One of the wonderful aspects of poetry is its ability to appeal to the inner emotions of the reader with just a few lines and a well-developed metaphor. By employing a number of literary devices, poets develop the ability to present their readers with mental images that convey a depth of feelings and beliefs far beyond the ability of the few words selected and often enter the realm of the sublime, meaning those feelings that are beyond the scope of words to define. As one might expect, the effect of the poem will often depend on the ability of the poet to present their ideas, emotions and impressions in the form of strong imagery that accurately defines the experience. This imagery is the device that places the mental image in the mind of the reader (or listener) without their explicit consent and begins to conjure up a sense of sympathy with the poet regarding their emotional response to the subject. This intimate relationship between the author and the images used to portray the subject makes it impossible for the poet to remove their personal experience from the outward expression of the poem, particularly when the poetry is dealing with relationships. These concepts are sharply illustrated in much of the poetry of Sylvia Plath, such as in her poem “Daddy.”
Throughout her poem, Plath employs strong metaphors as a means of illustrating the relationship she has shared with men who occupy a daddy-role for her. Her fear of this daddy figure 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 in the poem, she compares her impression of fear of this male figure to the abject fear the Jews felt for the Nazis. She envisions herself as powerless as the Jews as they were shipped off to the concentration camps and she describes her father’s appearance in terms of the perfect Aryan who would never be sent away like this. “But no less a devil for that, no not / Any less the black man who / Bit my pretty red heart in two” (54-56). This line smoothly transitions into her consideration of the man she married as someone with a “love of the rack and the screw” (66), portraying him in terms of the torture expert one might expect to find in such places. Plath ends her poem with yet another metaphor as she compares her father, and all men like him, to the image of an evil vampire intent on sucking her life dry of all joy and happiness and then finally buried with a stake in his heart as the only means of relief.
The rhythm of the poem is also effective in clutching at the emotions of the reader as it tells of the death of her father and the betrayal of her husband. Plath seems almost breathless as she allows the thoughts of the poem to be interrupted by numerous line breaks. In her writing of the poem, she allows one thought to blend almost seamlessly into another with no pause for the reader to catch up. This liberal use of enjambment, the continuation of a thought across line breaks, keeps the pace of the poem moving quickly as the reader struggles to keep up with the thought. This gives the impression that the lines of the poem were written as the thoughts occurred to the author with little or no editing involved. This impression of intimacy between the author’s thoughts and the reader’s ability to know them also serves to heighten the personal connection perceived between Plath and her subject. Unable to completely escape her own inner feelings and thoughts, Plath has captured a great deal of her own impressions of the men in her life, which, by extension, also happened to address many common issues faced by women of her time.
This breathless emotionalism is noted by George Steiner in his analysis of the poem as well. “The vehemence and intimacy of the verse is such as to constitute a very powerful rhetoric of sincerity. The poems play on our nerves with their own proud nakedness, making claims so immediate and sharply urged that the reader flinches, embarrassed by the routing discretions and evasions of his own sensibility” (Steiner 952). Indeed, Steiner’s entire attempt to assess Plath’s poems on an academic standard continue to return to the pure emotionalism of their content, highlighting the tremendous pain and fragmentation Plath expressed of herself on behalf of women everywhere. He illustrates his difficulty well when he talks specifically of “Daddy”: “It achieves the classic act of generalization, translating a private, obviously intolerable hurt into a code of plain statement, of instantaneously public images which concern us all” (Steiner 954). In the end, the best Steiner can do is to relate the poem, as a whole, to a masterpiece of artistic creation that is outstanding and meaningful simply because it is.
In contrast, Irving Howe sees this emotionalism as a detraction from the art, a hysteria that over-exaggerates and therefore reduces the potential impact of the poem. “The personal-confessional element, strident and undisciplined, is simply too obtrusive to suppose the poem no more than a dramatic picture of a certain style of disturbance” (Howe 955). The extreme emotion of the piece and the drastic comparison of herself with the experience of the Jews is, in Howe’s reasoning, enough to discount Plath’s writing as overly hysterical and psychotic. The poem is thus simply a manifestation of mental illness on the part of the writer. In Howe’s opinion, great poetry requires a distinct separation between “the man who suffers and the mind which creates” (Howe citing T.S. Eliot 956). As a result of this impression, Howe does not readily recognize Plath as a master of the poetic arts.
A careful analysis of the poem, though, demonstrates its artistry and brilliance, proving that Steiner had a better understanding of it than Howe. Finding important technical elements in the story, the metaphor created and the rhythm depicted all strive to convey to the reader the same sense of breathless terror, heavy oppression and absence of hope for relief even after burying the stake in the heart of the monster. Had Plath attempted to remove emotion from the piece as Howe suggests, it would have lost much of its strength of purpose as well as its ability to convey, to some degree, the feelings of women everywhere who felt this same sense of oppressive, inescapable terror, held captive by their own emotions to be slaves and victims of their male counterparts.
Howe, Irving. “The Plath Celebration: A Partial Dissent.” Critical Contexts: A Poetry Casebook. 955-956.
Plath, Sylvia. (2005). “Daddy.” Ariel. New York: Perennial Classics, p. 56.
Steiner, George. “Dying is an Art.” Critical Contexts: A Poetry Casebook. 952-954.