Christina Britzolakis

Christina Britzolakis: On "Ariel"

In 'Ariel', the experience of riding a horse becomes a metaphor for the process of writing a poem. For many critics, the poem is emblematic of Plath's attainment of poetic mastery, as in Stanley Plumly's words, 'Plath's singular and famous example of the form at one with its substance'. Dave Smith writes:

During those six years Plath had learned to write what would be her poem, the poem which was unlike any other, the poem Ted Hughes and others call the Ariel poem. I like it that this poem takes the name of her horse, the horse she is hell-bent on in a pre-dawn ride that is all fluid feeling . . . Nobody ever rode a horse exactly like that, then she did. She not only rode it, but as the physical meld of the images shows she became it in blood and hoof and stride and foam . . . The Collected Poems is a record of how she learnt to ride that electric horse sitting, then trotting, then galloping, finally becoming the current, the motion itself.

As Smith suggests, 'Ariel' forges its own myth of transcendence through the ecstasy of physical motion, an ecstasy which is seen as transitory and self-immolating. The poem seems to embody the event which it describes, seamlessly merging the separate identities of horse and rider through enjambment, assonance, alliteration, and internal rhyme. The symbolist reading of the poem as the affirmation of pure, androgynous creative energy would place it under the sign of Ariel in The Tempest. Yet the apparently seamless movement of poetic becoming in 'Ariel' is predicated on a darker narrative of violence. Two successive movements or phases can be distinguished in the poem's narrative. The first is earthbound and horizontal; it is associated with images of darkness, blood, orality, and the female body, such as the split furrow of the ploughed earth, and the 'nigger-eye | Berries'. These images suggest an identification with a subjugated animal/racial/sexual otherness (the 'nigger eye'/I) . The second movement, which almost imperceptibly takes over from the first, is phallic, solar, and vertical. It is linked with images of light, transcendence, and disembodiment, and punctuated by the repetition of the first-person pronoun, culminating in the figure of the arrow/dew that 'flies | Suicidal, at one with the drive | Into the red | Eye, the cauldron of morning'. The Apollonian 'red Eye', destination of the poem's journey, is an emblem of specularity and surveillance, while the 'cauldron' of morning/mourning invokes an extreme religious imagery of martyrdom and purification; in Isaiah 29: I, Jerusalem is referred to as Ariel, the city destined to be destroyed by fire. The initial assertion of the 'oneness' of the horse and rider gives way to a movement of individuation which forcibly leaves behind the body and the senses.

'Ariel' is a thoroughly Nietzschean poem, a meditation on Zarathustra's dictum that 'the fleetest beast to bear you to perfection is suffering'. The conjunction of the tropes of arrow, sun, and nakedness recalls Zarathustra's description of his 'desire with rushing wings' which 'tore me forth and up and away . . . and then indeed I flew, an arrow, quivering with sun-intoxicated rapture'. The 'rapture' is, as in 'Fever 103°', simultaneously spiritual and orgasmic. The pleasure of an unleashed, yet controlled movement of language ('at one with the drive') is seen in terms of sexual consummation. Yet this pleasure is also self-immolating, exacting a sacrifice of the 'lower', sensory, or bodily strata of experience to a paternal identification. The passage from the 'nigger-eye' to the 'red Eye' traces the emergence of a power structure within the psyche, a movement into the realm of the ego-ideal, which sublimates the darker, feminine, Dionysian energies of the 'nigger'-'I'. Pegasus, the legendary winged horse of poetry, sprang from the blood of Medusa's severed head, and in commemorating that violent birth, the poem remains ambiguously suspended between celebration and mourning.

