Author Sylvia Plath (19321963)
First Published 1965, in Ariel
Type of Poem Dramatic monologue
Written on October 12, 1962four months before her suicideSylvia Plaths "Daddy" is a "confessional" poem of eighty lines divided into sixteen five-line stanzas. The persona, a daughter speaking in the first person, seeks to resolve the manifold conflicts with her father and paternal authority that have dogged her life. Her readiness for the task is unambiguously evident in the first stanzas opening lines: "You do not do, You do not do/ Anymore."
"Daddy," begins the second stanza, "I have had to kill you." The deceased, titanic patriarch, first represented as "Marble-heavy, a bag full of God," has his godliness immediately modified when he is referred to as a "Ghastly statue," with that phrases related intimations of corpses and ghosts. The death of her father, an awesome figure with "one gray toe/ Big as a Frisco seal" and "A head in the freakish Atlantic," had not daunted the speakers hopes of reunion; as she puts it in the third stanza, "I used to pray to recover you./ Ach du." Her belief in the power of prayer is, however, a thing of the past, no longer tenable.
The fathers European rootshe is imaged as a Nazi in the fourth stanzaprove elusive to the speaker, a relatively unimportant handicap, given the significant affliction she discovers in the fifth stanza: "I never could talk to you./ The tongue stuck in my jaw." A less circumscribed and more dire speechlessness emerges in the sixth stanza.
In the seventh stanza, the Holocaust is introduced, and the speaker recovers her powers of speech in the contextif not as a resultof having pointedly established herself as a Jew. A couple of overworked Nazi emblems are demythologized in stanza 8: "The snows of Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna/ Are not very pure or true," while she identifies herself with gypsies, another group much hated by the Nazis. In stanza 9, she brazenly mocks Fascist discourse as "gobbledygoo," and does much the same to her fathers Nazi image: "And your neat mustache/ And your Aryan eye, bright blue./ Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You." When, in stanza 10, one reads "Not God but a swastika/ So black no sky could squeak through," one is confronted with a profoundly potent evil capable of overwhelming the heavens.
The penultimate patriarchal image appears in stanza 11: father as teacher-cum-devil. Although, she recalls, "You stand at the blackboard, daddy,/ In the picture I have of you," the innocuous snapshot of a pedagogue does not distract her from perceiving the fathers demoniac nature. The hauntingly sadistic image, in the twelfth stanza, of the father who, before dying, "Bit my pretty red heart in two," is juxtaposed with her vain pursuit of him ten years hence, in an attempted suicide. Failing at that, she tries, in stanzas 13 and 14, a more effective, somewhat less self- destructive tactic: "I made a model of you/ A man in black with a Meinkampf look/ And a love of the rack and the screw," and marries the surrogate.
Predatory and erotic, the ruinous, eerie image of the father as vampire in stanza 15 anticipates the speakers ritualistic solution. "Theres a stake in your fat black heart/ And the villagers never liked you," begins the poems sixteenth and final stanza. The speakers decisive, triumphant patricide permits her to say, "Daddy, daddy, you bastard, Im through," and, for the first time, call her life her own.
Forms and Devices
Given the emotionally damaged speakers mercurial discourse and her fathers protean nature, Plaths characterizations of the two and their interrelationsparticularly the series of continually modulating images of the fatherare among the most psychologically sound, aesthetically impeccable, and effective formal accomplishments in "Daddy."
There is a significant conceptual corollary to the poems frequent nursery-rhyme rhythms when, in the first stanza, the speaker echoes, with wit and irony, the nursery rhyme about the "old woman who lived in a shoe [who] didnt know what to do." This character, however, is a woman who knows exactly what to do in order to end her thirty-year habitation in her old mans shoe, and to exorcize the related intimidation, control, passivity, and entrapment: She must commit a symbolic patricide.
For all the speakers strident declamations, however, there is nothing to obscure the fact that hers is an ambivalent discourse. Savior and tormentor, the object of nostalgic affection and vituperationthese are the conflicting dualisms that form, her troubled attachment to the first man in her life (and to his reincarnation, her husband), dualisms that have set the terms of her persecution and imprisonment. Although she "used to pray to recover [her father]," her present goal, transformed by experience, no longer aimed at recovering, is to uncoverto lay bare the inventory of her hearts wounds, which shaped and dogged the future, all father-inflicted during childhood. The resulting narrative, awash with untrammeled emotion, produces an intricately wrought compound image of the father.
