‘Daddy’ by Sylvia Plath

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.

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

And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off the beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.

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

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.

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

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.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gypsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.

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——

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

This is such a well-known poem. It is crashing and cathartic and hypnotically powerful… and I’m excited to write a blog about it.

I read ‘Daddy’ over and over as a teen, when I found it in an anthology that I had. That was before I read The Bell Jar or any other poems by Sylvia Plath. As my fascination for Plath’s life and work grew, ‘Daddy’ made deeper sense to me and I now understand how it is a defining poem for this poet. It still fascinates me every time I read it.

So, Plath presents us with an image of a father in this poem, and it is this father figure that I want to write about mostly. She affectionately and childishly addresses him as ‘Daddy’ in the poem, and yet he is a complex, dark, almost mythical figure that she has had to “kill”. You never get to know the father — we see him only from a distance variously as a “black shoe” in which the speaker has lived imprisoned, “Barely daring to breathe”, a Godlike, “Ghastly statue”, a Nazi, and a “vampire”. I think ‘Daddy’ in this poem certainly represents Plath’s own father; Otto Plath died when Sylvia was just eight-years-old, and his image haunts much of her poetry.

Plath writes in the poem, “Daddy, I have had to kill you./ You died before I had time”. This is a very important line and I think it is key to understanding the crux of the speaker’s issues with her father. Plath’s father did in fact die before she “had time” to kill him in the psychological sense that we all “kill” our parents. By this I mean that Plath’s father died at an age when he was still Godlike in the eyes of his daughter. To the eight-year-old Plath, her father was everything and she idolized him greatly. She never had time to get to know him on a personal level as an adult (“I never could talk to you”). As a consequence, as Plath grew up, it seems that her father remained a mythical, elusive and powerful shadow in her mind that she could never quite understand. This poem is about her getting what nowadays we call ‘closure’.

In my opinion the ‘Daddy’ figure in this poem also represents Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes. Hughes left Plath for another woman not long before she wrote this poem (and she wrote this poem not long before committing suicide in 1963). We become aware of her husband’s relevance in the poem as it nears its end, when Plath writes (addressing her Father): “I made a model of you,
/A man in black with a Meinkampf look/ And a love of the rack and the screw.
/And I said I do, I do.” This is clearly telling us that Plath found a replica of her father in her husband. She suggests that Hughes has tortured her in the same way her father did, and stifled her voice in the same way; “If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two”, she says, communicating that by the end of this poem she will be through with her Father, and with her husband (a model of the Father figure and just as creatively smothering). The similarities between Plath’s ‘Daddy’ and Hughes is even clearer as she describes her husband as “The vampire who said he was you/ And drank my blood for a year,/ Seven years, if you want to know”.

I also think that the ‘Daddy’ figure represents another force that was very present in Plath’s writing life — something that I heard her call “the weight of English Literature” in an interview that I saw on Youtube. There is no escaping the reality that English Literature is dominated by men (dead, white men), and this can be very intimidating for a female writer even today. Virginia Woolf called it “Milton’s bogey” in A room of one’s own. Woolf acknowledged the incredible weight of male dominance in literature as she wrote the following:

“For my belief is that if we live another century or so […] and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; […] if we look past Milton’s bogey, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down..”

‘Daddy’ in this poem, represents Milton’s bogey. It weighs upon Plath’s mind and prevents her from using her voice (“Ich, ich, ich, ich,
/I could hardly speak.”) The fear of writing can become very real when one is aware of all that has gone before. How does one follow Milton (this ‘Daddy’ figure — the dead, white male poet par excellence)?

T.S. Eliot also acknowledges the weight of English Literature on modern writers in The Waste Land:

“O o o o that Shakespeherian Rag –
It’s so elegant
So intelligent

What shall I do now? What shall I do?
I shall rush out as I am, and walk in the street
With my hair down, so.
What shall we do to-morrow?
What shall we ever do?”

But Plath frees herself from this heavy inheritance by the end of the poem. The ending is so cathartic, so triumphant:

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.

I love the sense of victory that is brought by that dancing and stamping. The parallels made with the Nazis in this poem makes it all the more powerful (and it compels our attention) — I think it allows us to understand the gravity of what this father figure has done to Plath and the effect it has had on her life. He has almost killed her. When faced with him she automatically assumes the role of the victim, turning him into a Nazi and her into a “Jew” being chuffed off to “Auschwitz, Dachau, Belsen”. There is so much confusion in this poem; Plath has had to kill an oppressor — two oppressors — that she loved in order to be free.

But there is something so cathartic about those final lines — we feel that Plath has got her ‘closure’. The villagers “always knew”, so there is triumph there too — he never really ‘won’. And I love the irreverence of the “you bastard, I’m through”; Plath is certainly seeing past “Milton’s bogey”. She does not need to imitate him or anybody else: this is Plath’s own voice, real and profound and transcendent. And with that voice she has written something that stands alone as its own pillar of greatness. She is free of the ‘Daddy’: free of the past, the mythical ‘Greats’ of literature and male oppression. She is free to write with her own voice.

5 thoughts on “‘Daddy’ by Sylvia Plath

  1. ‘Morning Song’ by Sylvia Plath – A poem for every day

  2. in my opinion you may ask why there is native language …. well using native language makes the poem more emotional as instead when you tell somebody I love you … if you use your own language you will find it more emotional ….

  3. This is indeed a beautiful poem, one of my favourites. And I really like your piece on it. :)
    Also, I might be wrong, but wasn’t Sylvia Plath ten and not eight when her father died?

    • Great analysis of poem’ daddy’. I like it very much. The poem ‘daddy’ have to learn for psychology student. And one of the great poem from confessional poetry.

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