From Sylvia Plath and the Theatre of Mourning. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Christina Britzolakis

Christina Britzolakis: On "About the Bee Poems"

Plath increasingly finds ways of connecting what I have called the 'oracular' or 'transferential' drama of her poems with a larger historical process. The 1962 sequence which has become known as the 'Bee Poems 'attempts to excavate the traces of this process within the familiar scenario of the daughter's initiation into the mysteries of writing by a father whose power she both desires and repudiates. Beekeeping is associated with the childhood image of the all-powerful father in 'Among the Bumblebees', 'Lament', and 'The Beekeeper's Daughter'. It is also associated with female fertility and reproductive power. In 'The Beekeeper's Daughter', for example, the father is the 'maestro of the bees' who 'move[s] hieratical . . . amongst the many-breasted hives', in a garden of overwhelming lushness. In the Bee Poems, the relation between artistic creativity and power is inscribed as at once personal and political, drawing not only on the association of bees with Otto Plath but also on Plath's own experience of beekeeping in Devon. Beekeeping becomes an analogy for the writing of poetry, which, while playing on the Platonic figure of the bee-poet possessed by divine insanity, as described in the Ion, implies a craft, a specialized practical skill or expertize.

The Bee Poems are often read as a parable of female self-assertion or narrative rite of rebirth, affirming the integrity of the creative self, and thus furnishing an alternative, more hopeful ending for Plath's career. Yet if on one level the poems can be seen as forging a personal mythology of survival, on another their dreamlike logic of displacement and condensation resists narratives of self-realization anchored in a stable notion of the subject. This alternative narrative logic manifests itself through a mobility of identification, which generates various uncanny effects. In particular, the scapegoating or sacrificial trope undergoes a number of psychic and narrative permutations. Although the speaker is initially seen as at once pupil and sacrificial victim of a surgeon-priest performing an operation ('The' Bee Meeting'), she subsequently receives a box of bees with which to begin her own hive ('The Arrival of the Bee Box'). In 'Stings' it is the father-beekeeper who is stung by the bees; in 'The Swarm', he becomes a dictator who uses the bees as instruments of imperialist self-aggrandizement. In the final poem of the sequence, he disappears, leaving the speaker alone, 'wintering in a dark without a window', with the ambivalent harvest of her beekeeping.

In the Bee Poems, the governing metaphor of beekeeping inserts the dynamics of the father-daughter transference into a social and historical continuum. The beehive is a classical figure of the polis as hierarchically ordered, industrious collectivity, in which the common and private good are as one. Bees were, of course, the academic specialism of Otto Plath, author of Bumblebees and Their Ways, and of a treatise on 'Insect Societies' for A Handbook of Social Psychology. With its highly structured division of labour, the hive seems to fulfill all the requirements of the ideally 'adjusted' or technocratic society, a smoothly functioning social organism devoid of conflict. Yet it is also a rich source of paradox and contradiction. For example, it is a matriarchal society of female producers, a detail which is crucial to Plath's reflection on power. It is, also, of course, an authoritarian society. The hive allows the poet to assume multiple and constantly changing points of identification—including those of beekeeper, queen, and worker-drudge—in a psychic theatre, signalled by a pervasive imagery of clothing. For example, the villagers' protective beekeeping gear turns them into participants in a sinister scapegoating rite:

Who are these people at the bridge to meet me? They are the villagers— 

The rector, the midwife, the sexton, the agent for bees. 

In my sleeveless summery dress I have no protection, 

And they are all gloved and covered, why did nobody tell me? 

They are smiling and taking out veils tacked to ancient hats.

