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In "Daddy" and a number of other late poems, the most difficult problem is the effort to assess the poet's relationship to her speaker. Because "Daddy" calls upon specific incidents in Plath's biography (her suicide attempts, her father's death, her marriage), we are tempted to identify the poet and the speaker directly, although such an identification cannot account for the fact that Plath employs techniques of caricature, hyperbole, and parody that serve to distance the speaker from the poet and at the same time to project onto the speaker a strange version of the poet's own strategies. "Daddy" becomes a demonstration of the mind confronting its own suffering and trying to control what it feels controls it. The speaker's simplistic language, rhyme, and rhythm become one means by which she attempts to charm and hold off the evil spirits. Another means is the extreme facility of her image-making. The images themselves are important for what they tell us of her sense of being victimized and victimizer; but more significant than the actual image is the swift ease with which she can turn it to various uses. For example, she starts out imagining herself as a prisoner living like a foot in the black shoe of her father. Then she casts her father in her own role; he becomes "one grey toe / Big as a Frisco seal," and then quickly she is looking for his foot, his root. Next he reverts to the original boot identity, and she is the one with "The boot in the face." Immediately she finds "A cleft in your chin instead of your foot." At the end she sees the villagers stamping on him. Thus she moves from booted to booter as her father reverses the direction, and the poem's sympathies for the booted or booter shift accordingly.

The mind that works in this way is neither logical nor psychologically penetrating; it is simply extremely adept at juggling images. And it is caught in its own strategies. The speaker can control her terrors by forcing them into images, but she seems to have no understanding of the confusion her wild image-making betrays. When she identifies herself as a foot, she suggests that she is trapped; but when she calls her father a foot, the associations break down. In the same way, when she caricatures her father as a Fascist and herself as a Jew, she develops associations of torture which are not exactly reversed when she reverses the identification and calls herself the killer of her vampire-father. The speaker here can categorize and manipulate her feelings in name-calling, in rituals, in images - but these are only techniques, and her frenzied use suggests that she employs those methods in the absence of any others. When she says, "Daddy, I have had to kill you," she seems to realize the necessity of the exorcism and to understand the ritual she performs, but the frantic pitch of the language and the swift switches of images do not confirm any self-understanding. The pace of the poem reveals its speaker as one driven by a hysterical need for complete control, a need arising from a fear that without such control she will be destroyed. Her simple, incantatory monologue is the perfect vehicle of expression for the orderly disordered mind.

In talking to A. Alvarez, Plath called her late poems "light verse." "Daddy" does not seem to fall easily into that category, despite its nonsense rhymes and rhythms, its quickly flicking images. It is neither decorous nor playful. On the other hand, considering its subject, it is neither ponderous nor serious. Above all it offers no insight into the speaker, no mitigating evidence, no justification. Perhaps Plath's classification is clear only if we consider her speaker a parodic version of the poet - and, of course, if she were consciously borrowing from Hughes's animal poems, these poems must be read as a comment on his poetic voice as well. Plath's speaker manipulates her terror in singsong language and thus delivers herself in "light verse" that employs its craft in holding off its subject. For all the frankness of this poem, the name-calling and blaming, the dark feeling that pervades it is undefined, held back rather than revealed by the technique. The poet who has created such a speaker knows the speaker's strategies because they are a perverted version of her own, and that is the distinction between the speaker's "light verse" and the poet's serious poem. If this poem comes out of Plath's own emotional experience, as she said her poem did, it is not an uninformed cry from the heart. Rather, Plath chooses to deal with her experience by creating characters who could not deal with their own experiences and, through their rituals, demonstrate their failure.

[. . . .]

Plath's poem shows the limitations of the mind that operates only to rehearse the perfect kill. . . . "Daddy" is a poem of revenge, and its violence is a reaction against torture. . . .

Plath's depiction of the monomaniacal daughter-victim-killer suggests she was aware that such a figure was far from a genius. The simplicity of her language matches the simplicity of her thinking; in fact, her violent rage has subsumed all other feelings or thoughts. . . .The father-husband figure whom she finally kills is then a "Panzer-man," "A man in black with a Meinkampf look," emblem of all the black men who have loomed as threatening forces in her poetry.


From Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Copyright © 1979 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.