Fifty years ago, in October 1962, Sylvia Plath wrote well over half the poems which she’d gather into the manuscript of her second volume of poetry, Ariel and Other Poems (which would be found in a black spring binder in her London flat after her suicide three months later).
In that October, Sylvia and her two children were at Court Green, the thatched-roof house, which she and her husband had bought the previous year, in the Devon farming community of North Tawton. By Autumn 1962, the couple’s marriage was over: he’d deserted her for another woman. He returned to Court Green on the fourth of October to pack up his belongings (clothes, books and papers) and didn’t depart until the eleventh.
The day after her husband left with his things – to return to London and his lover (which in effect signified the end of her marriage to Ted Hughes), Sylvia Plath sat at the desk in her study and wrote her most famous poem, “Daddy.”
She’d already started to address the subject of her father, when in the week of October 3 to 10, she’d written five bee poems. (Her father, Otto Plath, had been a renowned entomologist whose study, Bumblebees and Their Ways, had received worldwide acclaim. He died in November, 1940, a little more than a week after Sylvia turned 8.) Although, on October 11, before she drove Ted to the train station, she’d written “The Applicant” – a savagely witty poem in the form of a monologue spoken by a marriage broker to a man applying for a new wife – Sylvia came back to, and reexamined, the lingering topic of her father – this time with intense fury, giving voice to years of accumulated grief.
In “Daddy,” the poem’s narrator speaks to her dead father while directing her rage, at being abandoned and betrayed, squarely at him. The poet attempts (perhaps for her readers) to mitigate the ferocity of her bitter anger by using cadences akin to the singsong tones of nursery rhymes but, over time, these rhythms march down the poem to echo her accusations.
Though she first had considered her father godlike, in the poem, he quickly turns into a full-fledged Nazi. By tapping into the most powerful horror of her era, the poet-narrator uses “Nazi” as a potent, and shocking, poetic conceit which turns her torment into qualities attributed to its object, her father.
Further in the poem, the narrator again acknowledges her father’s death (“I was ten when they buried you” – though, in reality Sylvia was eight). She then says that her suicide attempt, when she was twenty, was intended as a way to “get back, back, back to you.” [One could argue that the line reads as if she wants to get back (at her father for his death – when he abandoned her); to go back (to when he’d been alive); and to get back to (to her father in death).]
Continuing the poem’s timeline of significant events she connects with her father’s death, and with her failed attempts to rejoin him, the poet links her choice of the man she marries to her lost father:
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,…
And I said I do, I do.
As a double of her father, the husband becomes her tormentor:
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
[and the reader might infer here that the husband, exactly as the father did, betrays and abandons her.]
Finally, thoroughly fed up, the poet-narrator disposes of her father, his memory and its accompanying pain (and his stand-in, her husband): “If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two” and, in the last line, proclaims, “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”