The permutations that produce the compound image of the father follow a devolving trajectory. In broad terms, the father, first imaged as a god of titanic proportions (stanza 2), is transformed in short order into a sadistic devil (stanza 11) before being finally described as a vampire (stanza 15). Introduced as a worshiped and scorned god-cadaver-statue, the paternal image is modulated and degenerated into the image of a viciously racist, sadistically misogynistic Nazi. When, with bitter irony, the speaker says, "Every woman adores a Fascist," the statement is cast as an affront to feminist sensibilities, so typical is it of male presumptions about what "every woman" wants. The feminist theme continues into the succeeding image of the father as teacher-devil, as traditional gender roles would typically represent, as complementary images, male tutors and untutored females. The semantically dense imagery and characterization that occur here are typical of Plaths poetry.
In the poems final degenerative permutation, the speaker integrates her father and husband into a single ghastly image of a vampire, a parasitic male who has been drinking her lifeblood. The fathers precipitous fall from deity to evil incarnate, conveyed in the serial pattern of paternal imagery, sets up the poems denouement: a ritual killing of evil, the one necessary prerequisite for the speaker to regain a life worthy of the name.
Themes and Meanings
In the course of discussing Sylvia Plaths poetry, Joyce Carol Oates has contended that the poet did not like other people because she doubted "that they existed in the way that she did, as pulsating, breathing, suffering individuals." The ostensible subject of "Daddy" is the speakers somewhat belated acknowledgment of her unhealthy attachment to and anger toward her father, and her eagerness to explode the Oedipal prisonhouse in which she has been captive so that she might have a life that is truly her own. Accordingly, it could be said that "Daddy" is about individual freedom and two of its principal prerequisites: self-knowledge and courage.
Like all good poetry, "Daddy" raises many questions, none of which is more compelling than "What is the speakers understanding of the predicament from which she seeks to escape?" Certainly, the sincerity of her testimony is as apparent as her anguish and rage. She speaks as if she were the victim of an error that her current insights empower her to rectify. Herein lies a major source of the poems pathos: Plaths speaker fails to detect the resemblance between her situation and that of the Greek hero for whom Sigmund Freud named her presumed psychopathology: Oedipus. She suffers from the intractable consequences of fate.
Her account also implies a subscription to a bizarre mutation of the doctrine of Original Sin, whose central postulate is that all errors are the result of unconscious guilt. This moral drama entails two shaky assumptions: that the world is just and that, despite all contrary evidence, people who suffer have only themselves to blame. Dorothy Van Ghent, however, once pointedly asked about tragic heroes: "Is one guilty for circumstances?" One must deal tactfully if not compassionately with human fictionswhile under ones breath lamenting their follyand Plaths speaker surely deserves such consideration. Unfortunately, redefining herself and reclaiming her life by assuming full responsibility for her dilemma offer the same prospects for complete success as railing at the world for not being just. Perhaps Plath understood the speakers inadequate sense of her situation sufficiently for suicide to emerge in her life as the more decisive, if unhappy, alternative.
Introduction to Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath was born on October 27, 1932, in Massachusetts. Her father, Otto Plath, had emigrated to the United States from Poland and was an internationally known authority on bees; a distinguished professor of biology at Boston University, he also taught German and was recognized for his work in ornithology, entomology, and ichthyology. Aurelia Schober, the poet's mother, was of Austrian descent and met her husband while working toward her master's degree in German.
The Plaths lived in Winthrop, a seaside town near Boston, and Sylvia's early years were influenced by the ocean's proximity. She later wrote, from the perspective of adulthood, "My childhood landscape was not land but the end of land-the cold, salt, running hills of the Atlantic. I sometimes think my vision of the sea is the clearest thing I own." ("Ocean 1212-W," the Listener no. 70, Aug. 29, 1963). Her maternal grandparents lived nearby, and for two and a half years Sylvia was the center of a "tender universe" bordered by the ocean on one side, the Massachusetts Bay on the other. Then, in 1935, her brother Warren was born, and consciousness of her separateness was thrust upon her. "My beautiful fusion with things of this world was over. . . . On this day, this awful birthday of otherness, my rival, somebody else." Still, for five and a half years she continued with her family to live happily by the sea believing "not in God nor Santa Claus, but in mermaids."
