It is hard to think of two poets whose lives are more different from each other’s than Langston Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Hughes was born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri of mixed-race parents, and was mostly raised by his grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas.
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He worked odd jobs, including a six-month stint as a seaman but eventually became well-known enough to live off his writing. He died in 1967. Plath, on the other hand, was the daughter of middle-class Austrian and German immigrants living in Boston. Her father was a professor of apiology and she was an outstanding student who seemed well on the way to success when she was chosen to intern at Mademoiselle magazine in the early 1950s. She eventually married the English poet, Ted Hughes, had two children and committed suicide in 1963, at the age of 30.
What they do have in common is that both attempted suicide more than once, that both were gifted poets, and that they saw themselves not just as victims of oppression but also as somehow complicit in their oppression. This is evident in Hughes’s “Themes for English B,” and Plath’s “Daddy, as an analysis of the poems will show.
“Themes” is a deceptively simple poem, a meditation on an insignificant event that comes to mean a great deal to the poem’s narrator because from it he learns how to write “true poetry”. The instructor of the English B course advises him to let the page come out of him but the narrator at first thinks it cannot be that simple. There are obstacles between himself and the instructor, a gap which the speaker crosses daily by walking through Harlem to attend a class in which he is the only “colored student.” He asks himself who he is and whether he is all that different, but realizes the page that will come out of him will not be colored, nor will it be white.
As Americans the speaker and the instructor are united beyond the divisions of race, willingly or not, and so at the end the speaker reluctantly accepts that he can learn from the white instructor and guesses the instructor can learn from him even though he is “more free,” implying that the speaker is less free because of the white man. In writing poetry, therefore, he must collude with the enemy, as it were, in the hope of writing the kind of poetry that can close the divide.
“Daddy” is addressed to the speaker’s father in a way that expresses her ambivalence toward him. Plath’s father died when she was eight years old but his memory oppresses her as tightly as a shoe. He is a colossus whose fallen form extends from Boston to San Francisco, “a bag full of God” who left her before she could kill him, that is, before she was grown-up enough to see that he was no God, just a man. He dominates her as Nazis once dominated Europe and struck fear in the hearts of the Jews they “chuffed” off to the concentration camps. Her father was German, she says but her mother had Jewish blood, and the conflict between the two races plays itself out in her mind and body.
Much as she hates her father, she loves him so much that she tried to kill herself to be reunited with him. When that failed she married a man just like him, “a man with a Meinkampf look” who, she hoped, would replace the image of her father with his own. Instead her husband and her father merge into the devil who bit her “pretty red heart in two,” and the vampire who had to be killed by villagers driving a wooden stake into his heart. At the end she says, “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through,” an ambiguous line which may suggest that her father has turned into her husband to make up one lover with whom she is finally through.
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In both cases the poets suffer from ambivalence toward the person who had the greatest influence on their life and work. The white instructor gave Hughes the information he needed to turn him into a real poet, and Plath’s father was the driving force behind her becoming a poet. They both thank their mentors in these poems, then try to separate themselves from them, as they must if they are to become independent poets.
Gardner, Janet E. et al. Literature: A Portable Anthology. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008.