Eileen M. Aird: On "Daddy"
The poem has already received a good deal of critical attention which has focused on the autobiographical aspect. The danger of such criticism lies in its assumption that the poem is objectively 'true', that it bears a precise relationship to the facts of the poet's life. Without a doubt this poem embodies most forcefully the feeling which runs through her later poetry that the distress she suffered was in some way connected with her memories of her dead father, but the poem cannot be literally or historically true. Otto Plath, who was born in 1885 and came to America at the age of fifteen, died when his daughter was nine and certainly could not have been the active German Nazi officer of the poem. However he was of pure Prussian descent and one of his daughter's obsessions was that, given other circumstances, it might have been that he would have become a Nazi. In the same way her mother, Aurelia Plath, who is of Austrian descent, could have had Jewish blood and if she had lived in Europe might have become one of the host of murdered Jews. In terms of the poem itself the mother figure is unimportant; the daughter appropriates the mother's attributes and the relationship is developed through the father-daughter, Nazi-Jew complexity. Questioned about this poem by Peter Orr, Sylvia Plath explained:
In particular my background is, may I say, German and Austrian. On one side I am first generation American, on one side I am second generation American, and so my concern with concentration camps and so on is uniquely intense. And then, again, I'm rather a political person as well, so I suppose that's part of what it comes from.
When she described the poem at another time she did so in dramatic terms which included no overt hint that the situation described was her own:
The poem is spoken by a girl with an Electra complex. Her father died while she thought he was God. Her case is complicated by the fact that her father was also a Nazi and her mother very possibly part-Jewish. In the daughter the two strains marry and paralyse each other--she has to act out the awful little allegory before she is free of it.
The poem exploits Freudian psychology which argues that the child is, at some stages in its development, 'in love' with the parent. The girl reacts with hate for the father who has made her suffer by dying at such a point in her development. The description of the father as 'marble-heavy' and a 'ghastly statue' reveals the ambivalence of her attitude for he is also associated with the beauty of the sea. The image of the father as a statue echoes the similar conception of 'The Colossus'; here, as in the earlier poem, the statue is of huge and awesome proportions. The ambivalent feelings of fear and love have remained with the daughter as an obsession which dwarfs and restricts her own life, and in an attempt to rid herself of it she must ritually destroy the memory of the father:
Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time--
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
She first attempted to do this by joining the father through suicide but then found an escape through marriage to a man with many of the father's characteristics:
And then I knew what to do.
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.
The psychological is only one aspect of the poem however. Sylvia Plath extends the reference by making the father a German Nazi and the girl a Jew, so that on a historical and actual, as well as on an emotional level their relationship is that of torturer and tortured. The boot image of the first verse can now be seen not only as an effective image for the obsessional nature of the daughter's neurosis, but also as carrying suggestions of the brutality associated with the father as Nazi officer. The transition from father-daughter to the Nazi-Jew relationship is simply and dramatically effected. The hatred of the daughter merges into the emotional paralysis of her recognition, as Jew, of him as Nazi: 'I never could talk to you. / The tongue stuck in my jaw.' The jaw becomes the barbed wire of the concentration camps, and the repeated self-assertive 'Ich' of the German language recalls the sound of the engines carrying Jews to the camps. In revolt from the obscenity of the language--which is an extension of the emotional revolt against the father--the daughter begins to talk like a Jew, that is she identifies herself with the archetypal, suffering Jew of the camps. She now describes the father as a Nazi officer and no longer associates him with God but with a swastika 'So black no sky could squeak through'. The theme of intermingled love and hate arises again as the daughter comments on the sexual fascination of cruelty:
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
It finds a further echo in the description of the husband who is also 'A man in black with a Meinkampf look', who has been chosen for his similarity to the father in the hope that his presence will exorcise the daughter's obsession.
A. Alvarez recalls that Sylvia Plath described this poem as 'light verse':
When she first read me this poem a few days after she wrote it, she called it a piece of 'light verse'. It obviously isn't, yet equally obviously it also isn't the racking personal confession that a mere description or précis of it might make it sound.
The significance of such a term applied to 'Daddy' becomes clearer if we consider the theory of light verse held by W. H. Auden. Auden has written:
Light verse can be serious. It has only come to mean vers de société, Triolets, smoke-room limericks, because under the social conditions which produced the Romantic Revival, and which have persisted, more or less, ever since, it has only been in trivial matters that poets have felt in sufficient intimacy with their audience to be able to forget themselves and their singing-robes.
Auden equates the writing of 'light verse' with a homogeneous and slowly changing society in which the interests and perceptions of most men are similar; difficult poetry is produced in an unstable society from which the poet feels detached. Undoubtedly, at the time of writing, Auden saw himself as belonging to an unstable society, and his use of 'light verse’ is highly sophisticated in that he consciously adopted it as a means of communication for his social criticism; it is not, according to Auden, the natural way in which any modern poet would express himself. 'Daddy' may reasonably be said to be 'light' in the sense that Auden's early poetry is ‘light'. This quality is purely an attribute of form and does not in any way characterise the subject which is fully serious. The strong, simple rhythm, the full rhymes and subtle half-rhymes, the repetitive, incantatory vowel-sounds sweep the poem along in a jaunty approximation to a ballad. The mood of the poem is conversational, the daughter directly addresses the memory of the father with energy and feeling. The vocabulary is simple, the last line scenting almost too indulgently colloquial until we realise that the strategy of the whole poem has been to undermine emotion. When Sylvia Plath described this poem as 'a piece of light verse' she was focusing our attention on the flippant, choppy, conversational swing of the poem which, with its dramatic structure, gives a measure of impersonality to a subject which, less surely handled, could have been destroyed by either self-pity or sensationalism.
From Sylvia Plath: Her Life and Work. Copyright © 1973 by Eileen M. Aird