When in 1940 Otto Plath died, after a long illness, the family moved inland to Wellsley, an upper middle-class suburb of Boston. Mrs. Plath went to work, teaching in a medical-secretarial program at Boston University; Mr. Schober took a job as maitre d' hotel at the Brookline Country Club; Mrs. Schober ran the household.
Sylvia and her brother Warren attended the local public schools which, she later wrote, were "genuinely public. Everyone went." From the start she was an "A" student and began, early on, to win prizes for her poems and pen-and-ink drawings. Right through high school, she achieved top recognition, in both scholastic and social activities.
As Sylvia reached adolescence, she took her writing more and more seriously. By 1950 she had developed enough discipline and control to earn publication in Seventeen. After forty-five previous submissions, the magazine finally accepted "And Summer Will Not Come Again." Shortly after, the Christian Science Monitor printed her poem "Bitter Strawberries."
She entered Smith College in 1950 on a scholarship endowed by Olive Higgins Prouty, the author of Stella Dallas and later a friend and patron. As usual Sylvia was a successful student and participated in a variety of extra curricular activities, from weekends at men's colleges to a position on the disciplinary Honor Board. Continuing to publish stories and poems in Seventeen, she wrote poetry on a rigid schedule and kept a detailed journal and scrapbook. Prizes and awards also began coming in. In 1951 she won Mademoiselle's fiction contest with her story "Sunday at the Mintons." The next year, her junior year, she won two Smith poetry prizes, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and to Alpha (Smith's honorary society for the arts), and was selected as a guest editor in Mademoiselle's College Board Contest. (The issue on which she participated published her "favorite Villanelle," "Mad Girl's Lovesong.") Also at this time came her "first professional earnings," one hundred dollars from Harper's for three poems.
This period of glittering recognition and achievement, however, could not forestall the blanket of desperation that had been gradually creeping upon her. Her attempted suicide and subsequent hospitalization for electric shock treatment and psychotherapy were widely publicized at the time and provide the basis of her novel, The Bell Jar (1963). She later described this six-month period during the summer and fall of 1953 as "a time of darkness, despair, disillusionment-so black only as the inferno of the human mind can be-symbolic death, and numb shock-then the painful agony of slow rebirth and psychic regeneration."
When she returned to Smith, she resumed her norm of academic accomplishment. During the summer of 1954 she attended Harvard, taking courses in German, creative writing with Alfred Kazin, and special studies in writing with Alfred Fisher. After a year of more prizes and published poems and the completion of an honors thesis on the double personality in Dostoyevski, she was graduated from Smith in 1955, summa cum laude.
Then came a Fulbright to Newnham College at Cambridge. There she met the young English poet Ted Hughes, "the only man I've ever met whom I could never boss." They were married in 1956 on "Blooms-day," June 16 (the day on which James Joyce's Ulysses takes place). The following year the Hugheses moved to the United States, where Plath taught for a time at Smith. Her colleagues there appraised her as "one of the two or three finest instructors ever to appear in the English department at Smith College." But because the rigorous teaching schedule interfered with her writing, she decided to abandon her academic plans. She and Hughes moved to Boston, where they lived for a year "on a shoe-string." She audited Robert Lowell's poetry course at Boston University, where she became acquainted with Anne Sexton and George Starbuck, two other young poets.
Life In England
With repeated rejections of Plath's book of poems by American publishers, they decided to return to England. There, in 1960, their first child, Frieda, was born, and The Colossus was accepted for publication by William Heinemann, Ltd. Then, always suffering now with sinus disorders, Plath's health endured additional setback with a miscarriage and an appendectomy within a short time of each other. Fortunately, in 1961 she was awarded a Eugene F. Saxton Fellowship, which she had been refused in 1958. She was thus freed to work on her novel, which she wrote according to a precise timetable.
The Hugheses moved to Devon to live in a thatched country house and had a son, Nicholas, in 1962. The Bell Jar was punctually finished and the Ariel poems begun. After a vacation in Ireland, Plath and Hughes decided to separate for a time because her health, in a poor state again, couldn't withstand a second country winter. So she moved with her children to a flat in a London house, which "by a small miracle," W.B. Yeats had lived in.