The speaker's lack of 'protection' casts her in the role of sacrificial initiate-victim or patient in a surgical 'operation'. She identifies herself with the scapegoat, the Queen Bee who is in the process of being moved to another hive by the villagers to prevent the virgins from killing her. Yet at the same time she becomes a performer, 'the magician's girl who does not flinch'. The rhetoric of innocence, naivety, and vulnerable nakedness is a masquerade which allows her to assume the central role in the drama. Poetic authority is inscribed as a function of the speaker's highly subjective and willed reinvention of herself, which renders the boundary between inner and outer worlds radically fluid and permeable. In 'The Arrival of the Bee Box', the speaker is a Pandora figure, who hovers on the brink of assuming her ownership of the potential hive, torn between terror of its 'dangerous' powers and fantasies of absolute control. The box of bees becomes a metaphor of the unconscious itself, whose dark, 'primitive' forces are linked with the threat of racial and class otherness ('the swarmy feeling of African hands | Minute and shrunk for export, | Black on black, angrily clambering', the 'Roman mob'). Moreover, this trope of the 'primitive' unconscious is acted out in linguistic terms. The 'unintelligible syllables' of the bees threaten the speaker with loss of sovereign control over meaning. She oscillates between the positions of master and slave, oppressor and victim; between fantasies of despotic power which mimic and caricature the authority of a 'Caesar' ('They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner') and of escape from vengeful forces through metamorphosis and disguise, assuming the 'petticoats of the cherry' or a 'moon suit and funeral veil'.

Throughout these poems, the speaker is alternately attracted and repelled by the implications of being 'in control' ('Stings'). In 'Stings' she is again cast as the beekeeper's apprentice, learning how to operate the 'honey machine' which will 'work without thinking | Opening in spring, like an industrious virgin'. Here, however, the threat emanates less from the emblematic male figure than from the female, domestic collectivity of the worker bees or 'winged, unmiraculous women', who would turn the speaker into a 'drudge'. The dreamlike logic of 'Stings' produces a splitting of the father-beekeeper figure; it pits beekeeper and female apprentice as equivocal allies against an intrusive 'third person', a false beekeeper and 'scapegoat' who provokes the fury of the bees. This surrealist triangulation is inscribed within a logic of wish fulfillment or fantasized revenge. The punitive stinging of the interloper is followed by the climactic revelation of the Queen Bee:

They thought death was worth it, but I 

Have a self to recover, a queen. 

Is she dead, is she sleeping? 

Where has she been, 

With her lion-red body, her wings of glass?


Now she is flying 

More terrible than she ever was, red 

Scar in the sky, red comet— 

Over the engine that killed her—

The mausoleum, the wax house.

These lines have often been read as announcing a moment of mythic rebirth, and the triumphant flight of the Queen Bee, escaping from her enclosure in 'the mausoleum, the wax house' , does indeed recall the apocalyptic-destructive power of other iconic female apparitions in Plath's work: the Clytemnestra figure in 'Purdah', the red- haired avenging demon of 'Lady Lazarus', and 'God's lioness' in 'Ariel'. Yet the 'terrible' power of the Queen Bee is deceptive; in spite of her 'lion-red body', her flight relies on the fragile mechanism of 'wings of glass', and the image of the 'red | Scar in the sky' suggests the vulnerability of a wounded, stigmatic 'I' rather than a triumphant affirmation of selfhood. The Queen Bee is in any case a highly equivocal totem of female power; she is a mere instrument of the hive's survival, and to that extent reinforces a mythic view of femininity as grounded in unchanging laws of nature. It is a masculine figure, the beekeeper, who exploits and regulates the labour and raw materials of the hive, and the fertility of the Queen Bee, for the production of a commodity. In 'The Swarm', the beekeeper who manoeuvres the bees into a new hive is likened to Napoleon, the prototypical dictator; the bees become armies which undergo self-immolation at his command:

How instructive this is! 

The dumb, banded bodies 

Walking the plank draped with Mother France's upholstery

  Into a new mausoleum, 

An ivory palace, a crotch pine.

The myth of maternity, like that of charismatic leadership, is enlisted in the service of nationalist and imperial ideology; Through such myths, the poem implies, the totalitarian state entwines itself with the affective life of its subjects and becomes 'the honeycomb of their dream'. Napoleon, whose imperial motif was the bee, and who kept bees during his exile at St Helena, is a figure who holds an ambiguous fascination for the speaker; in a draft of the poem, he is addressed as 'My Napoleon'. Although she ridicules the totalitarian dream which sees the world as mere plunder ('0 Europe! O ton of honey!'), herschadenfreude implicates her in Napoleon's will for power.

