Daddy is almost
certainly the most hate-filled poem I have ever read. It
screams out PAIN in a hundred different ways. Structurally, it
is a masterwork. The end rhymes and regular rhythms just add to
the emotional intensity. Technically, it is a fine piece of
work. Emotionally, it is profoundly disturbing. Plath herself
has said that Daddy
is narrated by “a girl with an Electra complex,” that is a girl
whose “father died while she thought he was God.” And, in
fact, Sylvia Plath’s father did die when she was still a little
girl, age eight, and the incident did cause her a great deal of
But it would be
a big mistake to characterize this poem as autobiographical.
Her father was not a Nazi, nor was he even a German citizen when
he became her father. She was not a Jew. They lived in New
Jersey, not Aushwitz. He was a teacher and a published author.
By all accounts, he never abused or neglected his daughter.
Still, something was going on. The poem contains way too much
vehemence to have emanated from thin air.
critics have spilt much ink trying to decipher this mystery.
How could so much hatred have come from no where? Where did
Plath find such vituperation?
comes from her biography, but it is by no means a complete
explanation. In January of 1959, Sylvia signed up for a course
at Boston University in Creative Writing taught by Robert
Lowell. The class met late in the afternoon. From notebooks
Sylvia was keeping at that time, we know that she found the
professor rather dull and unimaginative. She came to befriend
another auditor of the class, the poet Anne Sexton, a strange
girl. She was a chain smoker who thought it was impolite to
drop cigarette ashes on a classroom floor, so she took to using
the heel of her shoe as an ashtray. During the class, Anne
started an affair with a fellow student, an editor at
Houghton-Mifflin named George Starbuck. They sat together.
Sylvia took the
class to get some quality feedback on some of her recent poems,
but the class wasn’t working out very well. After classes, she
invited Anne and George to join her for a drink at the
Ritz-Carlton. The three tumbled into the front seat of her Ford
and parked in the loading zone behind the hotel. “It’s okay,”
Sylvia explained, “we are only going to get loaded.” After a
few drinks, or even a few more than a few, they went on to the
Waldorf Cafeteria where they could get a dinner for just 70
cents. It turned out that this is where most of the real
at first underestimated the work of Sylvia Plath and openly
favored Sexton in class discussions. Plath got angry about it.
When he challenged the class to start writing things that were
more daring, more edgy, Plath wrote from her heart and tried to
demonstrate that a poet, like an actor, could take on any part
published until years later after Plath took her own life.
Marjorie Perloff has taken the poem to task as “empty.” She
says the emotions are shammed, mere “histrionics.” Seamus
Heaney is not as hard on her. He says she is using a larger
cultural context for a “vehemently self-justifying purpose.” I
think that means she is expropriating the Nazis and the
Holocaust for her own purposes without worrying about who she
might hurt or insult in the process.
criticisms come down to two basic kinds. Either Ms Plath is
trivializing the Holocaust by invoking references to it to
describe minor personal affairs which have no real comparison,
or she is trying to exaggerate the magnitude of her own
experiences by referencing real tragedies.
In either case,
both critics appear to be accusing her of bad taste. They are
both saying she has pushed the Nazi metaphor beyond reason into
the realm of the ridiculous, even the insulting. All evidence
suggests that her father did not abuse her, but even if he did,
does she have the right to compare her personal suffering to the
heartless extermination of millions of innocent people? As
Perloff says, “whatever her father did to her it cannot be what
the Germans did to the Jews.”
approach to this poem sees it as a dispossession. The little
girl who narrates the poem is acting out her frustration with
being born female. She hates her father, her husband and all
males. More or less in chronological order, she recites her
grievances. The title,
Daddy, is a reflection of her infantile persona. The
fact that she exaggerates and blows things out proportion is
appropriate for a little girl who is totally self-centered and
in pain. She is releasing the anger she has bottled up ever
since her father abandoned her by dying.
unusual approach to the poem has been offered by Steven Axelrod.
He posits the idea that since her father and her husband were
both published authors, perhaps Sylvia is writing this poem to
exorcise the demon which has latched onto her, because she is a
writer. She is trying to escape what Axelrod calls the “buried
male muse.” In this interpretation,
Daddy is like a
written record of a primal scream, a desperate cry to be
released from her mental prison.
biographical details might help at this point. In 1962 Plath
separated from her husband, the English poet Ted Hughes. Their
relationship was turbulent. There was another woman. The time
had come. During the last months of her life, one of the
coldest winters on record, Sylvia wrote as if she were in a
hypnotic trance. She was desperately poor, snowbound, with her
two children in an unheated flat outside of London. The
electricity went off periodically. There was no money for
candles. Pipes froze. The whole family had colds and
sniffles. Yet, she pushed on writing two or three poems a day.
By February she was exhausted and desperate.
Ted left her in
December. In January, her book
The Bell Jar was
published. February 11, she committed suicide. She put the
children down for their naps, went into the kitchen and turned
on the gas. Daddy
was still in manuscript form on the kitchen table. It was
only published a few years later with the poetry cycle called
who spent many hours talking with Plath about suicide, says the
poem is a testament to Sylvia’s suffering, a prelude to her
death, but that the poem neither justifies her suicide nor is it
validated by it. The poem has to stand on its own feet.
“Suicide is, after all, the opposite of the poem,” says Sexton,
by which I think she means that the poem is a work of art.
Suicide is a personal act of negation. Sylvia Plath herself
observed that if a poem is any good, it goes on “farther than a
So where does
all the hatred come from in the poem
anybody’s guess. Is the poem a suicide note? You tell me. It
was there on the kitchen table when she turned on the gas. Is
there a causal relationship between the poem and her death?
Maybe. Perhaps Plath, cold, hungry, abandoned and frightened,
simply killed herself out of despair -- as so many others have
done. Maybe Robert Lowell was right when he speculated that, in
the end, she simply decided that “life...is simply not worth
it.” Writing the poem may have had some part in convincing
her, but it certainly isn’t any better a poem because of any
part it may have taken in creating the circumstances surrounding
Anyway you look
at it, Daddy
remains a profoundly disturbing poem.