In 1963 The Bell Jar appeared under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas because she was in doubt of the book's seriousness. It was, she said, "an autobiographical apprentice work which I had to write in order to free myself from the past." Then, as the winter set in, it proved to be the coldest in fifty years. Fighting against household inconveniences and continuing poor health, she began to turn out poems at an extraordinary rate, writing in the pre-dawn hours before the children awoke. In a depression serious enough to send her to a doctor but self-controlled enough to be overlooked by friends, Sylvia Plath, in the midst of her most poetically productive period, ended her own life on February 11, 1963.
Ted Hughes had Ariel published in 1965. In 1966, The Bell Jar was reissued by Faber and Faber, this time under Plath's own name; and in 1967 The Colossus reappeared. The New York editions of these books were: The Colossus (1962); Ariel (1966); The Bell Jar (1971). Then, the previously uncollected poems were published in Crossing the Water (1971) and Winter Trees (1972).
The Poet Remembered
Sylvia Plath has been remembered "as vigorous, efficient, professional, and ambitious. Her social manner was poised and warm" (Lois Ames, "Notes Toward a Biography," The Art of Sylvia Plath. Charles Newman, ed. 1970). She had "a long, rather flat body, a longish face, not pretty but alert and full of feeling, with a lively mouth and fine brown eyes" (A. Alvarez, The Savage God, 1972). Some thought her "a remarkably attractive young woman. She was impressively tall, almost statuesque.... Her eyes were very dark, deeply set under heavy lids that give them a brooding quality in many of her photographs" (Nancy Hunter Steiner, A Closer Look at Ariel, 1973). And Ted Hughes has said, "In spite of the prevailing doom evident in her poems, it is impossible that anybody could have been more in love with life, or more capable of happiness, than she was" (Encounter 21, no. 4).
A Review Of Plath Criticism
For several years criticism of Sylvia Plath's poetry was almost exclusively biographical. Because the sources of her poems appear blatantly autobiographical and her images and symbols undeniably derived from the facts of her life, she has been labeled a confessional poet. Her work has been viewed as an expression of very real, personal feelings and circumstances, as the moving record of a deeply troubled mind. The occasion of her suicide reinforced this view, while calling additional attention to the correspondence between her poetry and life. As a result a division emerged among critics, reviewers and, consequently, readers who either praised her books enthusiastically, and rather uncritically, as "the genuine article," a true confession; or dismissed it as the indulgence of wholly private emotions. Only very recently have critics begun to view her poetry as craft, as subject for close analysis and explication. Finally her autobiographical side, including her death, is being taken for granted, and other poetic elements studied. In the past few years, in fact, essays have appeared refuting Plath's classification as a confessional poet; once looked at critically, in terms of image, meter, voice, etc., her poetry can be seen for what it is in itself: skillful creations that happen to employ, and transform, biographical materials in the process of becoming works of art.
Reminiscences and biographical notes began appearing in periodicals not long after Sylvia Plath's death in 1963. For example, the November 1966 Glamour Magazine published an article by Elinor Klein entitled "A Friend Recalls Sylvia Plath." Lois Ames, a high school and college acquaintance of Plath's, has written two thorough biographical notes, one published in Tri-Quarterly no. 7 (Fall 1966), the other in the Harper and Row edition of The Bell Jar (New York, 1971). Articles such as these, while substantiating the "Sylvia Plath legend" and fixing attention on the poet rather than the poetry, do not attempt to critically evaluate the poems either in their own right or in terms of biographical criticism.
As late as 1973 interest in piecing together her art and her life was renewed by the publication of Nancy Hunter Steiner's A Closer Look at Ariel: A Memory of Sylvia Plath (New York: Harper's Magazine Press). This book takes up, in a sense, where The Bell Jar left off and discusses the period in the poet's life immediately following her first suicide attempt in 1953, from the time she returned to Smith College after her hospitalization to the time she was graduated. As Plath's roommate and close friend, Mrs. Steiner was present during many of the events that were later incorporated into The Bell Jar, and her very different perspective helps to distinguish between fact and fiction, to establish just where in Plath's novel art and autobiography merge. But Mrs. Steiner also contributes to the legend, for she discloses those intimacies, eccentricities, and obsessions that only a roommate could be aware of and only a biographical critic could make use of in a reading of the poetry.