In the Bee Poems, equivocal attempts to imagine a female collectivity are intercut with fantasies of individual martyrdom, usurpation, and revenge. The last poem of the sequence, 'Wintering', celebrates the female hive's powers of survival and its expulsion of 'the blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors' when they have performed their limited function. But the dimension of protofeminist allegory announced by the trope of the matriarchal community remains essentially tentative and undeveloped, less a conclusion than a question. Rather, Plath's use of beekeeping as the unifying metaphor of the sequence insists on the materiality of writing as social practice. The text appears as the product of social as well as individual energies. In an ironic rewriting of her New Critical apprenticeship (which saw the poem as self-referring verbal microcosm or autotelic object), what emerges from the Bee Poems is a view of the poetic text as at once psychically and historically overdetermined. Plath's earlier rewriting of de Chirico's 'metaphysical' style represented a key moment in her theatre of mourning. While the Bee Poems also draw on the resources of surrealism, they resist the psychological determinism of the earlier de Chiricoesque landscapes for a more dynamic vision of the relation between the psychic and the figurative. Their emphasis is less on the fatalistic daughter-in-mourning scenario of 'The Colossus', 'Electra', and 'The Beekeeper's Daughter', than on the rhetorical manipulation and reinvention of such transferential scenarios as a means of imagining the possibilities of change and metamorphosis. At the same time, all myths of power, whether individual or collective, are seen as fissured by internal contradictions and therefore as ultimately self-defeating.

The Bee Poems represent the most complex and sustained instance of the oracular metaphor through which, as we have seen, Plath explores the technical resources of her craft and the range of possibilities available to her as a poetic initiate. The encounter with the 'oracle', in its various guises, combines a mythic return to the origins of poetic voice with the seductions of a pre-existent law or tradition, as in the fantasy of power gained through sacrificial victimhood. Yet Plath's struggle for poetic authority, and her revision of her modernist precursors, cannot be seen as a teleological movement culminating in a mythic moment of self-realization. Although the oracle is always linked with scenes of instruction and discipleship, its burden, from the outset, is the return of the repressed. The social, psychic, and above all linguistic energies which sustain the pedagogical transmission of authority are also capable of overwhelming or interrupting it. For Plath, the very terms of selfhood remain, as I shall argue in the next chapter, entangled with a figurative 'other'.

From Sylvia Plath and the Theatre of Mourning. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Christina Britzolakis

Christina Britzolakis: On "Lady Lazarus"

Although Plath's 'confessional' tropes are often seen in terms of a Romantic parable of victimization, whether of the sensitive poetic individual crushed by a brutally rationalized society, or of feminist protest against a monolithic patriarchal oppressor, her self-reflexivity tends to turn confession into a parody gesture or a premiss for theatrical performance. The central instance of the 'confessional' in her writing is usually taken to be 'Lady Lazarus'. M. L. Rosenthal uses the poem to validate the generic category: 'Robert Lowell's 'Skunk Hour' and Sylvia Plath's 'Lady Lazarus' are true examples of 'confessional' poetry because they put the speaker himself at the centre of the poem in such a way as to make his psychological shame and vulnerability an embodiment of his civilization.' The confessional reading of the poem is usually underpinned by the recourse to biography, which correlates the speaker's cultivation of the 'art of dying' with Plath's suicidal career. Although Plath is indeed, at one level, mythologizing her personal history, the motif of suicide in 'Lady Lazarus' operates less as self-revelation than as a theatrical tour de force, a music-hall routine.

