Parental poetry very often examines the emotional foundations built upon the relationship between child and father, rather than child and mother. This preoccupation of poets with their fathers may stem from society’s demands that create distance between them. Whereas for most of history mothers and children had more access to each other and could develop deeper levels of understanding, at the same time fathers were absent from the child’s life for extended periods of time.
This was mainly due to the men being the breadwinners, but also contains elements of distancing such as fathers going off to war or engaging in social interactions after work. Fathers have naturally assumed the role of caretaker, meaning they are physically absent for extended periods of time. (For an extended exploration of this aspect of fatherhood, watch Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining.) “My Papa’s Waltz”, “Those Winter Sundays” and “Daddy” are all poems indicating that this physical distance can lead to emotional distance as well, which in turn can create psychological responses that cannot be adequately addressed until the child reaches maturity, by which time it may be too late to establish a healthy bond.
The physical distance deemed necessary by the need for the father to work is most explicit in “Those Winter Sundays” and “My Papa’s Waltz” as both poems refer back to fatherhood from the perspective a child incapable of fully realizing the importance of the relationship, as well as the sacrifices made by the father. Theodore Roethke’s poetic father is described as having a hand “battered on one knuckle” which indicates he is an unskilled laborer, while Robert Hayden also mentions “cracked hands that ached from labor”.
These two poems reveal a relationship with a father who is away from the house for most of the day, but the emotional feelings are distinct; the joy expressed by both father and child during the moments of dancing is the kitchen is expressed through the description it as a “romp”. The actual waltz in “My Papa’s Waltz” reveals that physical distance need not necessarily always result in emotional distance. The love expressed by the child is unconditional; even though his very safety is in danger, the child never expresses fear and expresses a trust that his dad will let no harm come to him.
The concluding two lines of “My Papa’s Waltz” further indicates the love that exists between the father and child. The tone of the words “Then waltzed me off to bed/ Still clinging to your shirt” reveal the memory is one imbued with feelings of great affection rather than any kind of fear, and certainly not abuse. That final image of a young boy remembering how he was “still clinging” to his father’s shirt reiterates the suggestive quality of love that has grown with time.
By contrast, even when not away at work, there is still an emotional distance between the father and son-even on Sundays in winter-in “Those Winter Sundays.” Because there is no emotional connection whatever, the son feels nothing deeply toward his father, and it will take years of maturation before he can understand how the silent work that his father did both away and at home were expressions of his love. “Those Winter Sundays” begins with a reflection childhood and how hard a father worked.
There is a definite tone of both respect and admiration from the speaker as he observes that even on “Sundays too my father got up early” and “No one ever thanked him.” Gradually, the sense of guilt that he didn’t realize how much his father was deserving of this admiration and respect all those years ago rises to the surface. At that point begins a shift in tone as he is forced to admit to “speaking indifferently” to this man who did so much without drawing attention to it or asking anything in return. The understanding that his father’s expression of love was not in words, but in deeds comes too late and forces him to justify and rationalize his form of cruelty: “What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices”.
Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” stands in particular contrast to Hayden’s poem and indicates that the ultimate physical distance-death-can create even more complex emotions than physical presence. The speaker says she was just “ten when they buried you” and has only a photo of her father standing at a blackboard; an image of him as yet another authority figure, this time a teacher, to spur her memory. Despite not having the benefit of actually getting to interact with her father, her emotional response runs much deeper than the speaker in Thomas Hayden’s poem. Absence makes the heart grow fonder for Hayden’s speaker, but that is most assuredly not so in Plath’s case.
Sylvia Plath’s speaker rather spends the rest of her life trying to come to terms with her feelings, seemingly incapable of doing so as she avoids directly confronting her father as a human being by turning him into what may be the most iconic 20th century metaphor of male domination but that is also at the same time a symbol of paternal protection gone amok, a Nazi. The poem contains multiple references to Nazi imagery to reproduce the connection between father and the potentially crippling effects of male domination. The poem is punctuated with such symbols of crippling paternalist domination as “Luftwaffe”, “panzerman”, and “Mein Kampf” to underscore not the idea that her father was really a fascist, but that all patriarchal protection runs the risk of going beyond the norm.
The post-war generation is often regarded as an attempt put back into the bottle the genie of freedom and empowerment given to women when their men went off to war. This sense of an unfair doubling of oppression is made palpable through the use of starkly effective similes such as “I have lived like a shoe for thirty years poor and white, barely able to breath or Achoo.” Plath then goes on further heighten these feelings of oppression as they drive her into utter anguish and despair when she compares herself to a Holocaust victim: “Chuffing me off like a Jew. A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belson.” When she asserts that “I think I may well be a Jew” Sylvia Plath has completed the metaphorical process by which father becomes a Nazi and daughter becomes a helpless victim.
While the tones of “My Papa’s Waltz” and “Those Winter Sundays” are ones of affectionate recollection of a father, the tone of “Daddy” is one that still feels the outrage that a child often feels toward the father. Just as anger as a child often cannot be adequately expressed without breaking down into tears and incoherence, so is Plath’s anger here often punctuated by emotional outbursts.
And just as a child with a child’s limited vocabulary often lapses into repetition, so does Sylvia Plath at times lose her confident ability to turn words into imagery, devolving into repeated strains of “You do not do, you do not do” or erupting into hateful name-calling as in “Daddy, daddy, you bastard”. “Daddy” is a poem that brings to the surface the anger and outrage of a child who has never been able to fully and successfully evolve a relationship with her father from that of the child/parent to adult parent. Phrases rise to the surface that express the primal fear of so many children and certainly Plath in particular as she breaks down and admits “I have always been scared of you.”
“Those Winter Sundays” and “My Papa’s Waltz” utilize imagery of a father’s job as either caretaker or protector to reveal that the relationships evolved into one of respect and love. Even when utilizing imagery that could be ambivalent such as the coldness of winter or the precarious balance of a drunken father, little doubt that the love is genuine rises. This stands in stark contrast to “Daddy” which is weighted down by imagery of war and domination. All three poems indicate that the father was physically absent from the lives of his children as each engaged in the societal demands to leave the house, go to work, and take financial care of his family.
In each there is also the suggestion that the father was to be considered the figure of authority. How each of the poets responded emotionally to this physical distance and this authority is made clear through the suggestive tones of these poems, but it remains unclear what specific emotional scars served to create such a distinctly dark reaction by Plath as opposed to nostalgic memories in “My Papa’s Waltz” and “Those Winter Sundays.”