George Stade, who wrote the introduction to Mrs. Steiner's book, is such a biographical critic. His major concern is "the image of the poet that rises out of the poetry as we read it" and the reconciliation of this image with the quite different one in the memoirs of her friends. He neither looks at her life in order to understand her poetry nor studies the poetry in order to learn about her life, but rather considers the poetry itself as a biographical fact - with autobiographical sources - that can in turn shed light on the poet's psychological condition. Thus he will point out some aspect of the poetry - for example, the recurring image of "Opposed Selves," a deep-set violent disturbance vs. a formal superficial containment (an idea discussed more closely by other critics) - only to use such insights to suggest the poet's apparent schizophrenia. He acknowledges her use of personae (poetic voices, or first-person narrators, that are imagined or fictitious speakers distinct from and not to be confused with the poet's own voice or personality) and remarks how they shift, not only from poem to poem, but within individual poems as well; but he ultimately opts for the "personal reference and source" in her work and devotes nineteen pages to recounting her biography, illustrated with fragments of poems to underline the relationship.
A. Alvarez met Sylvia Plath in 1960, shortly before The Colossus appeared but after he'd already read some of her poems in his capacity as poetry critic for The Observer in London. Thus, perhaps inevitably, he approaches her art in the light of her personality as he knew it. His two major pieces on her work are "Sylvia Plath" in Tri-Quarterly No. 7 (Fall, 1966; later reprinted, along with much of this issue, in The Art of Sylvia Plath, 1970) and the prologue to The Savage God (New York: Random House, 1972). In these essays he wrestles with the difficulty of responding to her poems for what they are, independent artistic creations, because of the role they played in her own life, i.e., a means of keeping "the disturbance, out of which she made her art, at a distance."
Alvarez is careful to distinguish where he is concerned with her poetry from where he is concerned with Plath as a case history. As a "poet in extremis" or an extremist poet, as he calls her, she strives "to make poetry and death inseparable." This does not mean that suicide is inevitable for such a poet, not that it is a necessary validation of her work. Rather, extremist poets, Sylvia Plath among them, run a great risk in confronting the depths of their emotions, pain, awareness of mortality, etc. In articulating her vision, or consciousness, of life/death, she brought herself closer to the object of that vision, to a release into death. But by transforming private suffering into poetry it takes on a general meaning, an objectivity even, that removes the poem from the private pain out of which it sprung. Thus Alvarez insists that her images are not obscure personal references; the reasons for them "are always there, though sometimes you have to work hard to find them".
In The Savage God he explores more particularly the relationship between such intense creativity and suicide. Interweaving personal recollections and textual analysis, he juxtaposes signals of distress in her life with symbols or images of disturbances in her poetry. Thus he demonstrates the mounting coincidence of the two until in the last poems, he says, "the process was complete: the poet and the poems became one."
M.L. Rosenthal, too, speaks of Sylvia Plath's "last passionate burst of writing that culminated in Ariel and in her death, now forever inseparable." Elsewhere he remarks that "the long, escalating drive toward suicide and the period of extraordinary creativity ... actually coincided, or were at least two functions of the same process" (The New Poets. New York: Oxford, 1967). But unlike Alvarez, Rosenthal doesn't place his interest in the psychological/spiritual relationship of creativity and suicide. Instead, he is concerned with the nature of the creative sensibility or poetic spirit that enabled Plath to "normalize" or organize private obsessions and disorientations in "a structure outside themselves."
Stressing Plath's fusion of private and universal motifs, he places her in the confessional tradition of Robert Lowell and John Berryman. She is "confessional" not because her poems are expressions of a purely idiosyncratic psychological state but because like Lowell she transcends the hysteria out of which the poems are written by means of her artistic abilities. Lowell and, to a narrower extent, Plath catapulted, Rosenthal explains, "literal self into the center of [their] poems and thereby brought the familiar theme of civilization and alienated psyche into startling new focus" ("Poets of the Dangerous Way," Spectator vol. 214, no. 7134. March 19, 1965).
By discussing individual poems, Rosenthal makes this transcendence, or process of generalization, clearer. He notes her technical experimentation, "a wild leap into absolute mastery of phrasing." His discussion of "Lady Lazarus" is particularly illuminating; the poem, he says, contains a transforming energy that builds out of self-mockery and literal self-description, into a symbolic destruction of the forces plaguing her (family, love, society, et al.) via self-destruction and rebirth. Later he points out her rapid exploration and compression of motifs, her functional use of rhyme and stanza, to underline the fact that artistically, the poems have a "destiny" distinct from the poet's private life and suicide.