With 'Daddy', 'Lady Lazarus' is probably the single text in the Plath canon which has attracted most disapproval on the grounds of a manipulative, sensationalist, or irresponsible style. Helen Vendler, for example, writes that 'Style (as something consistent) is meaningless, but styles (as dizzying provisional scepticism) are all . . . Poems like 'Daddy' and 'Lady Lazarus' are in one sense demonically intelligent, in their wanton play with concepts, myths and language, and in another, and more important, sense, not intelligent at all, in that they wilfully refuse, for the sake of a cacophony of styles (a tantrum of style), the steady, centripetal effect of thought. Instead, they display a wild dispersal, a centrifugal spin to further and further reaches of outrage.' Here, the element of 'wilful' pastiche in 'Lady Lazarus' is measured against a normative ideal of aesthetic detachment. Yet the poem's ironic use of prostitution as the figure of a particular kind of theatricalized self-consciousness—of the poet as, in Plath's phrase, 'Roget's trollop, parading words and tossing off bravado for an audience' (JP 2I4)—calls for a reading which takes seriously what the poem does with, and to, literary history.

Like 'Lesbos', 'Lady Lazarus' is a dramatic monologue which echoes and parodies 'The Love Song of J. AIfred Prufrock'. The title alludes, of course, not only to the biblical story of Lazarus but also to Prufrock's lines: 'I am Lazarus, come from the dead,  | Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all'. Like Eliot, Plath uses clothing as a metaphor for rhetoric: the 'veil' or 'garment' of style. By contrast with Eliot's tentative hesitations, obliquities, and evasions of direct statement, however, Plath's poem professes to 'tell all'. Lady Lazarus deploys a patently alienated and manufactured language, in which the shock tactic, the easy effect, reign supreme. Her rhetoric is one of direct statement ('I have done it again'), of brutal Americanisms ('trash', 'shoves', 'the big strip tease', 'I do it so it feels like hell', 'knocks me out'), of glib categorical assertions and dismissals ('Dying is an art, like everything else') , and blatant internal rhymes ('grave cave', 'turn and burn'). As Richard Blessing remarks, both 'Lady Lazarus' and 'The Applicant' are poems that parody advertising techniques while simultaneously advertising themselves. The poet who reveals her suffering plays to an audience, or 'peanut-crunching crowd'; her miraculous rebirths are governed by the logic of the commodity. Prufrock is verbally overdressed but feels emotionally naked and exposed, representing himself as crucified before the gaze of the vulgar mass. Lady Lazarus, on the other hand, incarnates the 'holy prostitution of the soul' which Baudelaire found in the experience of being part of a crowd; emotional nakedness is itself revealed as a masquerade. The 'strip-tease' artist is a parodic, feminized version of the symbolist poet sacrificed to an uncomprehending mass audience. For Baudelaire, as Walter Benjamin argues, the prostitute serves as an allegory of the fate of aesthetic experience in modernity, of its 'prostitution' to mass culture. The prostitute deprives femininity of its aura, its religious and cultic presence; the woman's body becomes a commodity, made up of dead and petrified fragments, while her beauty becomes a matter of cosmetic disguise (make-up and fashion). Baudelaire's prostitute sells the appearance of femininity. But she also offers a degraded and hallucinated memory of fulfilment, an intoxicating or narcotic substitute for the idealized maternal body. For the melancholic, spleen-ridden psyche, which obsessively dwells on the broken pieces of the past, she is therefore a privileged object of meditation. She represents the loss of that blissful unity with nature and God which was traditionally anchored in a female figure. Instead, Benjamin argues, the prostitute, like commodity fetishism, harnesses the 'sex-appeal of the inorganic', which binds the living body to the realm of death.

Lady Lazarus is an allegorical figure, constructed from past and present images of femininity, congealed fantasies projected upon the poem's surface. She is a pastiche of the numerous deathly or demonic women of poetic tradition, such as Foe's Ligeia, who dies and is gruesomely revivified through the corpse of another woman. Ligeia's function, which is to be a symbol, mediating between the poet and 'supernal beauty', can only be preserved by her death. Similarly, in Mallarme's prose poem 'Le Phenomene Futur', the 'Woman of the Past' is scientifically preserved and displayed at a circus sideshow by the poet. For Plath, however, the woman on show, the 'female phenomenon' is a revelation of unnaturalness instead of sensuous nature, her body gruesomely refashioned into Nazi artefacts. Lady Lazarus yokes together the canonical post-Romantic, symbolist tradition which culminates in 'Prufrock', and the trash culture of True Confessions, through their common concern with the fantasizing and staging of the female body:

I rocked shut


As a seashell. 

