Skip to main content

"Daddy" is Plath's most theatrical example of this operation. The "you" of otherness strikes the keynote of the poem and raises the rhyming to a pitch of compulsive repetition that effectively drowns out the "I." Even the "do" of action or choice is only an echo of du, the father's ich. The poem's regressive form is less a "manic defence" against a painful subject than a confirmation of the defeat of the poet's language, its total surrender to the "you" of otherness:

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.


"Ich, ich, ich, ich" is the poem's skeleton, the pure reductive form that supports its four-stress rhythm. Thus "ich" is also the "barb wire" of a language that checks the poet's tongue and cuts off her speech by being not hers but Daddy's "I"—already there, already encoded. This "ich" is a foreign language to the self; its consonants set "a barricade of barb and check" (CP, 50) against the open vowel "I," which yearns to be free. Yet "ich" rhymes with "speak" and thus makes a mockery of the "I" 's very drive for self- expression.

If this encoded, anterior, foreign "ich" is Daddy's sign, the daughter's repetition of it can only inflict pain on her and magnify her separation, and the drama of the father's language silencing the daughter easily translates into a variety of internal or civil wars. The Nazi-Jew struggle becomes a recurrent emblem of destructive, preempting, silencing language. "Cut" provides other models: the poet branches out from her personal pain to Pilgrims, Indians, "Redcoats," "Homunculus," "Saboteur," "Kamikaze," "Ku Klux Klan," and "Babushka," for all the "foreign" languages say the same thing—a Babel of tongues amplifying her inner war with her own "foreign" language. In the end, she can only circle back to "Dirty girl, / Thumb stump" (CP, 235-36), with its suggestion of amputation or even castration. And "the thin / Papery feeling" of the cut suggests that the violent excision of the signifier's force amounts to a reduction of life to writing. Thus Plath's "foot fetishism" is a perfectly ironic symptom of her "sickness."


From American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987. Copyright © 1987.