George Steiner elaborates on the distinction between the poems and the poet in an essay entitled "Dying Is an Art" (Language and Silence. New York: Atheneum, 1967). He readily acknowledges their source in personal pain and suffering and for this reason says, "They are too honest, they have cost too much, to be yielded to myth." So he begins by recognizing certain motifs recurrent in her work: "the generation of women knit by blood and death, the dead reaching out to haul the living into their shadowy vortex, the personage of the father somehow sinister and ineffectual." But even more importantly, he notices, particularly in her early poems, the Gothic strain of much of English lyric poetry. Such poetry adapts the techniques of Gothic romance and novel, which were characterized by settings in medieval castles and dungeons and a supernatural atmosphere of ghosts and gloom. Plath uses Gothicism (e.g., in "Watercolor of Grantchester Meadows") to make "the formal terrors an equivalent to genuine and complex shocks of feeling," though in the later poems the Gothic elements "become singular to herself and therefore fiercely honest."
She experimented also with symbolism and "modes of concretion" other than the Gothic, and it is in this search for her own voice that Steiner sees the influence of such poets as Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, and D.H. Lawrence.
In addition to style, Steiner considers theme, and decides on the essential theme of her mature work: "the infirm or rent body, and the imperfect, painful resurrection of the psyche, pulled back, unwillingly, to the hypocrisies of health." In the later poems this theme extends beyond herself. Poems like "Lady Lazarus" take on the burden of more generalized suffering, as the speaker becomes actually a woman, a Jew, on the way to Auschwitz. "Daddy," too, is an example of the classic act of generalization, in which public images translate private hurt into plain statement that concerns everyone. Thus Steiner considers her final poems "a bitter triumph, proof of the capacity of poetry to give to reality the greater permanence of the imagined."
Richard Howard first approached Plath's poetry in terms of its technical achievement, before considering her own life, her own consciousness of life/death as translated in the poems. When he reviewed The Colossus in 1963 (Poetry vol. 101, no. 63, he noted the importance of sound in her work, the way texture of language as well as aural imagery affords a "kind of analogue for the experiences she presents." He noted, too, her peculiar relationship with nature, her response to landscape and the "presences" therein. When a few years later he returned to her work, this time to the larger opus ("Sylvia Plath," Alone with America. New York: Atheneum, 1969), he again noted this relationship: "Sylvia Plath's burden is, throughout, the disaster inscribed within the surface of landscape." The relationship-between herself and things outside herself-has taken on sinister qualities.
What was only hinted at in The Colossus but finally realized in Ariel was, Howard says, a "transaction with Otherness." This otherness, contained for Plath within the things of nature (e.g., a stone, tulips), clarified itself in her later poems as a "stasis in darkness" ("Ariel"), i.e., a silent stillness or death. And the poems became more and more an expression of the conflict between the desire to submit to the otherness and the impulse to live on. Howard sees the poems in The Colossus as a form of dialogue-negotiations between life and stasis. In the later poems, though, he feels she speaks from a point of identification with the stasis, so that "it is the triumph of her final style to make expression and extinction indivisible... the very source of Sylvia Plath's energy was her self-destructiveness."
Comparing the poet to Pauline Reage (The Story of O) and Doris Lessing, Howard explains that the self recognizes its uniqueness, its individuality, by acknowledging both its beginning and its end. Thus death, necessary to the definition of self, becomes something to strive for, to perfect oneself for. In Plath's poetry this is manifested in an impulse to "stall" or "still," to cancel out. Joy, then, is stasis; and it is achieved for Plath, as for Reage and Lessing, through the body's destruction, the personality's denial. In The Colossus she submitted herself, but she was not yet ready; in many poems she petitions the figures of darkness the muses, Medusas, and Lorelei, to embrace her. But not until Ariel, where she takes pride in surrender, can the union be completed.
Linda B. Salamon
Linda B. Salamon offers another approach to the "Otherness" in Plath's work. In an essay entitled "'Double, Double': Perception in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath" (Spirit vol. 37, no. 2), she discusses how the poet conveys the sense of otherness or, as she puts it, the theme of doubleness. While she does, rather superficially, attempt to explain this theme ("Hers is a sensibility disturbed, which sees reflected in the exterior world the very tensions, conflicts and fears that haunt the inner spirit"; "It is painful to realize that things are not what they seem, that security is not safe, that reality is an illusion"), her emphasis on technique casts fresh illumination on Plath's poetry.
