Through various literary devices, poets are able to paint pictures for their readers that more concretely define the feelings and beliefs that remain, for most of the world, almost impossible to define. The effect of a poem, however, often depends on the ability of the poet to present their ideas, emotions, and impressions with strong imagery. This effectively paints a mental image for the reader (or listener) that cannot be denied and therefore begins to conjure up a sense of sympathy with the emotional response the poet has to the subject. These concepts are sharply illustrated in much of the poetry of Sylvia Plath.
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The story that emerges in the poem is of a woman who has lived in fear and awe of a male person for as long as she can remember. The fear is evident in her metaphor of him as “Marble-heavy, a bag full of God, / Ghastly statue with one gray toe / Big as a Frisco seal” (8-10). Later, she compares her fear of this male figure to the fear the Jews felt for the Nazis, seeing herself as being shipped off to the concentration camps and describing her father’s appearance in terms of the perfect Aryan. “But no less a devil for that, no not / Any less the black man who / Bit my pretty red heart in two” (54-56).
Finally, her description of the man she married as the model of her father indicates his deep cruelty because he has a “love of the rack and the screw” (66). She ends the poem by indicating her father has been an evil vampire, sucking her life dry and finally buried with a stake in his heart to the delight of the villagers. Her beginning and end of the poem, each expressed in terms of anger and fear, leaves no doubt that her fear outweighed any other emotions she had of this male figure.
Throughout the poem, though, Plath provides plenty of clues that her love for her father was very strong, calling into question the source of the hostility found within the poem. She opens the poem with her anger toward her father as she describes the oppressive environment of trying to live in a black shoe, “barely daring to breathe or achoo” (5). While this can be seen by an adult woman as oppressive, this same imagery could also serve to indicate the feelings of security and protectiveness the young child might have felt when in the presence of a loving father. Similarly, her analogy of the heartless statue in verse 2 bleeds into a memory of a beautiful vacation she took in which she “used to pray to recover you” (14).
A tender feeling is evoked with this blending of images that serves to indicate a more positive relationship had existed between father and daughter than is expected by the later bitterness. Her island memory turns into a full-scale search for her father’s roots and suggests a need to re-connect. The way she places mention of his death just after the line about his biting her heart in two (56) brings into question whether her broken heart was the result of his cruelty or his death.
The dual nature of the father, the love-hate attitude expressed as she first idolizes and then fears him suggests much deeper elements of the poem that can only be revealed upon further reflection of Plath’s personal life. Further analysis would reveal that the tone of the poem changes, with most of the truly evil imagery being affixed to another man, her husband, as he fails to live up to the ideal she had of the father. Thus, without highly communicative imagery, the poem would be unable to capture the full impact of Plath’s emotions and ideas as they are now revealed.
Plath, Sylvia. “Daddy.” Ariel. New York: Perennial Classics, 2005, p. 56.