They had to call and call 

And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

The densely layered intertextual ironies at work in these lines plot the labyrinthine course of what Benjamin calls 'the sex appeal of the inorganic' through literary history. They echo Ariel's song in The Tempest, whose talismanic status in Plath's writing I have already noted. Plath regenders the image, substituting Lady Lazarus for the drowned corpse of the father/king. The metaphor of the seashell converts the female body into a hardened, dead and inorganic object, but at the same time nostalgically recalls the maternal fecundity of the sea. The dead woman who suffers a sea change is adorned with phallic worms turned into pearls, the 'sticky', fetishistic sublimates of male desire. In Marvell's poem of seduction, 'To His Coy Mistress', the beloved is imagined as a decaying corpse: 'Nor, in thy marble vault shall sound | My echoing song: then worms shall try | That long-preserved virginity: | And your quaint honour turn to dust; | And into ashes all my lust.' In T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, the refrain 'Those are pearls that were his eyes' is associated with the drowned Phoenician sailor, implicit victim of witch-like, neurotic, or soul-destroying female figures, such as Madame Sosostris and Cleopatra.

Lady Lazarus stages the spectacle of herself, assuming the familiar threefold guise of actress, prostitute, and mechanical woman. The myth of the eternally recurring feminine finds its fulfilment in the worship and 'martyrdom' of the film or pop star, a cult vehicle of male fantasy who induces mass hysteria and vampiric hunger for 'confessional' revelations. Lady Lazarus reminds her audience that 'there is a charge, a very large charge | For a word or a touch | Or a bit of blood | Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.' It is as if Plath is using the Marilyn Monroe figure to travesty Poe's dictum in 'The Philosophy of Composition' (I846) that 'the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world'. The proliferation of intertextual ironies also affects the concluding transformation of 'Lady Lazarus' into the phoenix-like, man-eating demon, who rises 'out of the ash' with her 'red hair'. This echoes Coleridge's description of the possessed poet in 'Kubla Kahn': 'And all should cry Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair!' The woman's hair, a privileged fetish-object of male fantasy, becomes at once a badge of daemonic genius and a flag of vengeance. It is tempting to read these lines as a personal myth of rebirth, a triumphant Romantic emergence of what Lynda Bundtzen calls the female 'body of imagination'. The myth of the transcendent-demonic phoenix seems to transcend the dualism of male-created images of women, wreaking revenge on 'Herr Doktor', 'Herr God', and 'Herr Lucifer', those allegorical emblems of an oppressive masculinity. Yet Lady Lazarus's culminating assertion of power—'I eat men like air'—undoes itself, through its suggestion of a mere conjuring trick. The attack on patriarchy is undercut by the illusionistic character of this apotheosis which purports to transform, at a stroke, a degraded and catastrophic reality. What the poem sarcastically 'confesses', through its collage of fragments of 'high' and 'low' culture, is a commodity status no longer veiled by the aura of the sacred. Lyric inwardness is 'prostituted' to the sensationalism of 'true confession'. The poet can no longer cherish the illusion of withdrawing into a pure, uncontaminated private space, whose immunity from larger historical conflicts is guaranteed by the 'auratic' woman. . . .for Plath the female body, far from serving as expiatory metaphor for the ravages of modernity, itself becomes a sign whose cultural meanings are in crisis.

