The rhythm of a poem such as 'Daddy' has its basis in nursery rhyme, and in this respect may be compared with the rhythms used by the witches in Macbeth--or, more recently, by T. S. Eliot in Sweeney Agonistes--a dramatic fragment surprisingly close to Sylvia Plath's poem in feeling and theme. The rhythmic patterns are extremely simple, almost incantatory, repeated and giving a very steady return. The first line, for example, 'You do not do, you do not do', with its echoes of the witches winding up their sinister spell, 'I'll do, I'll do, and I'll do' or T. S. Eliot's repetition of 'How do you do. How do you do' denies the affirmation of the marriage service which is later introduced into the poem, 'And I said I do, I do', and suggests a charm against some brooding but largely undefined curse. As in nursery ryhme, the force, almost compulsive, of the rhythmical pattern of the poem gives a sense of certainty, psychologically a sense of security, to a world of otherwise remarkably haphazard and threatening events. The dilemma of the old woman who lived in the shoe, of Dr. Foster, or of Miss Muffet terrified by the spider, is largely contained and appears acceptable and almost reassuring in the comforts of an incantatory rhythmical pattern, for order is imposed, often, indeed, superimposed, on an otherwise fortuitous and even terrifying reality. Also the subject of the nursery rhyme tends to accept his situation with something like a matter-of-fact stoicism; often he seems to co-operate with the events that beset him.
The effectiveness of 'Daddy' can largely be accounted for by Sylvia Plath's success in associating the world of the poem with this structure of the nursery rhyme world, a world of carefully contained terror in which rhythm and tone are precariously weighed against content to produce a hardly achieved balance of tensions.
Sylvia Plath's persona exemplifies, she has said, the Electra complex and is involved in the classical psychological dilemma of hatred for her mother, with whom she identifies herself, and love for her German father whom she rejects as tyrannous, brutal and life-denying. The animus that sustains her is both directed towards the father and driven in on herself as if, in the wish to prove her love for those who persecute her, she must outdo them in persecuting herself. The area of experience on which the poem depends for its images is rawly personal, even esoteric, and yet she manages to elevate private facts into public myth, and the sheer intensity of her vision lends it a kind of objectivity. The detachment she achieves in this sudden, terrifying insight into a private world of suffering and humiliation far from dragging the reader into a vortex of suffering and humiliation releases him into a sense of objectivity and fierce emotions. The central insight is that of the persona, her awareness of her own schizophrenia, of herself as a victim, a centre of pain and persecution; but there is also awareness of a love/hate relation with those responsible for persecuting her. It is this insight into her schizophrenic situation that gives the poem its terrifying but balanced polarity; the two forces, persecutor and victim, are brought together because the persona cannot completely renounce the brutality which is embodied in the father/lover image without also renouncing the love she feels for the father/lover figure. The love/hate she feels is the very centre of her emotional life without which she can have neither emotion nor life. In this sense she can be said to cooperate with those that persecute her and, indeed, to connive at her own suffering. As in nursery rhyme, the heroine loves her familiar terrors.
The main area of conflict in the poem is not that covered by the relation of persecutors and persecuted but is within the psyche of the persecuted herself. It is between the persona as suffering victim as detached, discriminating will. In this poem the takes the diseased psyche takes the place of sensibility and the problem is to establish the relations between subconscious psyche and conscious will. Torn between love and violence, the persona moves towards self-knowledge, the awareness that she love the violence or, at least, towards the recognition that the principles of love and violence are so intimately associated one with the other that the love can only express itself in terms of the violence. By accepting the need for love, she exposes herself to the pain and humiliation of a brutal persecution. The traditional associations of love with tenderness, respect, beauty, and so on, have been utterly destroyed; love is now associated with brutality, contempt and sadistic ugliness. Love does not bring happiness but only torture, 'the rack and the screw'. Moreover, far from admiring the traditional qualities of a lover, the poem insists that:
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
Furthermore, brutality is not only a necessary part of love but is also a central and inevitable principle of life. In the last stanza of the poem the community itself joins the heroine in a savage, primitive ritual of brutality--
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
The poem avoids self-pity by hardening its tone into one of self-contempt. The persona is divided and judges itself The only escape from such self-knowledge is in death which the poem acknowledges not only as a release but also as a refining and purifying force, a way of cleansing. It is not annihilation of the personality but the freeing of it from the humiliating persecution of love and violence.
The poem is a terrifyingly intimate portrait, but it achieves something much more than the expression of a personal and despairing grief. The poem is committed to the view that this ethos of love/brutality is the dominant historical ethos of the last thirty years. The tortured mind of the heroine reflects the tortured mind of our age. The heroine carefully associates herself and her suffering with historical events. For instance, she identifies herself with the Jews and the atrocities of 'Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen' and her persecutors with Fascism and the cult of violence. The poem is more than a personal statement for by extending itself through historical images it defines the age as schizophrenic, torn between brutality and a love which in the end can only manifest itself, today, in images of violence. This love, tormented and perverse, is essentially life-denying: the only escape is into the purifying freedom of death. This is the hideous paradox, that the only release from a world that denies the values of love and life is in the world of death. The nursery rhyme structure of the poem lends this paradox the force of rnatter-of-fact reasonableness and an air of almost reasonable inevitability. In this we are persuaded almost to co-operate with the destructive principle--indeed, to love the principle as life itself
From "On ‘Daddy’"" in The Art of Sylvia Plath: A Symposium. Ed. Charles Newman. Copyright © 1970 by Charles Newman and the Estate of Sylvia Plath.