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Sylvia Plath: Biography Review

Poetry has a beautiful ability to pull ideas and emotions out from the depths of one’s being with only a few short lines and a well-chosen metaphor. Through various literary devices, poets are able to paint pictures for their readers that more concretely define the feelings and beliefs that remain, for most of the world, almost impossible to define to any satisfactory degree. The effect of a poem, however, often depends on the ability of the poet to present their ideas, emotions and impressions with strong imagery. This effectively paints a mental image for the reader (or listener) that cannot be denied and therefore begins to conjure up a sense of sympathy with the emotional response the poet has to the subject. The process of conjuring up these images that serve to illustrate emotions better than any definition spelled out in a dictionary necessarily also conjures up deeply personal images to the author as being representative of the source of such emotions. Because of this intimate relationship between the author and the images used to portray the subject, it is impossible to remove the personal experience from the outward expression, particularly as it relates to poetry dealing with relationships. These concepts are sharply illustrated in much of the poetry of Sylvia Plath. Although she insisted her poem “Daddy” was not about her life, this paper will demonstrate not only that it was strongly linked to her personal life, but also that the hostility laced throughout the poem was not directed toward her father, as the title might suggest, but was instead directed to her ex-husband.

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The first indication that the poem might not be as objective as Plath might have intended is found in the fact that the poem is written in first person. It takes the official form of a poetic letter to her father, who has been dead for 20 years. Although it is not clear who the figure of verse 1 has been, his identity seems to be revealed as well as the concept that this is a letter emerges in the second verse, “Daddy, I have had to kill you, / You died before I had time” (6-7). The story that emerges in the subsequent lines is of a woman who has lived in fear and awe of a male person for as long as she can remember. The fear is evident in her metaphor of him as “Marble-heavy, a bag full of God, / Ghastly statue with one gray toe / Big as a Frisco seal” (8-10). Later, she compares her fear of this male figure to the fear the Jews felt for the Nazis, seeing herself as being shipped off to the concentration camps and describing her father’s appearance in terms of the perfect Aryan. “But no less a devil for that, no not / Any less the black man who / Bit my pretty red heart in two” (54-56). Finally, her description of the man she married as the model of her father indicates his deep cruelty because he has a “love of the rack and the screw” (66). She ends the poem by indicating her father has been an evil vampire, sucking her life dry and finally buried with a stake in his heart to the delight of the villagers. Her beginning and end of the poem, each expressed in terms of anger and fear, leave no doubt that her fear outweighed any other emotions she had of this male figure.

Even the pace of the poem works to indicate Plath is personally involved with the action as it focuses on major events of her life, such as the death of her father and the betrayal of her husband. Although she is writing against the male of the poem, angrily detailing the many cruel actions he perpetrated, she seems almost breathless as she allows the thoughts of the poem to be interrupted by line breaks and allows one thought to blend almost seamlessly into another. This liberal use of enjambment keeps the pace of the poem moving quickly (McInerny, 1999) and gives the impression that the thoughts of the poem were written as they occurred to the author. This impression heightens the personal connection between Plath and her subject just as the various images she relates continue to reflect aspects of her own life in an autobiographical sense. Unable to completely escape her own inner feelings and thoughts, Plath has captured a great deal of her own impressions of the men in her life, which, by extension, also happened to address many common issues faced by women of her time. As the poem bleeds from one man to another, the reader begins taking a closer look at the ways in which Plath has portrayed the husband and the father, beginning to suspect that this obviously personally applicable poem reserves most of its bitterness for the husband.

Throughout the poem, Plath provides plenty of clues that her love for her father was very strong, calling into question the source of the hostility found within the poem. She opens the poem with her anger toward her father as she describes the oppressive environment of trying to live in a black shoe, “barely daring to breathe or achoo” (5). While this can be seen by an adult woman as oppressive, this same imagery could also serve to indicate the feelings of security and protectiveness the young child might have felt when in the presence of a loving father. Similarly, her analogy of the heartless statue in verse 2 bleeds into a memory of a beautiful vacation she took in which she “used to pray to recover you” (14). A tender feeling is evoked with this blending of images that serves, even without any background knowledge of the author, to indicate a more positive relationship had existed between father and daughter than is expected by the later bitterness. She describes him as “Marble-heavy, a bag full of God, / Ghastly statue with one gray toe” (8-9). This imagery at once indicates the depth of his importance in her life, as he was God-like and ever-present, but also describes the lifeless corpse she was confronted with when her father died of complications from gangrene (the gray toe) when Plath was just ten years old (Srivastava, 1992: 127). Her island memory turns into a full-scale search for her father’s roots, which further suggests the concept of trying to recapture the person she loved. But the name of the town he came from was too common for her to determine the correct one, “So I never could tell where you / Put your foot, your root, / I never could talk to you (22-24). The way she places mention of his death just after the line about his biting her heart in two (56) brings into question whether her broken heart was the result of his cruelty or his death. Her attempted suicide is described as an effort to get back to him just as is her marriage to a man who is just like what she remembers.

