Roger Platizky: On "Daddy"
Images of victimization in Sylvia Plath's poem "Daddy" - of Nazis, swastikas, barbed wire, fascists, brutes, devils, and vampires - are so frantic, imposing, and vituperative that the poem seems more out of control than it actually is. When read rapidly and angrily, without ample attention paid to its many unexpected pauses, Plath's poem, indeed, seems like a runaway train barreling through one psychic nightmare after the other, until the speaker pulls the emergency cord that irrevocably separates the self from the tormenting other in the very last line: "Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through."(1) While the poem's irregular enjambment makes some of the stanzas (for example, 4, 5, 11, and 12) appear to be running off their tracks, the locomotive force of this poem is more often controlled by end-stopped lines that keep it from derailing. Of the poem's 80 lines, 37 are end-stopped, with the only exception being stanza 11, which careens without pause into the next strophe. Unlike the image patterns, which keep multiplying from one form of demonization into another, the 15 stanzas remain stable at five lines apiece. Also suggestive of the poet's control over her material, the stanzas containing the most end-stopped lines (four stops in stanzas 7, 14, and 16) usually allude to concentration camps, torturers, and vampires, while the stanzas with the fewest (one stop in stanza 1; no stops in stanza 11) characteristically show more ambivalence toward victimization. In effect, the speaker takes away some of the power of her alleged tormentors by end-stopping their lines. She also does this by using enjambment to diffuse some of the force of the masculine rhymes that end the majority of her stanzas.
Psychological control in this poem of the self over the other, however, is not as readily attained. As a number of critics have indicated, another stylistic pattern that recurs in "Daddy" is the compulsive use of the /oo/ sound that inevitably draws the reader back to the you and do rhymes of the first line. In fact, the ubiquitous a rhyme is repeated more than 60 times. Susan R. Van Dyne considers this "verbal tic" to be a sign "of a disordered psyche and poetic incontinence," an "overdetermined" use of "regressive and repetitive language."(2) Similarly, Steven Gould Axelrod regards the repetition as childlike: "The language of the poem . . . teeters precariously on the edge of a preverbal abyss - represented by the eerie, keening 'oo' sound with which a majority of the verses end."(3) A. Alvarez considers the style of Plath's poem to be "a form of manic defense" (qtd. in Lane 66); and, indeed, if the poem were read without emphasizing the end-stopped lines, this might be the case. Another plausible explanation for the repetition-compulsion of the /oo/ sound can be adapted from a pattern that Peter Sacks locates in English elegies.
According to Sacks, mourning poems (such as "Daddy") frequently repeat sound or stanzaic patterns (for example, In Memoriam) in symbolic replication of Freud's theory about the child's "fort-da" game in which a child, anxiously separated from a parent, compulsively pushes and pulls a spool forward and backward in an unconscious, ritualized attempt to master the anxiety that is produced by the parent's unreliable presence.(4) Similarly in "Daddy," the compulsively repeated /oo/ sound may defensively perform a like function. Although the plosive force of Plath's invectives against the father (and her husband) emphasize the speaker's strong desire to be psychologically free of the introjected "daddy," the echoing /oo/ sounds that permeate the poem imply her paradoxical need still to "get back, back, back to you" (line 59) - a sign of an incomplete, though desired, end to mourning.
A final stylistic way in which the speaker attempts to extricate herself from her father's psychological hold on her without completely annihilating the part of him she still loves and misses is by creating a delicate balance between pronouns that separate his identity from hers. Although the poem appears to give all agency to the mythically powerful patriarch, the primary pronouns associated with him (exclusive of the imagery) are "you" and "your," which occur 28 times in the poem in comparison to the speaker's self-referential "I," "my," and "me" that occur a total of 34 times. While the frequency of pronouns can hardly be said to neutralize the demonic imagery associated with patriarchy in the verse, the repeated "I" pronouns still signify a heroic attempt at psychic reintegration - of being glued back together - without others controlling the shape that identity takes. Moreover, in the last stanzas of the poem (14-16), the speaker, atypically, uses the contractions "I'm" and "I've" four times, suggesting a verbal effort to fuse the "I am" and the "I have" in resistance to the father's formerly controlling "you were" and "you did." Finally, in the last line of the poem, when the speaker calls her father a "bastard," she is not only cursing him, but trying to make his hold on her history, personality, identity, and destiny illegitimate. Ending, however, with the /oo/ sound in "through," the poem simultaneously proclaims and resists closure - a partial psychological victory, at best, of the self over the other.
Judging from the biographical history of this poem, Plath's victory could only be a pyrrhic one. She wrote "Daddy" on 12 October 1962, four months before her suicide, fifteen days before her thirtieth birthday, on the twentieth anniversary of her father's leg amputation (alluded to in the poem, lines 9-10) and on the day she learned that Ted Hughes, the alleged "vampire" who drank her blood for seven years (73-74), had agreed to a divorce.(5) The year 1961-62 was also the time of the trial and execution of Adolf Eichmann, to which the concentration camp imagery in Plath's poem may allude (Lane 219).(6) Thus, personal as well as historical victimization and attempted vindication are dramatized in Plath's poem. But just as the execution of Eichmann as a war criminal could bring only partial justice to the Jews who were exterminated in the death camps, and just as the stake in the vampire's "fat black heart" (56) would only prevent the undead from causing further misery, the speaker in Plath's "Daddy," her memories of alleged victimization echoing in every broken and repeated nursery-sounding rhyme, can achieve only a partial victory over the "man who / Bit my pretty red heart in two" (55-56).
1. Sylvia Plath, "Daddy," The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath, ed. Ted Hughes (New York: Harper, 1981) 222-224. Further quotations are from this collection.
2. Susan R. Van Dyne, Revising Life: Sylvia Plath's Ariel Poems (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina E 1993) 48-49. See also Jacqueline Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992) 226.
3. Steven Gould Axelrod, Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins E 1990) 56.
4. Peter M. Sacks, The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats (Baltimore: John Hopkins E 1985) 23.
5. Linda Wagner-Martin, Sylvia Plath: A Biography (New York: Simon, 1987) 28, 243; Axelrod, 52.
6. Lane makes a persuasive case that Plath "could not have missed the . . .sensational capture of Eichmann." At least three books on the subject were published in Britain, and the award-winning film Judgment at Nuremberg was released around the same time.
Lane, Gary, ed. Sylvia Plath: New Views on the Poetry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins P, 1979).
From The Explicator 55.2 (Winter 1997)