Birthday Letter: Sylvia Plath and “Daddy”


On Poetry


Every morning, when my sleeping pill wears off, I am up about five, in my study with coffee, writing like mad—have managed a poem a day before breakfast. All book poems. Terrific stuff, as though domesticity had choked me.

—Sylvia Plath, letter to her mother, October 12, 1962

They were “dawn poems in blood,” those lines stormed onto paper while the children slept; several of them were written through fevers, and the heat seared onto the pages, those old memorandum sheets marked Smith College, or the back of a manuscript marked The Calm. That had been a radio play, drafted by Ted Hughes in their flat in London early the previous year; now Sylvia Plath was in the Devon farmhouse they’d bought soon afterward, and Hughes was back in London, banished, their marriage over. It was late 1962, and in the space of eight weeks, it brought Plath forty of what would become her Ariel poems. They were, she wrote to the poet Ruth Fainlight, “free stuff I had locked in me for years,” and now they were out. And they were astonishing. Only pain could have released them, only fury and outrage and jealousy and panic of the sort into which Plath’s daily universe had plunged. “I kept telling myself I was the sort that could only write when peaceful at heart,” she told Fainright, “but that is not so, the muse has come to live here, now Ted is gone.”

All of these poems would be in the black binder found in Plath’s London flat following her suicide just three months later, on February 11. They were poems so extreme they would be turned down by several magazines (only to become suddenly suitable for publication after the sensation of her death). Look how they came, one after the other, during that ferocious fall. September 26: “For a Fatherless Son.” September 30: “A Birthday Present.” October 1: “The Detective.” October 2: “The Courage of Shutting Up.” From October 3 to 10, Plath wrote her five bee poems, including “Stings” and “The Arrival of the Bee Box.” On October 10, “A Secret.” October 11 brought “The Applicant” (“It can sew, it can cook, / It can talk, talk, talk”). And fifty years ago today, on October 12, Plath sat down at the writing desk Hughes and her brother had made for her from a plank of elm, and she wrote her most famous poem. She wrote her father, and she wrote her festered grief, and she wrote her maddened Electra, and she wrote the unforgiving child who still ran riot in her veins; she finally got it down, so much of what had been propelling her from the moment she wrote her very first poem. “You do not do, you do not do”—what a line. What a spiel. What a fit of incantation. Whatever you think of “Daddy”—wherever you stand on the question of whether its tirades are transgressions, whether its swoop into Holocaust imagery is a mere looting and parading of angers not the poet’s own—there is no denying its extraordinary power. It stops the breath; it bothers the heart. What must it have been like, that morning, beneath the quaint thatch of that Devon farmhouse, for Plath to find herself writing this fireball of a poem?

It is a superstitious business—childish, really—the marking, or even the noticing, of anniversaries like these. Such fastening pretends that one day can be like another, pretends that every day is not, ultimately, only its own day, the only version of itself that will ever come. But “Daddy” is itself a poem built on a bedrock of anniversaries. The speaker is nearing thirty. She was ten when she buried her father. She was twenty when she herself tried to die. A vampire has drunk her blood for seven years. And so the mounting of milestones becomes the pathway to a liberation which saw Plath change her father’s ending from the quieter fate meted out by an earlier draft—“daddy, daddy, lie easy now”—to the uncompromising burial of the final version:

Daddy, you can lie back now
There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

Plath wrote to her mother later. She wrote to her mother often, usually telling less—or rather, more—than the whole truth. Aurelia Plath functioned for her daughter as a stand-in for an adoring public, and so letters home to Massachusetts constituted a busy honing of the Sylvia myth: brimming with energy, bustling with pride and affirmation and ambition. But these past months had been too much of an ordeal for Plath to muster very much in the way of cheery facade—the breakup with Hughes, a black depression closing in—and a bleak honesty had pushed its way into her correspondence with her mother. In September, she had written to tell Aurelia that, in light of “the horror of what you saw and what I saw you see last summer,” on a visit to Devon, she could not see her mother again until she [Sylvia] had made for herself “a new life.” On October 9, meanwhile, she had written of her decision to seek a divorce from Hughes and had outlined the maintenance payments he had agreed to make (a thousand pounds a year). She would not, she said, return to live in the U.S., no matter how much easier her mother believed it might make life; “if I start running now,” she wrote, “I will never stop.” Given, then, that Plath had begun to tell her mother the difficult truth of her life, it is not unlikely that she truly believed what she said when she wrote to Aurelia that day, the ink still wet on her drafts of “Daddy,” and declared to her that a breakthrough had been made, that things were now sure to change. “It is over,” she wrote. “My life can begin.” Her son Nick, at seven months old, had two teeth now, she went on; he could stand up now; he was “an angel.” His sister, Frieda, two years old, had recently had her hair cut short by her father (who was still visiting the children in Devon). “It looks marvellous,” Plath wrote, “no mess, no straggle. She has two kittens … Tiger-Pieker and Skunky-Bunks.” Plath had just had a poem (“Blackberrying”) in The New Yorker, and had been mentioned in that week’s Listener “as one of the half-dozen women who will last—including Marianne Moore and the Brontes!”

It was rhetoric far removed from“ Ach, du,” from “wars, wars, wars”, from “The tongue stuck in my jaw”, from “The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart” of a few hours previously. But it was an optimism—manic though it might have been—to which the fury of that poem seemed to have delivered her. She had plans for the winter ahead, a dream of how to get through its darkness: she would take the children to Ireland, where for months now she had longed to be, having created for herself a myth of that country—“the place, a dream; the sea, a blessing.” In this, surely, Plath’s optimism was off-kilter; a trip to Connemara the previous month had been a disaster, not least because she had traveled there with the husband from whom she was already separated and had horrified her host, the poet Richard Murphy, by giving him the impression that she wanted to start an affair. The notion of a cottage for the winter in Connemara, then, was no longer feasible, but two nights in Dublin with the poet Thomas Kinsella and his wife Eleanor seemed to have made a much more positive impression, since it was to that city—or rather, to its coastal suburb, Glasthule—that Plath now proposed a return. She and the children—along with their Aunt Hilda, who would serve as the now-essential nanny, allowing Plath to write—would go there in early December, she told Aurelia. They would drink “the milk of TT-tested cows” (Plath hoped to learn to milk them herself, she said), eat “homemade bread,” and live by the sea. She’d found Ireland “just in time,” Plath told her mother in that letter of October 12. The plan was to be there until the end of February, 1963.

Belinda McKeon’s novel Solace is published by Scribner. She lives in Brooklyn.