As she more openly discusses her husband, the poem becomes more and more bitter and angry in tone. While it’s difficult to determine just where in the poem the husband enters the picture, there are plenty of hints that he comes in at roughly the half-way point. It isn’t until line 41 that she first mentions that she lives in fear of him, “With your Luftwaffe, your gobblebygoo. / And your neat mustache / And your Aryan eye, bright blue … Not God but a swastika” (42-44, 46). The oppressive language used in lines 48-50, “Every woman adores a Fascist, / The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you,” does not indicate a father/daughter relationship that would naturally result in the type of nostalgic searching already described through the rest of the poem. Instead, it seems much more in keeping with an abusive relationship between a husband and a wife. The apparent mixing of the two men who have been most important to her life, her father and her husband, enables the concept of “the black man who / Bit my pretty red heart in two” (55-56) to apply as equally to the heartache caused by her father’s early death as the betrayal and pain brought on by the imperfect substitute she created out of her husband: “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” (64-67).

It is this monster creation, this vampire who has usurped the image she had of her father, to whom she feels the great bitterness and distress that suffuse the poem. “If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two – / The vampire who said he was you” (71-72). Because vampires were considered to be immortal yet retaining only the outward aspect of the person they had once been, Plath’s use of the term here indicates the extreme degree at which she replaced her dead father with her husband. However, her husband was not her father and was unable to live up to the expectations regardless of whatever else he might have been. Because he takes on the outward aspect of her father, though, her reference to Daddy throughout the poem, particularly in the second half, can be read as applying equally to the father she remembers as well as the husband she selected. Examining the poem as an elegy for her father, Ramazani (1993) also sees the metaphor of the vampire as Plath’s means of purging herself of the bitter images her husband has instilled in her, finally coming to grips with the concept that she will never be able to recapture the type of loving and protective relationship she once had with her father. “Plath now fiercely mocks her desire to fashion a surrogate for her dead father” (Ramazani, 1993: 1151) and sets out to completely remove any traces of connections with him, “The black telephone’s off at the root, / The voices just can’t worm through” (69-70).

Writing with a heavy use of enjambment to depict the almost breathless pace with which these thoughts of husband/father/vampire seem to spill out onto the page highlights the degree to which Plath is incapable of removing herself completely from the subject of her poetry. Biographical data of her life serves to deepen the understanding of the poem and further indicates a level of personal involvement on the part of the author. As the poem is analyzed, though, it becomes obvious that the bitterness and anger of the poem only seems to enter in at roughly the halfway point in a change of tone that is in keeping with the bitterness she felt toward her husband, as it is expressed through the latter portion of the poem. Introducing the concept of an enemy with a familiar face in the concept of the vampire, Plath illustrates the many ways that her surrogate father, her husband, has managed to hurt her and disappoint her desires for a loving and supportive relationship. He is a monster who has only taken the form of the father, but is unable to take on the compassion and emotion. Understanding this construct, it becomes apparent that the author’s husband is the focus of all the bitterness, with only a regretful and half-apologetic final farewell given to the well-loved father of the author’s childhood.

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Works Cited

McInerny, Maud. “What the Heck is Enjambment?” The Canterbury Tales. 1999. Haverford College. 2008. Web.

Plath, Sylvia. “Daddy.” Ariel. New York: Perennial Classics, 2005, p. 56.

Ramazani, Jahan. “’Daddy I Have Had to Kill You’: Plath, Rage, and the Modern Elegy.” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America. Vol. 108, 1993, pp. 1142-1156.

Srivastava, K.G. “Plath’s Daddy.” The Explicator. Vol. 50, 1992, pp. 126-28.

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