whose early death has prevented her from finding an escape from her obsession in the commonplace rebellion of adolescence. In her memory he stands at the blackboard, ‘a bag full of God’ with an Aryan blue eye, or else a man in a Panzer tank, the very embodiment of ruthless German power in Europe. This is the first deliberate step the poem takes away from lived experience. However proud of his roots in Germany Otto may have been, he was never part of Hitler’s army and probably never wished to be. Nor is losing him directly responsible for Plath’s early attempt at suicide as the poem suggests, though we enjoy the wry wit with which she describes her attempt to get back to him ‘as if even the bones would do’.
Otto liked his daughter to speak to him in German, even though her tongue always caught on the un-English sound of ich as if on barbed wire. With that phrase, and an assertion that there is something obscene about the German language itself, Plath enters the landscape of the Nazi concentration camps as a victim, ‘chuffed off’ – a memorably playtime word – to those appalling destinations by the trains in which so many died of thirst and exhaustion. For all its intensity, the poem is riddled with patterns of feeling which are remote from her autobiography. That this is a conscious choice, a short note in the British Library which Plath prepared for her reading of ‘Daddy’ on BBC radio makes plain (Add MS 88589, 'New Poems'). In this she declares that the girl at the centre of the poem has a Nazi father and a mother who comes from a Jewish family. To my mind what this most clearly signals is Plath’s wish to distinguish the ‘girl in the poem’ from the poet writing it. The poem is to be read as an invention rather than a confession. Plath’s rage against her father is explicitly murderous from the second verse of the poem on, but her language takes on a bizarre sexual charge as she allows her memory to flow into a portrait of her husband Ted Hughes. Otto’s fascism is a black swastika which is so capable of dominating the natural world that even the sky cannot ‘squeak’ through. Hughes is a man whose blackness gives him ‘a Meinkampf [sic] look’. We must pause a little over this. Certainly Hughes liked to wear a black leather jacket, but Plath conjures up an image of an SS officer in immaculate uniform who might well have enjoyed torture. Hughes’s clothes were never so smart. At Cambridge he was often unkempt, and even in more affluent days he preferred to look like a casual countryman. Nor was he ever politically drawn to fascism. Plath has created a ‘model’ as she claims, but it was drawn from caricatured features of her father; a dangerous transference indeed.
Plath’s throwaway proposition – ‘Every woman adores a fascist, / The boot in the face’ – has little to do with her relationship to Hughes, who was tender towards her through frequent crises during the seven years they were together. Plath’s Journals amply refute the charge of a violent bully or a vampire. Nor had she been abandoned by him. It was Plath who threw Hughes out of Court Green when she discovered his love affair with Assia Wevill. She had, however, undeniably been sexually betrayed. It may be precisely this humiliation that Plath wishes to conceal. Her tone is almost jaunty as she speaks of the man who ‘bit her pretty red heart in two’.
In the same introductory note in the British Library she deliberately moves her poem further away from her own lived experience by speaking of the ‘girl in the poem’ as an Electra figure, a mythical creature, therefore, caught in an ancient story and barely relevant to her own situation. As the poem picks up pace towards its conclusion, Plath invents a gleeful lynch mob of outraged villagers who pursue the two creatures they recognise as vampires, who have kept the girl in emotional bondage. She rejoices in the traditional stake driven into the heart of her dead father, but no physical description is given of the fate of the husband figure. I have never doubted the meaning of the last line of the poem, in spite of the two possible meanings of ‘I’m through’. The wish to escape is by this point so very much stronger than any desire to connect. The whole anger of the poem explodes as she calls Daddy a bastard, truly, as she declares ‘The black telephone’s off at the root’.
Sylvia Plath’s first volume of poems, The Colossus, and her novel, The Bell Jar were published in London to respectful reviews but roused little excitement at the time. In the decade following her death she was catapulted to worldwide fame, and ‘Daddy’ became an iconic poem of the feminist movement. There was a dark side to this success, however. For many years Ted Hughes’s readings were mobbed by indignant women, and the American poet Robin Morgan published ‘The Arraignment’ (1972), a poem which directly accuses Hughes of murdering his wife and advocates a grisly physical revenge.
In Russia, I was often asked why Plath had taken her own life and I outlined all I knew – the adultery, the two children, the freezing cold, her history of depression – and was met with incredulity. Against these Russians’ desperate history of slaughtered millions, her misery seemed almost childish, and they had no belief in Freudian theory. They were missing, as perhaps Plath intended that they should, the pain that went to the very centre of her fragmented self.