Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” and its German implications

Ariel – First Edition, 1960

Among the great outstanding 20th century poets for me W. B. Yeats and Sylvia Plath rank first. Also Sylvia Plath had associated herself with Yeats quite a lot in her mind and had felt a spiritual connection to the poet. So it is more than just a tragical incident that the house in London, where Sylvia Plath committed suicide was also the residence for Yeats for a while.

Steven Axelrod (University of California Riverside) put it aptly when he writes ” In her brief but momentous career, Sylvia Plath rewrote the story that women writers could tell in poetry and, to some extent, in fiction and diaries as well. Writing avant la lettre of American feminism, and before Adrienne Rich’s feminist awakening, Plath wrote unforgettable poems concerning women’s victimization, rage, and rebellion. Having studied Sigmund Freud and James Frazer, she also wrote poems with psychoanalytic and mythic dimensions, the most startling and unsettling such poems of her time. These poems enact loss and grief in such a devastating fashion that one wonders how the reader, much less the author, can survive them.”

Sylvia Plath’s Ariel is one of the most important books of poetry of the 20th century, and among the most controversial. In February of 1963, when Plath committed suicide, she left behind a manuscript titled Ariel and Other Poems. But that manuscript was never published. Instead, a very different book called Ariel arrived in bookshops in the U.K. in 1965 and sold a phenomenal 15,000 copies in 10 months. 12 of the poems Plath had included had been cut, and 15 new ones added in their place; several poems had been bumped out of their original order. Ted Hughes, Plath’s estranged husband—of whom she had lately written “I hate and despise him so I can hardly speak”—had made the changes, inviting some charged questions about his apparent conflict of interest as both Plath’s executor and the impugned subject of her poetry. “Daddy”, the poem I have chosen here, Hughes left where it was intended to be, written in October 1962 just months before her death.

Though I agree with Jennifer M. Willhite when she writes “Daddy serves as a type of confession. The poem is a deep, dark examination of a paternal relationship that died when Plath was young,” however, there is much more to that.

Sylvia Plath

This is obviously a confessional poem. The nature of confessional poetry often means that the subject matter may be fictionalised somewhat in order to bend to suit the author’s purpose, however the feelings are not tampered with. With “Daddy” Plath gives the reader an intimate window into her own soul, never altering the intense feelings of hatred and resentment she feels toward men.

In this poem Plath artfully mixes biographical facts with assertions based on emotions. Daddy works on both a biographical and personal level for Plath, but also on an allegorical level as well.

Plath’s father was Otto Emile Plath, an immigrant from Grabow, Germany, a professor of biology and German at Boston University, USA. He died on November 5, 1940, a week and a half after Plath’s eighth birthday

It is important to realize that Otto Plath was not a NAZI and that Sylvia is just venting her distrust of men,

because she had been adbandoned by both the prominent male figures in her life. First, the father who died prematurely and later, her husband who cheated on her and left her in poverty for another woman.

Let’s have a closer look at the poem itself and the German implications in particular.

It opens with a reference to the father’s black shoe, in which the daughter has “lived like a foot,” suggesting her submissiveness and entrapment. The poem then moves to a derisive commentary on the idealized image of the father (“Marble heavy, a bag full of God”) and summarizes his background: his life in a German-speaking part of Poland that was “Scraped flat by the roller / Of wars”. The daughter admits here, for the first time, that she was afraid of him. Yet all these references are merely introductory remarks to prepare the reader for the fantastic “allegory” that is to come. As Plath describes it in her note:

“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 paralyze each other—she has to act out the awful little allegory once before she is free of it.”

As said before, Sylvia’s real father was not a Nazi, and her mother was not Jewish. The historical references, however, allow her to dramatize her rebellion against the oppressive father. The entire poem may seem to have stretched the permissible limits of analogy. This piece of “light verse,” as Plath called it, constantly shifts between grotesque, childish flights and allusions and deadly serious rage toward the father-Nazi. On one hand, Plath characterizes her situation in terms of nursery rhymes, recalling the tale of the old lady in the shoe; and on the other, of Jews being taken off to “Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen” . The father is a “Panzer-man,” but he is also called “gobbledy-goo.” German and English intermix grotesquely:

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.

Mutlu Konuk Blasing analyzes the lines above: “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.”

from American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987.

I find this very convincing as an example of Plath’s usage of German expressions throughout the poem. They function as stylistic devices to describe the father/husband/men pattern as synonymous with oppression and destruction. For me, as a German native speaker, Mutlu Konuk Blasing’s hint to the German “ich” making a mockery of the “I” as it rhymes with “speak” seems strange, as I have always assumed that Plath was well aware of the fact that the German pronoun correctly pronounced does not at all rhyme with the English verb.

There is a line as startling and compact as this: “Every woman adores a Fascist”; but there is also the fatuousness of the lines following; “The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you” And the end of the poem drops the carefully established Nazi allegory for a piece of vampire lore. Plath imagines that a vampire-husband has impersonated the dead Nazi-father for seven years of marriage, drinking the wife’s blood, until she has finally put a stake through his heart (the traditional method of destroying the vampire).

