poetry of Sylvia Plath: The universal made specific in “Daddy,” Morning Song,” and “The Moon and the Yew Tree”
“Every woman,” writes Sylvia Plath in her poem “Daddy,” “loves a fascist.” On a surface level, the poem seems to detail a very specific situation. The speaker of the poem is the child of a dead Nazi officer. She has tried to recreate her tormented relationship with her father, half-consciously and half-consciously, in her relationships with other men. “Then I knew what to do. / I made a model of you,” she says, speaking of dealing with her feelings about her father. She becomes intent upon selecting a “man in black with a Meinkampf look” to love in place of the father she only knew as a distant, cruel presence.
The brilliance of Plath’s poem is that it is about a personal matter connected to a specific historical event, namely the Holocaust, but is sufficiently generalized in its depiction of women and men so every woman can identify with the speaker’s struggle for a sense of self-worth. Every woman who has invested too much in a relationship with a cruel and abusive man can see herself mirrored in the speaker’s hatred of her father: “You died before I had time,” says the speaker, vowing to kill her ‘daddy,’ and instead turning upon herself. As with all of Plath’s poems, including “Morning Song,” and “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” a strange, highly personal situation is articulated over the course of the poem, yet is given a universal resonance by the tormented, but extremely articulate feminine voice of the poet.
In “Daddy,” the father is dead, yet lives on the speaker’s obsessive ruminations about him. Even for readers with positive relationships with their parents, the idea strikes a chord — one never loses one’s parents, they live on in our current relationships. Also, for the daughter in “Daddy,” the cruel Nazi’s presence is not simply expressed in her life, but in the memories of the villages he pillaged, the memorials to the people who were killed by him, and the dark mark he had upon history. The speaker’s misery is thus connected to a larger social order of oppression of women and disenfranchised outsiders. Patriarchal and domineering men exercise their will and control over others, and this system results in death and destruction. The villagers who dance and stamp on the man after he is dead suffered, and his daughter reenacts the misery she was made to feel that she deserved by tormenting herself, ultimately trying and failing to take her own life: “At twenty I tried to die,” she says. Her father killed villagers and Jews, and made his daughter feel like she should kill herself.
Plath’s words create the impression of a real event, even if readers are not acquainted with her suicide. But despite the force of the number “twenty” and the names of the places in Poland and Germany in the poem, it is easy to see in the speaker’s life the shadow of all women who turn the abuse they have suffered at the hands of others into weapons against themselves. Instead of striking back, at first the speaker turns against her own life and future, and she must learn to have enough self-respect to be like the villagers, stamping on the “fat, black, heart” of her father.
The historicism of the poem, rather than shutting the reader out, actually makes it more universal, as it shows how racism and hatred of outsiders leads to violence and also to the internalization of the voice of the oppressor. Liberation only comes when the speaker identifies, not with her father, but with the people whom he slaughtered. “I thought every German was you. / and the language obscene,” she says, also playfully, pridefully hinting that she might be “a bit of a Jew.” Plath suggests that the negative relationships in which we find ourselves do not merely hurt us, they also have larger social ramifications, but by challenging our own conceptions of the relationship between men and women, Jews and gentiles, we can be set free.
The poem “Daddy” thus chronicles a personal misery that is shared by all of Europe, bleeding its collective wounds of guilt at the end of World War II. This sense of the personal and the impersonal becoming melded into poetry is what gives “Daddy” its power. Everyone, not just everyone with a personal, historical family connection to the Holocaust can understand the speaker. She is everywoman, and perhaps everyone who has had a self-defeating, masochistic relationship with someone in the present, because she or he is still emotionally living in the past, replaying an old childhood drama.
Plath’s complicated relationship with parenting, and her inability to fully trust or inhabit a healthy relationship is also seen in “Morning Song,” which depicts a mother rising to comfort a crying baby. Unlike the relationship of “Daddy,” the mother and child seem to have a normal bond — the mother wakes to comfort the baby, but inside the mother’s heart, a tempest is brewing. Plath’s speaker articulates what many women feel, but do not say, namely that they resent the child who now burdens them and inhibits their freedom. The mother, still suffering from postpartum depression, thinks: “I’m no more your mother/Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow / Effacement at the wind’s hand.”
The mother’s voice echoes the daughter in “The Moon and the Yew Tree:” the moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary. / Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls. / How I would like to believe in tenderness – / the face of the effigy, gentled by candles, / Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.” But there is a disconnection between the image and the real, how parents should be and how they are. Even readers with less boldness than Plath understand such longing — mothers wish to be more like the ideal, children wish to have ideal mothers.
Plath’s faith that the speaker will understand is won again and again. In “Morning Song,” she takes a common situation, the frustration of a baby’s cry, and instead of spackling over the pain with platitudes and false sentiments, she is honest. She is not sure — perhaps accurately — that the newborn child recognizes her as its mother, seeing herself as a cloud, a mirror. And the child is a being separate from herself, even though she is still “cow heavy” from childbirth. “Love set you going like a fat gold watch. / the midwife slapped your footsoles, / and your bald cry / Took its place among the elements.” But in “Morning Song,” unlike in “Daddy,” even with the mother’s irritation and sense of estrangement, there is also a sense of respect for the new life. The child is set going, like a watch, it thus has a time and a pace of growth all its own, over which its mother has no control, like the “bald and wild moon” in “The Moon and the Yew Tree.” Plath respects the integrity and separateness of parents and children — both are their own, free, unique entities. In this truth there is hope, in the form of the hard-won freedom earned by the speaker of “Daddy,” although the lack of the assumed maternal bond in “Morning Song” and “The Moon and the Yew Tree” brings pain to the mother in the first poem and to the child in the second poem.
Plath, Sylvia. “Daddy.” Full text available October 8, 2009 at http://www.internal.org/view_poem.phtml?poemID=356
Plath, Sylvia. “The Moon and the Yew Tree.” Full text available October 8, 2009 at http://www.angelfire.com/tn/plath/yew.html
Plath, Sylvia. “Morning Song.” Full text available October 8, 2009 at http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15293
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