From Sylvia Plath and Theatre of Mourning. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Christina Bitzolkais

Christina Britzolakis: On "Daddy"

. . . recall Theodor Adorno's view, in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) of the advance of Enlightenment rationality as a narrative of violence which tends to annihilate otherness in the name of an implacable principle of identity. Rooted in a prehistoric split between subject and object, the dialectic of enlightenment attempts to outlaw primitive modes of perception such as sympathetic magic, and 'makes the dissimilar comparable by reducing it to abstract quantities'. The very reason which the Enlightenment used as a weapon against myth, religion, and illusion has, in modem society, turned against itself and reverted to irrationalist violence. Its oppressive tendency culminates in the catastrophe of the Holocaust, in whose wake the entire heritage of European high culture appears discredited or exhausted.

For Adorno, as for Plath, this dark vision of Enlightenment rationality is informed by the catastrophic events of recent history. Yet while Plath's writing mourns the victims of what goes by the name of historical 'progress', it also, as we have seen, plays out a deep complicity with the drive towards mastery that Adorno sees as central to Enlightenment. This paradox manifests itself as a tendency to yoke together historical and subjective crisis in manifestly unstable metaphorical conjunctions. The invocation of events such as the Holocaust and Hiroshima as metaphors for states of psychic extremity ('Daddy', 'Lady Lazarus', 'Fever 103°', 'Mary's Song') is often seen as merely capitalizing on their public significance. Thus Irving Howe, for example: 'There is something monstrous, utterly disproportionate, when tangled emotions about one's father are compared with the historical fate of the European Jews . . . "Daddy" persuades once again, through the force of negative example, of how accurate T. S. Eliot was in saying, "the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates".' The familiar charge of metaphorical overreaching takes on, here, an ethical dimension; in turning a historical event of this magnitude into a metaphor for subjective crisis, Plath allegedly perpetrates a violent twisting or perversion of the principle of metaphoric similarity. This violation of New Critical codes of impersonality is conflated, as Jacqueline Rose has argued, with its violation of the widespread belief that the Holocaust is in some ultimate sense beyond representation. The scandal of 'Daddy' is compounded by the sexualized scenario of collusion, in which the daughter/victim identifies with, and is seduced by, the father/oppressor. What Alicia Ostriker calls 'the earliest and most famous of female vengeance poems' none the less remains a love poem which not only explores the tangled links between femininity, eros, and domination, but mockingly appropriates 1950s myths of female masochism in order to do so.

As I have already argued, 'Daddy' operates in the modes of pastiche and parody, mixing Gothic folklore, Freudian clichés, and racial and sexual stereotypes with allusions to historical events and literary echoes. Through its blatant theatricality and unstable irony, it reflects on its own insertion into literary history and on its own figurative processes. The speaker's comparison of herself to a Jew also happens to thematize the activity of figuration itself:

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 infamous metaphor (more precisely, simile) is an extension of the prior metaphor of the father's language as 'An engine, an engine | Chuffing me off like a Jew'. It is, as Helen McNeil has-suggested, 'a kind of psychic conceit, as if she is daring her reader to disbelieve what has been so passionately felt and powerfully expressed'. Once this extravagant 'train of thought' has been put into motion, it becomes a metaphorical machine which conveys the 'I' into a historical and ideological 'other' space not of its own choosing ('I've boarded the train there's no getting off', as Plath puts it in 'Metaphors'). The figurative act therefore not only puts into question the ethical status of the poem's discourse but foregrounds this ethical instability as an aspect of the motivation or intentionality of metaphor itself.

The Nazi-Jew metaphor is an extreme manifestation of the trope of subjection to otherness which, I have argued, governs much of Plath's poetry. It signals a radically simplified and unstable dialectic of self and other at work in the poem's language. This projective dialectic, of which the speaker represents herself as both victim and perpetrator, is acted out through the metrical parallelism of rhyme which becomes an 'engine', a seemingly automatic force with its own momentum. The entire poem is dominated by the compulsive necessity of the 'you' rhyme, which generates as its corollary the 'Jew'; the 'I' marking the 'not-I' as its other.

