Plath's "Daddy"

from: The Explicator - Summer 1994

by H.C. Phelps, University College of the Cariboo

Sylvia Plath's famous poem "Daddy" seems to refer quite consistently to her deceased father (and obliquely to her then estranged husband Ted Hughes) by use of many references that can clearly be associated with the background of Otto Plath, emphasizing his German heritage. These include the "Polish town" where Otto was born, the atrocities of the German Nazis in the Second World War ("Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen"), the "Luftwaffe," and even the professorial pose of Dr. Plath "at the blackboard . . . / In the picture I have of you."

Yet in the midst of these references to Otto Plath's specifically German origins, lines at the beginning of stanza eight mention distinctly Austrian details: "The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna / Are not very pure or true" (lines 36-37). The two nations, Germany and Austria, share a common language, but they are--and have been--two very distinct countries. Otto Plath seems to have had no personal connection with Austria in his life, and the relevance of these lines to Plath's father seems obscure, especially as they are not further elaborated upon in the poem.

Two explanations for the presence of these intrusive lines, I believe, can be offered. First, in keeping with the repeated Nazi references in the poem, they might be Plath's very oblique reminder that even though the Nazis are universally associated with the Germans, AdoIf Hitler himself was born and raised in Austria, and during the Second World War many Austrians participated in the Nazi military effort (as the recent controversy over former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim made dear). However, as applied to Hitler, these references are both vague and inaccurate (Hitler was born in Upper Austria, not the Tyrol, and he lived only briefly in Vienna before moving to Germany), and it seems unlikely that Plath would have concerned herself with such a minor historical reference.

A personal association with Austria seems far more likely for Plath's inclusion of these lines, and indeed a dose and profoundly significant one exists: Plath's mother, Aurelia Schober Plath, was of Austrian descent, both of her parents having emigrated from that country (Wagner-Martin 18). Sylvia Plath's complex, emotionally charged relationship with her mother suffuses many of her poems, of course, and repeatedly in works such as "Medusa" and "The Disquieting Muses," and throughout her novel The Bell Jar, Plath reveals her deep antipathy toward her mother--simultaneous with writing effusive, warm, affectionate letters to her "Dear Mummy."

In "Daddy," Plath's use of Austrian references, in this otherwise so father-oriented poem, suggests that an additional focus of her wrath in it--along with Otto Plath and Ted Hughes--was indeed Aurelia. The anger that permeates the poem is so intense and comprehensive that it seems logical to suppose that all the major figures in the poet's life--those who had betrayed her or failed her in some way, father, husband, and mother--should be included in it. The otherwise puzzling, seemingly gratuitous references to Austria suggest that, perhaps unconsciously, Plath made sure that every focus of her rage was indeed present in it.

Reinforcing this contention is the fact that the Austrian references occur directly between two declarations by the poem's speaker of her supposed Jewishness: "I think I may well be a Jew" (35) and "I may be a bit of a Jew" (40). As Judaism is matrilinear in inheritance, the Jewishness of the speaker would have to come through her mother. This emphasizes once more the importance of mothers in a poem ostensibly so concerned with the father. (It might be noted that Mrs. Plath was not Jewish.)

The curiously negative cast to these references is also consistent with Plath's hostility to her mother. The "snows" and the "beer" are not "really pure and true," says the poet, suggesting an attractive facade that actually masks an ugly reality. Plath may have felt that her mother embodied this image: outwardly sweet and affectionate but inside perhaps harboring negative and destructive feelings. Whether or not this was true, it could have provided Plath with a basis for her comments on the Austrian images.

The depth and ubiquity of Plath's hostility to her mother suggest that it could surface elsewhere than in poems overtly concerned with it, such as the ones mentioned above. If indeed it is present in "Daddy," as I suggest, the intrusive Austrian references serve not only to make more comprehensive the poet's wrath but also remind us that although Plath's grief at the death of her father provides the emotional force of much of her work, her constant, suppressed rage at her all-too-alive mother plays a major role in it as well.

WORKS CITED

Plath, Sylvia. "Daddy." Collected Poems. London: Faber, 1981. 222-24.
Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. New York: St. Martin, 1988.


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