The Shock of Sylvia Plath's Daddy


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The Shock of Plath’s Daddy  

“Daddy” is one of the most highly anthologized poems of Plath's (along with "Lady Lazarus"). It is a notorious poem, the one once compared to "Guernica" by George Steiner. The imagery and audaciousness of it still shock, so much so that I don't even know if it is being taught or anthologized or taught any more; it is almost as if the critical world has had its say on it and has moved on, either to other poems in Ariel, or to other books altogether, such as The Colossus or Crossing The Water. It has become a modern classic, of a kind, the sort some people (not the ones here, of course!) sigh & look back on fondly, as what/who they read when they were younger, or were obliged to read at some point, dutifully used it in an essay, then put back on the shelf when they were done with the course...

"Daddy" is a mean poem, brutal, but at bottom it is about mourning, loss, and what happens when that grief is blocked. I have always taken this as the real topic, that longing to forgive her father, forgive herself, to understand and accept - that was locked, denied, as a part of her childhood, adolescence, until she was 21 and visited (I am taking her literally) her father's grave for the first time. (This poem's essence lies in her not believing her father is dead, and since she never went to his funeral, or even visited his grave as a child, the father is in a strange limbo, a zombie figure.) In 1959 she visited her father's grave and was tempted, oddly as she says, to dig him up & prove to herself that he's really dead.

In the poem, she just wants to be with her father (in the reading, her voice definitely becomes emotional when she remembers her childhood with him), or someone like him, but this never works out; in the end, she turns against him, but, as Stewart says, she can never be "through" - I think, because that sadness is again pushed aside, "the voices" (her father, husband, mother?) who still might be able to talk and listen to her are gone. Her father is still there, just as solid & historical as he was in "The Colossus", and just as misunderstood/inflated (two ways blocked grief seems to work).

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From this poem (and a few others) the feminist movement of the 60s took Plath as one of their own; but Plath doesn't seem to have any support here - the villagers are anonymous, a mob, who don't seem to know her. They are trusted by her because they aren't trying to talk to her, question her, they don't have a voice, they just instinctively act against "daddy" (like a swarm of bees, come to think of it). Plath turns against herself in the last line, in a line that shows a disgust with him, and herself - an attempt to not just block but eliminate any communication or feelings altogether. In the few days after writing "Daddy", Plath wrote the equivalent about her mother, "Medusa" - which ends with an equally destructive and ambivalent line, "There is nothing between us."

 

 


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