'Daddy' self-consciously exploits the linguistic primitivism of the 'unleashed tongue' through parody voodoo rituals. The father becomes a scapegoat, ritually dismembered into metonymic body parts such as foot, toe, head, mustache, blue eye, cleft chin, bones, heart, and resurrected in a bewildering variety of guises: black shoe, 'ghastly statue with one gray toe', 'panzer-man', teacher, devil, black man, Teutonic vampire, and, finally, Freudian father of the primal horde murdered by his sons. The original of 'Daddy' is irrevocably lost; it is the symbols of the (dead) father, his law, which the speaker is addressing: 'And then I knew what to do. | I made a model of you, | A man in black with a Meinkampf look.' The transformations of the father are matched by the daughter, who becomes, in succession, a white foot, Jew, pupil, gipsy, witch, and doll with a 'pretty red heart'. The violent symmetry and parallelism of the victim-oppressor scenario recalls Theodor Adorno's claim, in 'Elements of Anti-Semitism' (1944) that the Fascist projects the impulses he cannot accept as his own on to his victim. It is his similarity to the Jew which arouses the paranoid rage of the anti-Semite and turns the oppressed into an oppressor. The preverbal language of mimicry—of primitive gesture—becomes the tabooed sign of the Jew, marking him as the scapegoat. In 'Daddy', the oppressive relationship between father and daughter is seen as part of a larger process of scapegoating at work in history and language alike:

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.

Language threatens to break down into nonsense, stuttering, and aphasia ('the brute | Brute heart of a brute like you') . The terroristic staccato consonants of the German 'Luftwaffe' are translated into the childish barbarism, 'gobbledygoo'. The 'blue' of the 'Aryan eye', Nazi symbol of racial purity, is rhymed with the blue of the sky which 'squeak[s]' through the death-dealing blackness of the swastika. Victim and oppressor secretly mirror each other; and the victim's response to paranoid oppression is to imitate its features.

Plath's overreaching use of the Nazi-Jew metaphor in 'Daddy' cannot be separated from the poem's wider exploration and exploitation, through language, sound, and rhythm, of the violent logic of 'othering'. It is, perhaps, this linguistic regression which is at the heart of its perceived offence to canonical values. It does not merely refute the self-possession of the poetic subject but also suggests that, as Freud argues in The Ego and the Id, 'what is highest in the human mind' is rooted in 'the lowest part of. ..mental life'. There is no document of culture, Walter Benjamin wrote in the 'Theses on the Philosophy of History' that is not at the same time a document of barbarism. Although 'Daddy' seems flagrantly to violate the Eliotic doctrine of 'impersonality', therefore, it can equally be seen as pushing it to an unholy extreme: the truly original poet who is in touch with tradition expresses 'the mind of Europe' not merely in its cultural glories but also in its deepest disgrace.

Plath's 'negations' are the effect of a profound ambivalence towards poetic language itself. On the one hand, her work can be seen as a triumphant celebration of the transformative powers of metaphor and of the 'oracular' dimension of poetic language invoked by Seamus Heaney; on the other, it can be seen as activating a darker, daemonic, or nihilistic side of the auditory imagination. In Plath's poetry, the Romantic identification of the 'symbol' with the sensuous, maternal fecundity of nature, as a means of overcoming the terror of death, or of transcending melancholy, is effectively disabled. Her rhetoric is founded on the recognition of a chronic lack of solace in figurative language. Metaphor appears less as a means of harmonizing an alienated self with the world, as in the Romantic tradition, than as a technology which violently, if exhilaratingly, wrests the body to its own ends. The noble rider's drive towards mastery tends to undo itself, precipitating a backlash of linguistic regression. Plath thus stages a 'dialectic of enlightenment' in the arena of metaphor, rhythm, and sound, drawing upon the ambiguously incantatory and oral powers of poetic language itself. The splitting and instability of the subject in these poems—its alternation between the roles of oppressor and victim—forms part of a disturbance of memory and of language that is, as I shall argue in the next chapter, at once psychic and historical.

From Sylvia Plath and the Theatre of Mourning. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Christina Britzolakis.