Salamon points out that the theme of doubleness is expressed essentially in two ways: the revelation of horror amid an atmosphere of apparent security and the simultaneous perception of opposing qualities of the same thing. Often both methods can be found at work in a single poem. In "Daddy," for example, the first technique is seen in the "skillfully created tension between form and the content of the poem," between the cadences of nursery rhyme (suggesting childhood security) and the sinister father/Nazi figure. The second technique comes into play in the dual nature of the speaker's relationship to her father, the love/hate fluctuations.
Further examples clarify the two techniques. For instance, "Watercolor of Grantchester Meadows" and "Mushrooms," both in The Colossus, clearly contrast "real terror and apparent safety." In discussing "A Birthday Present," from Ariel, Salamon makes additional note of Plath's use of a traditional literary symbol of duality, the veil. This symbol, in fact, recurs in several poems, notably the bee poems, and is given added depth by association with danger and sexuality (e.g., the death motif of "A Birthday Present"; the queen bee's role in "The Bee Meeting").
Alicia Ostriker picks up on the recurrence of veils to make the point that Ariel presents a development over The Colossus not in theme but rather in Plath's advancing will and ability to do it, technically, so it feels real, without veils" ("'Fact' as Style: the Americanization of Sylvia," Language and Style vol. 1, no. 3). That is, the Ariel poems, unlike the controlled, formal, decorative poems in The Colossus, insist on immediate factual reality. In Ariel, the objective tone is abandoned, along with "tradition"; "hysteria veiled becomes hysteria unveiled, what it feels like, without logical development or analysis, self-indulgent, regressive, shrilly repetitive, exaggerated."
Language in The Colossus is "neutrally literary," i.e., composed of complex sentences, parallelisms, inversions, compound epithets; but Ariel is written in the American language, a brusque, businesslike colloquialism. Here imagery, too, is less decorative, often striking in its accuracy to the private facts it conveys. Similarly, prosody in Colossus is not organic to the whole poem. An example of this is the use of complicated static stanza patterns, as in "Sow" (terza rima: iambic tercets rhyming ABA BCB CDC, etc.) and "The Eye-Mote" (rime royale: stanzas of seven lines in iambic pentameter rhyming ABABBCC). Ariel, though, falls in and out of formal verse as if to suggest an attraction/repulsion to all formality and order. There is a paradox implicit in this due to her feeling that the moment of death is the epitome of total organization and at the same time desirable. A repeated device compounds this paradox: by means of alliteration, assonance and rhyme, she achieves the effect of speed and intensification which, though inevitably ending in extinction, are the antithesis of death's static perfection.
Charles Newman, editor of Tri-Quarterly published a special "Womanly Issue" of his magazine in Fall 1966. Most of Tri-Quarterly number 7 was devoted to Sylvia Plath and included several of the essays discussed above. An expanded version of the issue, with complete bibliography, was published in 1970 (The Art of Sylvia Plath. Bloomington: Indiana University Press) with its title culled from Newman's own essay, "Candor Is the Only Wile: The Art of Sylvia Plath."
In this essay Newman, like several other critics already mentioned, places Sylvia Plath in a specific American literary tradition. To Newman this tradition, defined by an obsession with death, begins with figures like Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor, continuing through Henry Thoreau and dominated by Emily Dickinson. It is "a tradition in which the imaginative realization of dying is the determining, climactic experience of living." Comparisons and parallels with Emily Dickinson are threaded throughout the essay, to underline the sense of literary heritage, and are supported by additional comparisons with modern artists, especially Wallace Stevens and J.D. Salinger.
In establishing Plath's position in a tradition, Newman comes upon a number of noteworthy points. While many writers have linked her work to feminism, seeing in it an expression of the desperation women in suppression must suffer, Newman defines her feminism more subtly. One of the few women writers to link the theme of womanhood with the destiny of modern civilization, he says, she created in her persona not a heroine but a hero: the only female character in literature to truly suffer existentially. The shifts in this persona, he continues, form the dynamic principle of her art; "the strength of many of her poems lies in the fact that the 'self' is capable of mastering several voices to correspond to the divisions of the self." Because of this, he does not consider her a true confessional poet, for though the "self" remains at the center of her poems, it is an altered self, more powerful, less biographically identifiable than the anguished self with which she begins.