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 more I study the primary and secondary sources the more I tend to reject assertions made by authors such as Majorie Perloff who focus on the “NAZI Father of all of us” and the destructive role of the husband rather than on this biographical father-daughter relationship:

Indeed, both the Nazi allegory and the Freudian drama of trying to die so as to “get back, back, back to you” can now be seen as devices designed to camouflage the real thrust of the poem, which is, like “Purdah,” a call for revenge against the deceiving husband.“

A slew of memoirs and biographies argued that the arrogance of her macho husband Ted Hughes, Britain’s current poet laureate, precipitated her suicide in 1963. In 1998 Hughes published his side of their story in Birthday Letters–an autobiographical collection of 88 poems, written over 25 years. Hughes’ friends predicted the book would exculpate him and silence his critics. But the debate remains as shrill as ever.

Despite Birthday Letters‘ seeming tenderness toward Plath, feminists argue that the poems unwittingly show Hughes’ true stripes. Some, such as Princeton Professor Elaine Showalter, say that Hughes tries to exonerate himself by arguing that Plath was fated to kill herself. And he denies his power to save her: “I was a fly outside on the window pane/ Of my own domestic drama.” Others, such as Plath’s psychoanalytic biographer Jacqueline Rose, argue that Hughes continues to write condescendingly about Plath by figuring himself her “nurse and protector.” Hughes, they say, doesn’t understand his wife’s resentments.

Hughes’ defenders, especially his fellow British poets and friends, such as James Fenton and Blake Morrison, and recently the Dutch writer Connie Palmen (Jij zegt het) contend that Plath’s craziness caused her death. They cite her unsuccessful suicide attempt and chalk her problems up to obsession with her dead father–this is also Birthday Letters‘ position. “Though your father/ Was your God and there was no other …” (The day her father died, Plath made her mother sign a contract vowing never to remarry.) Hughes, the argument goes, deserves credit for sticking with Plath for as long as he did. And Birthday Letters, they argue, once and for all proves “beyond all doubt that he loved Plath with all his heart” (Stephen Glover, the London Daily Telegraph).

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.
So daddy, I’m finally through.
The black telephone’s off at the root,
The voices just can’t worm through.

The image of the telephone is one that Plath’s early admirers like George Steiner or Stephen Spender simply ignored, but with the hindsight a reading of the Collected Poems gives us, we recognize it, of course, as the dreaded “many-holed earpiece,” the “muck funnel” of “Words heard, by accident. over the phone.” And indeed, the next stanza refers to the “vampire” who “drank my blood for a year, / Seven years if you want to know.” This is a precise reference to the length of time Sylvia Plath had known Ted Hughes when she wrote “Daddy”–precise as opposed to the imaginary references to Plath’s father as “panzer-man” and “Fascist.”

A curiously autobiographical poem, then, whose topical trappings (“Luftwaffe,” “swastika,” “Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen”) have distracted the attention of a generation of readers from the poem’s real theme. Ironically, “Daddy” is a “safe” poem–and hence Hughes publishes it–because no one can chide Plath for her Electra complex, her longing to get back to the father who died so prematurely, whereas the hatred of Hughes (“There’s a stake in your fat black heart”) is much more problematic. The Age Demanded a universal theme–the rejection not only of the “real” father but also of the Nazi Father Of Us All–hence the label “the Guernica of modern poetry” applied to “Daddy” by George Steiner.”

From Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric. 1990.

Sylvia 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. 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. 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” 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”

Let me conclude with quoting Anne Stevenson in Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath, 1989, who gives this résumé:

Anyone who has heard the recording of “Daddy” that Sylvia made for the British Council that October will remember the shock of pure fury in her articulation, the smoldering rage with which she is declaring herself free, both of ghostly father and of husband. The implication is that after this exorcism her life can begin again, that she will be reborn. And indeed on ethical grounds only a desperate bid for life and psychic health can even begin to excuse this and several other of the Ariel poems…”

Ted Hughes once summarized Plath’s unique personality and talent:

“Her poetry escapes ordinary analysis in the way clairvoyance and mediumship do: her psychic gifts, at almost any time, were strong enough to make her frequently wish to be rid of them. In her poetry, in other words, she had free and controlled access to depths formerly reserved to the primitive ecstatic priests, shamans and Holymen.” The poet continued, “Surveyed as a whole … I think the unity of her opus is clear. Once the unity shows itself, the logic and inevitability of the language, which controls and contains such conflagrations and collisions within itself, becomes more obviously what it is—direct, and even plain, speech. This language, this unique and radiant substance, is the product of an alchemy on the noblest scale. Her elements were extreme: a violent, almost demonic spirit in her, opposed a tenderness and capacity to suffer and love things infinitely, which was just as great and far more in evidence. Her stormy, luminous senses assaulted a downright practical intelligence that could probably have dealt with anything. … She saw her world in the flame of the ultimate substance and the ultimate depth. And this is the distinction of her language, that every word is Baraka: the flame and the rose folded together. Poets have often spoken about this ideal possibility but where else, outside these poems, has it actually occurred? If we have the discrimination to answer this question, we can set her in her rightful company.”

©Bernd Riebe, 2018


by Sylvia Plath

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time—
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal

And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.

In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend

Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
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.
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 snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.

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.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
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.
So daddy, I’m finally through.
The black telephone’s off at the root,
The voices just can’t worm through.

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two—
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

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