Irving Howe offers a dissenting voice, taking issue with the cult of critics and readers who have made Sylvia Plath a hero of sickness, an emblem of the age. He does not agree that what he considers Plath's mere self-exposure, self-assault or self-revelation in enough for authentic poetry, maintaining that a poem that depends primarily on the confessed experience will rarely be first rate. At the same time, though, a poem that makes its confessional element integral to the whole work ceases to be confessional, becoming rather a self-sufficient poem independent of the experience which may have evoked it.
Thus he finds fault with those of Plath's poems which he considers exclusively confessional. For example, "Lady Lazarus" displays a gift for "the single, isolate image" but its strong phrasing is weakened by structural incoherence. Though the poem contains a strain of self-irony, the tendency toward self-indulgence and the drawing upon readymade emotions (as in the "illegitimate" comparisions to Nazism) defeat all other merits. Howe prefers her nonconfessional poems which, he feels, offer something new to literature. Written out of an extreme condition, they disclose "a mediate province between living and dying." Here the speaker, Plath herself, balances coolly between life and death, drawn to both and at the same time somehow comfortable in her perilous equilibrium. In these poems, such as "Edge," she no longer speaks to an audience as a confessional poet, but is instead completely abandoned to the sense of her own presence. Even so, he sees these poems, too, as limited, disagreeing with critics like Alicia Ostriker who see the avoidance of logical development and the insistence
"Daddy," perhaps Plath's best known poem, re-examines the father/daughter relationship depicted in the earlier "Colossus." At last abandoning the devices of formal poetic control, she indulges her emotion, her private hysteria, and the result is a more complex, ambiguous and at the same time more successful poem. In place of hesitation and doubt of her father's godliness, she now sees him as her persecutor and so strives to purge herself of his influence.
Criticized as a "racking personal confession" as well as for its use of "ready-made" public images of terror, "Daddy" has also reaped much praise. George Steiner, for example, calls it "the `Guernica' of modern poetry" for it succeeds, he says, in translating private suffering into universal truths. Most positive responses to the poem, though, note the careful interplay between the poem's content and form as possibly Plath's highest poetic achievement. It is this interplay which effectively conveys the ambiguity of the emotion behind the poem, the love/hate relationship between the speaker and her father.
The poem makes use of the cadences of nursery rhyme, thus expressing through its rhythm the security of childhood ritual and form. The simplicity of this rhythmic pattern is reinforced by the recurring oo rhyme ("do," "you," "Jew," throughout the poem) which adds a soothing, almost tender tone. In contrast, the poem's dominant metaphor is father-as-Nazi, which creates a tension as it works against the rhythm and tone, thus paralleling the speaker's conflicting feelings of hate and love.
"Daddy" opens in rejection: "You do not do, you do not do" - suggesting an anti-marriage vow. In fact, the speaker is declaring that after thirty years she wants to free herself of the awful influence of dead Daddy. He has become a burden, "marbleheavy," in his absence; like the bastard child of a Nazi soldier ("In the German tongue, in the Polish town"), she has sought her father unsuccessfully and suffered for it. Then, "stuck in a barb wire snare," she suddenly becomes not the child of a Nazi, but his victim. On her way "to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsin," she actually becomes, in her persecuted state, a Jew.
The picture is further complicated in the tenth stanza. Following a statement of fear ("I have always been scared of you") and a catalogue of Nazi characteristics, she announces, "Every woman adores a Fascist." Though Daddy is a brute, even a devil, she cannot deny her love for him. The attraction to him is so strong, she is actually willing to die to "get back, back, back to you." This, of course, she cannot do, and so she settles on another alternative.
The father/Nazi image is extended to lover as she marries a model of Daddy, "A man in black with a Meinkampf look/ And a love of the rack and screw." The irony, though, is that while she says "I'm finally through" with Daddy, she also says "I do, I do" to his replacement, reversing the renunciation of the opening line. So that while she has laid her blood-sucking, life-denying father to rest, vampire fashion, she has herself continued her own persecution. She becomes, that is, both victim and victimizer, finding pleasure in her own pain, torn between life and death.